Prince of Hearts

Dr. Michael Teodori holds the hearts of many Valley children - often literally - in his hands

The doctor and his crew also must be able to deal quickly and precisely with the unexpected note, or the missed syncopation on their "instrument" -- which in their case is a tiny, ailing heart.

Teodori has a reputation at Phoenix Children's as a demanding perfectionist in the operating room, and no wonder: He doesn't get to have a bad day. But he has gotten testy only a time or two during Xzavion Gonzales' procedure -- and then just for a moment.

Teodori has been operating on the boy for about three hours when Rita Boese hands him the thawed-out cadaver valve in a small, blue bowl. It looks like a chunk of raw calamari, and is about the size of a hollowed-out quarter.

Dr. Michael Teodori with heart patient Xzavion Gonzales, July 2002.
Paul Rubin
Dr. Michael Teodori with heart patient Xzavion Gonzales, July 2002.
Samantha Blier consoles her son, Xzavion Gonzales, before his heart operation, as the boy's grandfather, Don Blier, looks on.
Paul Rubin
Samantha Blier consoles her son, Xzavion Gonzales, before his heart operation, as the boy's grandfather, Don Blier, looks on.

"Hey guys, if I slip and fall, can I go home right now?" Teodori jokes, moments before taking the valve with forceps and starting to sew it in as Xzavion's new arterial valve. "I'm hungry. I'd even eat a Diamondbacks hot dog, and I know how bad those things are for you."

One reason for the doctor's levity is that Xzavion's operation has gone smoothly. By 12:30 p.m., Teodori has sewn the new arterial and pulmonary valves into place perfectly, and the boy's repaired heart and lungs again are working on their own.

Cardiologist Roy Jedeikin is informed that the operation is in the home stretch. Jedeikin soon comes by to perform an echocardiogram on Xzavion, which shows that the child's heart is in excellent shape.

Shortly before 1 p.m., a nurse tells the Blier and Gonzales clans in the waiting room that Xzavion is doing fine -- "His little heart is beating really, really good."

At 1:18 p.m., Teodori strips off his surgical gloves.

Good work, everyone," he says.

He soon heads over to the intensive-care unit to see how his other patients are faring, before grabbing a bite to eat at the cafeteria -- an unbuttered bagel and a piece of fruit, not a hot dog.

Mike Teodori was the fourth of eight children born to Pete and Philomena, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pete Teodori owned a building-supply store, and Phil (as everyone calls her) took care of her kids.

"When Michael was 4, he announced that he was going to be a doctor, and that was that," Mrs. Teodori says. "And when Michael puts his mind to something, he can be very, very determined about it."

Teodori rolls his eyes when told of his mother's recollection. He says he went to undergraduate school -- Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- with expectations of becoming an engineer, not a doctor. But two years into his studies, he decided that medicine might be a more satisfying career path.

That road proved to be arduous and expensive. After he graduated from MIT, Teodori completed four years of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, then a six-year general surgical residency at the University of Pittsburgh, and, finally, three years in a cardiothoracic residency.

Teodori was 35 when he became a pediatric heart surgeon, a specialty he embraced late, and only after a mentor, Dr. Ralph Siewers, suggested it.

"There's a lot more to pediatric heart surgery than just doing the operations, which in themselves are all about life and death," Teodori says. "You have stressed-out parents to deal with. And you have to connect with young kids -- I can catch the attention of a one-month-old.

"Some of my patients are just about the sickest patients that you can have, but they can get better. Compare that to the guy who goes to a cardiologist at age 50 after a life of bacon, butter and eggs. You can fix him, too -- for a while. That's a different gestalt for me."

Teodori and his wife, Janet, moved to Arizona in 1990 with their three small children. He'd met Janet Buonocore (it means "good heart" in Italian) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and the couple married in 1980. She, too, is a doctor, specializing in child neurology, but hasn't practiced medicine since the Teodoris migrated here.

Teodori worked with Dr. Robert Fortune for less than a year, then struck out on his own in late 1991, performing surgeries both at St. Joe's and at Phoenix Children's. The intensive-care nurses at Phoenix Children's witnessed Teodori's growth as a doctor.

Then, as now, Teodori hardly lacked for confidence, and already had a healthy ego typical of those of his stature in any profession.

"He's always been compassionate," says nurse Arva Bynum. "But as he matured, he started teaching us more instead of arguing with us. It amazes us how he can switch strategies on a case in midstream, winging it, and saving a whole lot of kids. Nothing is really straightforward in what he does."

Adds Liv Lowry, who has worked inside Phoenix Children's pediatric intensive-care unit since the hospital opened in 1983: "To watch Teodori work is like watching an artist paint or sculpt. It's artistry. Our babies are so flippin' small. You watch him work. What stands out is how he anticipates things, and how kind he always is."

A day after performing surgery on Xzavion Gonzales, Mike Teodori visits the boy at the unit. Xzavion is very sore, and still has several plastic tubes attached to him, but he attempts a smile when he recognizes Teodori.

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