By Kevin Begos
A pioneering geriatric oncologist delivers individualized and compassionate care
By Kevin Begos
Photographs by Edmund D. Fountain
In a hospital hallway filled with the typical frenzy of nurses and doctors, surrounded by rooms full of impersonal high-tech medical devices, oncologist Lodovico Balducci stops, smiles and lightly puts his arm around an elderly patient as if they were relatives or old friends.
With rumpled hair and a gentle smile set in a large, slightly mournful face, Balducci, 65, looks and acts like a small-town doctor or priest. Yet he’s the chief of the division of geriatric oncology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Fla. It’s a world-class medical complex that handles more than 264,000 outpatients a year, on a 1.6 million–square-foot campus.
Balducci is not just a top doctor at a top hospital, but one of a handful of people around the world who created the field of geriatric oncology during the 1980s. He was a co-editor of the first major medical textbook on the subject, Geriatric Oncology, published in 1992, and has been honored with the B. J. Kennedy Award for Scientific Excellence in Geriatric Oncology from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, in 2007, and this year, the Claude Jacquillat Award for Clinical Cancer Research, presented to him in Paris at the 20th International Congress on Anti-Cancer Treatment. In 2003, Balducci was the first recipient of the Paul Calabresi Award from the International Society of Geriatric Oncology, and he also serves on the American Association for Cancer Research’s Task Force on Aging and Cancer.
But his success was hardly a clear shot to the top. At first, Balducci didn’t even see geriatric oncology as his specialty. Raised in the Italian coastal town of Rimini, he grew up in the intimate, bountiful and elusive world that legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini portrayed in such masterpieces as 8 1/2 and Amarcord. Balducci’s father was a schoolteacher and Fellini, one of his pupils, later drew on childhood experiences for his films.
Balducci, like Fellini, left the small town for bigger things. First came medical school at the Catholic University of Rome, then work at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Jackson, Miss., where he moved with his wife in 1979. As is typical for Balducci, he found things to love in the new culture and terrain. “I’m the type of person that I’m happy in any situation,” he says. “There is a beauty in the rural south that you seldom see in Italy. To find a rattlesnake, or to find deer crossing your road, occasionally to find a wild boar, to see this most strange group of birds. So you know, we enjoyed it when we were there.”