Michael Brescia, MD
January 11, 1933 - April 19, 2023
In the early 1960s, Michael Brescia and a colleague, James Cimino, invented a lifesaving procedure to connect dialysis machines to people with failing kidneys. Their method—which
involves joining an artery and a vein to allow rapid flows of blood into and out of the body—became a standard in medical care.
Investors were eager to help the two doctors set up dialysis centers that could have cashed in on the technology. "I was 33 years old, and this was going to make me rich," Dr. Brescia said
later. His father, Louis Brescia, had a suggestion: "Hurry up and give it to the people." The doctors decided to share their findings by publishing them in the New England Journal of
Medicine in 1966.
"I never made money out of it," Dr. Brescia said.
His life took another surprising turn when he joined Dr. Cimino in devoting the bulk of his career to what is now known as Calvary Hospital, a nonprofit in the Bronx, N.Y., sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. He became executive medical director there and pioneered modern practices in palliative and hospice care. He called the hospital a "vestibule to heaven."
Dr. Brescia died April 19 at his home in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. He was 90.
Long ago, he came up with a phrase to be inscribed on his own tombstone: "He loved his patients."
Michael Joseph Brescia, nicknamed Mickey, the third of four children, was born Jan. 11, 1933, and grew up in the Bronx. His mother was born in Italy, and his parents spoke Italian at home. His father scraped by in the Depression with odd jobs before getting steady work as superintendent of a public housing building.
The Brescia family was crowded into a drafty walk-up apartment, leaving young Mickey to sleep on a foldout bed in the living room. "We had no blankets to speak of," Dr. Brescia told Arlene Alda when she interviewed him for "Just Kids From the Bronx," a 2015 oral history. "My father would put his heavy coat on top of me when he came home from work."
In elementary school, he was unmotivated by his studies and preferred fooling around in the streets with friends. A teacher looked at his score on an IQ test and said there must be some mistake. After retaking the test, Mickey was promoted to a more advanced class.
His father urged him to consider a career in plumbing, a secure job. One day, however, Mickey noticed an elegant man arriving in an expensive car and carrying a black bag. The man examined a sick child and, on his way out, tipped his hat to onlookers. Mickey had a new vision: medicine.
He began studying harder and became the first member of his extended family to go to college. He earned a bachelor's degree at Fordham University in 1954 and a medical degree at
Georgetown University in 1958. His residency was at a Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx.
He noticed a problem in the emerging field of kidney dialysis: connecting patients to the bloodcleansing
machines without damaging arteries or creating other dangerous side effects. Plastic tubes were available but created risks of infections or other complications. Dr. Brescia and Dr.
Cimino found a way to connect an artery to a vein and stitch them together. That allowed the same location on the body to be used repeatedly to shuttle blood rapidly between the patient and the machine.
For more than 50 years, he tended to the needs of dying patients at Calvary Hospital, founded in 1899 to treat the poor. In a 1990 interview with the Associated Press, he spoke of the
compensations of focusing on palliative care: "We learned to live with tiny victories: The patient was able to eat today, or go to church, or sit in a chair, or play with her children."
Dr. Brescia could be irreverent. "We will give patients a cup of dope the way other places offer them a cup of tea," he told a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2000.
A woman who had been homeless didn't know her birthday. Calvary staff members gave her a cupcake and sang "Happy Birthday" to her every day until she died.
The state of the U.S. healthcare system saddened Dr. Brescia. "The art of medicine comes from loving your patients and caring for them," he said. "We've lost our patients to the managed-care companies and the insurance companies. The doctor-patient relationship is gone. Doctors today
are just technicians." He wasn't.
Dr. Brescia is survived by six children and nine grandchildren. His wife, Monica Clinton Brescia, died in 2007. Dr. Cimino died in 2010.
In the 1990 interview, Dr. Brescia spoke about his career path: "We took a road. To the left, it looked shiny and gold. But to the right, it looked happier to us."
View obituary »