Renowned cardiac surgeon speaks on hope and the human heart for 2017 Vico Lecture

Internationally renowned cardiac surgeon, Dr. Robert James “RJ” Cusimano, went straight to the heart of the matter as York University’s 2017 Vico Lecturer.

Dr. Robert James “RJ” Cusimano

Named after Giambattista Vico, an 18th century Italian philosopher, the Vico Lecture was created by prominent members of the Italian-Canadian community in Toronto. It was launched in 2000 in memory of Fred Zorzi, late friend and partner of Elvio Del Zotto, who helped endow the lecture in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS).

“I am honoured that Dr. Cusimano accepted our invitation to deliver the 2017 Vico lecture,” said Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “Vico’s enduring contribution remains in asserting the centrality of the human experience in creating knowledge. And from that quintessential humanity, one might say, arises hope – the topic of the lecture.”

In his lecture “Matters of the Heart: Is there Hope?”, Cusimano focused on life, death, faith and the wonders of the living, beating human heart. Based out of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre with the University Health Network (UHN), Cusimano is a global leader in heart transplant and the top cardiovascular surgeon for removing heart cancer in Canada.

“When you are treating a person, you enter that person’s life. You become part of that person’s family,” said Cusimano. “As their surgeon, I will do for anybody anything that I will do for my brother and sister. And I will do nothing to a patient that I will not do to my brother and sister.”

Cusimano spoke about performing high-risk operations, and the importance of acting with hope and compassion while engaging patients and their families. He also shared his views on leaning on faith during difficult moments, and his experiences growing up in a first-generation, Italian-Canadian family with seven siblings, all of whom have exceptionally successful careers.

(From left to right): LA&PS Dean Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, Salvatore Cusimano, Dr. Robert James “RJ” Cusimano, Maria Cusimano, Chancellor Gregory Sorbara and Senator Jerry Grafstein

“We are delighted to have (at this lecture) so many members of the Cusimano family, including Salvatore and Maria Cusimano, the parents of RJ,” said York University Chancellor Gregory Sorbara who introduced the speaker. “Let me just say we are very proud of you, now senior citizens in this city, and the contribution that you and your children have made to this city, this province and the country.”

Cusimano reflected on the influential people in his life, including his father who he aimed to emulate in his personal life. His professional mentor was Dr. Ronald J. Baird, a trailblazer in the field of heart surgery. Cusimano also addressed his family’s struggles and grief surrounding the death of two of its members and how that made him a more compassionate physician.

For the young, Cusimano’s advice is to never give up, to work hard, and remain tireless in pursuing what they want to do

“Remember, it’s not just a professional mentor you want. You want a personal mentor; you want somebody to look up to. Then you need a spiritual mentor, as well,” Cusimano said. “Always be cognizant that every time you meet a person, take something away from that encounter that will make you stronger and better.”

Cusimano, a Toronto native, is a married father of two. He was the first Canadian of Italian heritage to become staff surgeon at Toronto General Hospital. He is the longest-serving member of the hospital’s heart transplant team, a position he has held since 1993.

In 2016, The National Post named him “Canada’s ace of hearts” in an article which also states that he is the doctor who “does the stuff other doctors are too scared to do”. In January of that year, Cusimano led the world’s first conference on cardiac tumours and raised awareness of this little known, but increasingly common, heart condition that often goes undetected.

In 2006, he was invited to teach cardiac surgery at Xinxiang Medical University in China, becoming the first non-Chinese doctor to do so. The operation was broadcast to 100 million people, and the University awarded Cusimano with an honorary degree for his work. Since then, he has returned to China on multiple visits to continue to teach cardiac surgery techniques used in Toronto.

The 2017 lecture was attended by Senator Jerry Grafstein and Elvio Del Zotto, who, along with several prominent members of the Italian-Canadian community such as Rudy Bratty and John Dipoce, established the lecture. It was formalized when Grafstein had the opportunity to purchase two rare volumes of Vico’s magnum opus The New Science, regarded often as “a trans-disciplinary science of humanity”. The volumes, purchased in Italy, were donated to York, and the lecture was established with the hope that it would stimulate wider interest not only in Vico but in all aspects of Italian history and culture. These two volumes were on display at the lecture venue.

LA&Ps Dean Ananya Mukherjee-Reed

The lecture was followed by a Q&A period moderated by Kathryn McPherson, professor of history and associate dean of LA&PS. The event ended with a reception at the CIBC lobby.

“I was deeply inspired by my interactions with Salvatore Cusimano, RJ’s father,”said Mukherjee-Reed. “The vibrancy of the conversations at the reception brought home to me how delightfully porous the boundaries between community and university can be. I am so grateful for the support we have received to make this possible.”

Learn more about Vico and the lecture series here.

The 2017 Vico Lecture took place at York University’s Keele Campus on Sept. 25, 2017. Watch the presentation video below: