‘Do you believe in destiny?’ The small moments that made up a Canisius Alumnus’s life
By Eliana DeGlopper, Features Contributor
Dr. Michael DiGiacomo descended from the escalator and entered the lobby of the Erie County Medical Center (ECMC), a Level 1 Trauma Center and hospital located in downtown Buffalo. Standing out from the sea of red scrubs of D’Youville college students and navy blue scrubs of most attending physicians, DiGiacomo wore his Halloween scrubs, covered in pumpkins and mini versions of Jack Skellington. His lanyard was Disney themed, covered in Toy Story characters. He towered over me by two head lengths, yet his eyes smiled with warmth from under his mask. As he led me towards the elevator, someone complimented his scrubs, and he smiled and told them he enjoyed dressing up for the kids in his unit — DiGiacomo is a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Upon exiting the elevator, I noticed structural designs unique to a child and adolescent psychiatry wing. The set of double doors to enter the wing were only accessible via the tap of a badge that granted us clearance as the sensor lit up green. Once in the wing where patients resided, I noticed that the glazed ceiling light panels were not transparent; rather, they were embellished with images of the sky, clouds and stars, so that as the lights projected through the panels, one felt like the light was coming directly from the sky despite being in a hospital. The walls were painted with murals of rainbows, mermaids, a large octopus and flowers. One entire wall was a dedicated chalkboard full of positive messages and drawings from patients and staff.
Moving down the hallway, the voices of multiple children and teenagers singing “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo could be heard from the community room where all of the patients were participating in an activity. DiGiacomo made his way to the staff office, where he warmly greeted multiple RNs and inquired about current patients. He proceeded to speak with two new patients separately, asking about their past, prompting them with questions, ensuring the patients that he was there to help, joking with them to break the ice, addressing them with their proper pronouns and encouraging patients to write him letters over the weekend if they had anything on their mind. He said that on Mondays he always reads any letters the patients write for him.
After seeing a few patients, DiGiacomo ventured back up to his private office on the 11th floor, overlooking a cluster of residential buildings in a downtown Buffalo neighborhood. The room was adorned with his various degrees, diplomas, accreditations and pictures of his wife and children on the walls, bookshelf and (custom-made) mousepad. His desk was multitiered, functioning so that he could choose to sit or stand to complete work. The wooden bookshelf near the window had a variety of items stuffed onto its shelves including a large collection of CDs. Since childhood, DiGiacomo had a passion for music, specifically saxophone playing.
Beginning freshman year, DiGiacomo was heavily involved in Canisius’s music department, and he found guidance through his “musical father” Dr. Stephen Shewan, who acted as the music director at his high school. Shewan explained that DiGiacomo was “unbelievably gifted” and that he was “brilliant in everything, as humble as he is.” Shewan immediately recognized his talent and fostered his love of music. During his high school career, he composed over 40 songs with his brother, holding the record for must compositions created by a high schooler.
Shewan recalls a time when he performed at the All-State Jazz Ensemble, and the director allowed each student to play part of the chorus of the blues tone. When it came to be DiGiacomo’s turn, the conductor stood back, letting him play on his own because he was so gifted. DiGiacomo had “it”— the ability to connect with an audience on a profound level.
This was highlighted when he was the featured artist of the first poetry, music and dance showcase at Williamsville East in April 2000 — DiGiacomo’s senior year — in which students composed music based on poetry. He composed a saxophone piece based on a poem entitled “Her,” that was written by Mr. John Kryder, an English teacher at his school who happened to be good friend’s with Shewan.
Kryder taught DiGiacomo in an English class his first semester of senior year, and he already knew DiGiacomo from his participation in the music department. Many of the pieces Kryder assigned and read with his class were about mental health, depression and suicide, including novels such as “Catcher in the Rye” and “Ordinary People.” Kryder explained how DiGiacomo is a horizontal thinker and believed in a drive for excellence and creating a level playing field in which all people could be treated equally, regardless of “status.”
This humility and horizontal thinking were prominently demonstrated during my conversation with DiGiacomo during the time I spent observing him. Despite me being a college student and him being a physician with years of education and life experience, when I spoke to him, I felt seen, respected and on the same level as him. Despite my interest in interviewing him regarding his prestige and career, he was curious about my background, too. He asked if I would be a first-generation physician; he asked about why I wanted to go into medicine, where I wanted to go to medical school and what I was involved in. He also believes in treating all members of his team fairly, hence why he interacts so fondly with RNs, NPs, PAs, techs and students.
At Canisius, DiGiacomo pursued an English major, and completed his pre-med prerequisites in addition. DiGiacomo looked up to Dr. Cochrane and Dr. Jack D’Amico with the highest regard — Cochrane was one of his English teachers, mentors and closest friends even after college. He also maintains a relationship with former professor Dr. D’Amico, who taught him a freshman English course at Canisius and shared his love of music as a pianist. In class, D’Amico highlighted that DiGiacomo as a student was “observant and understanding of other students around him,” especially since some students did not understand the satire, sarcasm and sense of humor in some of the readings.
During his third-year medical school rotation in psychiatry, he was precepted by a woman named Dori, head psychiatrist at ECMC. He fell in love with the specialty. Unknown to him at first was the fact that Dori was the second wife of Mr. Kryder and had heard of DiGiacomo since his high school days, even having seen him perform in 2003 at a Trinity Church evening of poetry and music. Ironically, he later obtained the position Dr. Dori once held in the psychiatric wing, while she is now the dean of admissions at the Jacob’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the co-director of psychiatry at ECMC.
Looking at DiGiacomo, a musical protégé and a gifted doctor, it is impressive how he remains grounded, diligent, thankful and extraordinarily humble. Perhaps he was destined to pursue his love of music through Dr. Shewan, which enabled him to meet Mr. Kryder and ultimately be advised by Dr. Dori whose position he would later hold. If he wouldn’t have taken Kryder’s class, he would likely have never sparked an interest in psychiatry and English. If he did not develop a love of English, he would not have majored in English and met Cochrane and D’Amico. If he did not meet two of his largest influences, he may not have chosen to pursue his other dream of being a doctor, while they supported the notion that he could do so in addition to writing.
In this same way, DiGiacomo turned to me when we were still in the office and asked the all-encompassing question regarding how we happened to meet… “Do you believe in destiny?”