In the hospital rooms of children battling cancer, fourth-year Central Michigan University medical student Nicholas Cozzi found two keys to the essence of life.
He explains: "When you walk into the hospital room of a child with cancer, you feel inadequate. What are you going to do or say to make that family and child feel better? I try to think of the question 'What can I do?' and I rearrange it to say 'Do what I can.' And those experiences inspired me to live life to the fullest."
Those life lessons — "do what I can" and "live life to the fullest" — were learned or reinforced at the top children's research hospitals in the country, where Cozzi recently completed his elective rotations: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
“I saw Central as an opportunity to be in a place where I could leave an
imprint.” – Nicholas Cozzi
He told of his experiences, and the ambition that led him to CMU, Jan. 11 at Park Library in a talk titled "Experiences in Pediatric Oncology: Observations in Hope and Resilience."
Having hope and resilience is what characterizes the patients and families who find themselves at those hospitals, the doctors who work there, and Cozzi himself. And he wants all current and future CMU students to recognize those traits within themselves.
A bumpy path to CMU
Cozzi's route to medical school could be in a textbook on hope and resilience. When he graduated from high school, he had two goals: play professional baseball and become a physician. After one year of Division 2 baseball, he determined that baseball wasn't his path.
"I was that guy who would be studying at 3 a.m. on long bus rides home while everyone else was sleeping. I quickly realized that I couldn't become a physician and play professional baseball at the same time."
Those thoughts were reinforced when a mentor told him that if he was serious about becoming a physician, he had to quit baseball and go to a large undergraduate university.
He quit baseball and transferred to the University of Wisconsin, but wasn't accepted to medical school the first time. But in rejection, he learned a lesson.
"With baseball and not getting into medical school, I learned how to fail, to be resilient after failure, and how to be a great teammate — skills I use every day of my life."
With the door to medical school closed at the time, he decided to pursue an MBA.
"I wanted to do something of value, to learn more about leadership … but always with the intention of coming back to medical school."
Opportunities at CMU, beyond
By the time he earned his MBA, Central had just opened its College of Medicine. Cozzi applied and became part of its second class.
"I saw Central as an opportunity to be in a place where I could leave an imprint," he said, something he and other inaugural students accomplished by helping develop new programs that include a Business in Medicine group, the Furnari scholarship, and the Health Careers Pipeline Program for area high school students.
Always looking for opportunities to grow, Cozzi turned a visit with a friend at the Mayo Clinic into a summer job with a neurosurgeon doing cutting-edge cancer research simply by taking a chance and asking the researcher, he said.
It was that same "go for it" attitude that emboldened him to apply to the St. Jude, Boston and Children's research hospitals. "My goal is I want to train with the best."
Message to students
While Cozzi will tell students about his experiences in pediatric oncology, he also wants to inspire them to pursue big dreams, to have confidence in themselves, grasp opportunities and work hard — the tenets he tries to live by.
"I was never the most naturally gifted student, never excelled in exams. But I was always working hard. I never came in and did amazing on the ACT or SAT. I took the Medical College Admission Test four times, but it made me hungry to work harder.
"If you are going to Central and you are working hard, you have more opportunities than you might think you do. If you are kind, poised, consistent, have a good attitude and are resilient, that goes a long way."
Those qualities helped him through his experiences at St. Jude and the other hospitals, he said.
"Sometimes as an undergraduate or as a medical student you feel almost like dead weight. 'What can I do to possibly help this situation?' But it's the little things."
He recalls when a 2-year-old boy with cancer was to get a lumbar puncture, a very painful procedure. The boy was so upset that he was crying and thrashing around. Cozzi had learned that the boy loved "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," so he took out his cellphone and played "Heigh-Ho."
"He slowly calmed right down. Long enough for us to do the procedure."
He also used his baseball experience to bring a moment of joy to a baseball-loving 9-year-old boy whose family had just learned that he had a tumor that would take his life.
"I asked him to show me his batting stance, and he instantly lit up, leaping from the bed to place his hands on the imaginary bat. The team assembled into a makeshift baseball diamond with the oncologist playing umpire, his dad pitching and myself catching. For three seconds, he was a kid again.
"This precious moment taught me that even in the face of such objectively dismal outcomes, physicians can still heal and provide small moments of joy in the midst of intense pain and sorrow — a tenet that will guide difficult conversations that I will have with patients throughout my career."
Becoming a game changer
Cozzi's goals are to be a pediatric emergency medicine physician, to train at a large urban academic institution, pursue leadership opportunities and become a faculty member at a medical and business school.
In short, he wants to be a game changer.
"The game changers in medicine will be those who have a business training along with a medical degree so they can understand both sides of the equation. We need more physicians coming together who have leadership-management training, who have the clinical experience that brings credibility. I recognize that, and I'm trying to be very intentional about obtaining that type of training and those experiences."
Cozzi wants all CMU students to realize that they also can be game changers.
He also wants them to support St. Jude's mission that "No child should die in the dawn of life."
Sponsors of Cozzi's Jan. 11 talk, which also raised funds for St. Jude, were CMU student organizations St. Jude Up 'til Dawn and the Collegiate Health Administration Preparatory Society; and the College of Business Administration and the Health Professions Residential College.