The year was 1976. Americans celebrated our nation’s bicentennial and saw the election of a new president, Jimmy Carter. Our pants were bell-bottoms, our sideburns long, and our music disco—or Peter Frampton—depending on whom you ask. We watched “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” and “M*A*S*H.” And we paid on average 59 cents for a gallon of gas.
Here in Randolph, 1976 saw the arrival of a new doctor to our small-town hospital, then Gifford Memorial. Born and raised in rural New Jersey on the Delaware River, Louis DiNicola, MD, was, by his own account, a flatlander. (The highest point in his hometown was the pitcher’s mound at the Little League field, he shared during a recent interview.) He was also young, 28, and young-looking.
“I looked about 10,” DiNicola said. “The drinking age was 18 then, and I was carded.”
His path to Gifford wasn’t the most obvious career move, nor was it without a few hiccups. Trained to be a pediatrician in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Penn., DiNicola and his wife, childhood sweetheart Joann, were drawn to the idea of life in Vermont after visiting briefly on vacation and later seeing an ad for “Pediatrician Needed in Randolph.” He applied, but it was over a month before his pager went off with an invitation to interview, just as he was about to accept one of three job offers in nearby cities.
“Gifford wanted me to come up in a few weeks,” said DiNicola, who first realized that he wanted to be a physician at age 16 while mopping floors at a hospital. “I told them, ‘Either I come up this weekend or forget it.’”
His boldness worked.
“They let me come. I fell in love with the community, the people, and the hospital, and I have never looked back.”
DiNicola remembers in vivid detail his first day in Randolph. It was January, and just getting here was a trial with stormy weather, multiple canceled flights—stressful for any traveler, let alone a first-time flier like DiNicola—and an unplanned white-knuckle drive from Boston. Upon arriving in Randolph, he stepped out of the car into freezing ankle-deep water.
It wasn’t the brightest of beginnings, but DiNicola was undeterred.
“I do not know who was more excited about Lou’s initial visit to Randolph—Phil for having recruited a young, energetic pediatrician, or Lou for having taken his first flight to be interviewed,” said Randolph resident Sandy Levesque, who helped recruit DiNicola with her late husband, Philip Levesque, Gifford’s president and chief executive officer from 1973-1994.
“I recall that it was the dead of winter and that Lou stayed with us. He returned to look for a house with Joann and their young daughter Gina and her Pack ‘n Play, which we set up in our living room. We may have hoped for, but none of us could have imagined, the length and impact of Lou’s practice, nor all of the lives that he has touched, including mine and that of my two children.”
Upon his arrival at the hospital, one of the first people DiNicola met was Dr. Richard Barrett, who greeted him dressed in clothing not typically found on medical professionals.
“I walk into this place, some might say in the middle of nowhere, and I find this rock-star doctor dressed in overalls,” said DiNicola, referring to Barrett’s reputation as an internal medicine physician. Later he would meet Drs. Mark Jewett and Milton Fowler, now longtime colleagues and friends who also continue to practice at Gifford.
“Everyone I met, I thought, yeah, I could work here,” said DiNicola.
And so he did. For 43 years and counting, he has taken care of central Vermont children and families—his patients number in the thousands—including multiple generations of the same family. He’s also advocated for them at the local, state and national levels, his dedication earning him the respect and admiration of patients, colleagues and legislators.
“What makes Lou outstanding—beyond being a great clinical pediatrician—is his tireless advocacy for the health of children in our community,” said Jewett. “He was willing to go to court, to the state legislature, and to national pediatric meetings to stand up for policies that would benefit the health of all children.”
DiNicola’s advocacy includes more than 40 years of service with the American Academy of Pediatrics in Vermont and nationally, testimony in child abuse cases, and testifying at the Vermont State House on a wide range of issues, from vaccine laws to the drinking age. He has received letters from President Obama as well as senators and other legislators, thanking him for sharing his views on issues like gun violence.
Perhaps his most important judges—Randolph-area children and their parents—likewise admire DiNicola. Heart emojis and exclamations of love punctuate their comments about him on social media.
“I believe he is [the] greatest physician ever,” wrote Gay Marie Stratton on Facebook. “Such a caring person, he was my pediatrician—many years ago, I believe when he first started at Gifford—and I am so lucky to have had him as my three daughters’ pediatrician also!!”
“To a great person, my daughters so loved you when they were growing up,” commented Cindy Smith Loomis. “Your positive outlook just spreads everywhere with a great smile.”
And, wrote Barbara Arley, “Congratulations, Dr. DiNicola, proud to say you took care of my grandson as an infant! A great [doctor]!”
Still, DiNicola’s career hasn’t been without challenges, especially in the early days, when, he said, pediatricians weren’t taken seriously.
“One mother came in and asked me, ‘Are you a pediatrician or are you a real doctor?’” said DiNicola.
“I was right out of residency and absolutely alone as a pediatrician,” he said. “Gifford was small, intimate, with minimal supports for providers. It was a totally different world medically.”
“I had to hire my own staff and figure out how to pay them,” said DiNicola, describing Gifford in the 1970s when all of its providers were in private practice. “There was no such thing as ER docs or hospitalists. There were two or three family practitioners who did everything, and they were exceptionally dedicated and hardworking. By today’s standards, it was almost primitive how we worked, but we all got through it and provided care to our patients, working five-plus days a week and being on call all the time.”
Both Gifford and the practice of medicine changed significantly over the last 40 years. DiNicola helped shape many of those advancements, including the opening of a renowned Birthing Center that continues to attract expectant mothers from across Vermont and beyond.
“Most dramatic has been the change in prenatal care and ultrasound technology that provides us with incredible information about the babies we care for, before birth,” said DiNicola, who has heartbreaking stories of babies born but unable to sustain life, due to serious birth defects, a somewhat common occurrence before advancements in ultrasound technology.
“We had babies born with unexpected anencephaly,” he said, referring to the serious birth defect in which parts of the brain and skull are missing and for which there is no known treatment. “The brain stem is intact, so they would make it through pregnancy, but they couldn’t live. Those babies are extremely rare nowadays due to advances in prenatal care and nutrition, and because now we know of the condition in advance, with ultrasound.”
Another significant change has been in immunizations. “To name a few, vaccines for Hib, hepatitis A and B, HPV, meningococcal—they all changed the face of pediatrics,” he said.
DiNicola is especially proud of the leadership demonstrated by the pediatrics team at Gifford, which was named Vermont’s 2018 “HPV Vaccine Is Cancer Prevention Champion” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for outstanding efforts to protect adolescents from cancers caused by human papillomavirus.
Philosophy of Care
Asked what he thinks makes a good doctor, DiNicola replied, “Compassion. Without it, you are a technician, not a doctor.”
“Most important to me, I try every day to be kind to others, with a smile and hello, opening doors for anyone that I see coming in or going out,” he said. “I also try in my work to find the strengths and positives in any child or family and praise them for what they do.”
He practices what he preaches. According to colleagues, one of his most appealing traits is his genuineness.
“Lou pulled me aside years ago and said, ‘You know, I decided it is important for me to tell people what I think of them. If I’m upset with them, I tell them. If I am happy with them, I tell them, because we don’t do that often enough,’” said Rebecca O’Berry, Gifford vice president of operations. “Then he said something very kind to me, but the sentiment is what I remember. And although I’m pretty upfront with people anyway, I have worked hard to make sure people I think highly of know they are in my thoughts.”
Gifford recently announced DiNicola’s retirement from his medical director role, but he doesn’t plan to stop working anytime soon. He will continue to provide periodic coverage in pediatrics, remain active on medical staff committees, and assist with provider recruitment.
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to sum up all that Dr. DiNicola has meant to his patients and their families, his community, and his Gifford colleagues,” said Gifford President and CEO Dan Bennett. “My family, like many in central Vermont, were fortunate to have Dr. DiNicola care for our child. I can still remember, after all of these years, Lou’s kind words to me and Jane as new parents looking for reassurance that we would figure out how to raise our baby. Our experience was not unique. Lou has been a tremendous support to parents and young people his entire career.”
And to think, it’s a career that may not have been made, at least not in Randolph, if, back in ’76, the Levesques hadn’t agreed to put up the youthful and somewhat pushy New Jersey native that particular weekend.
“It was really serendipitous,” DiNicola said.
Gifford Health Care will host a celebration to honor Dr. Louis DiNicola from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30, at the medical center. The event is open to the public. For more information, call 802-728-2380 or email email@example.com.
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