Recalling His Inspiration, A Neurosurgeon Thanks A Teacher

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This story originally aired on Weekend Edition on Sept. 25, 2011.

As a middle-school student in the 1980s, Lee Buono stayed after school one day to remove the brain and spinal cord from a frog. He did such a good job that his science teacher told him he might become a neurosurgeon someday.

That's exactly what Buono did.

Years later, a patient with a tumor came to see Buono. The growth was benign but interfered with the patient's speech. "He can get some words out," Buono recalls, "but it's almost unintelligible. It's almost like someone's sewing your mouth closed."

"I'm talking to his wife, and we tried to lighten up the situation," he continues. "They started asking me about myself." They asked Buono who inspired him to become a surgeon, and he told them about his old teacher, Al Siedlecki, back at Medford Memorial Middle School in Medford, N.J.

The surgery was a success. The patient's powers of speech returned. "He's just excited and happy and crying and wanted to just hug me," Buono says.

"You make sure you call that teacher," the patient told him. "You make sure you thank him."

So Buono did. Siedlecki hadn't heard from Buono since he was in high school.

"I want to thank you," Buono told him.

"I was flabbergasted," Siedlecki remembers. "I said, 'Of all the people in your entire career, you want to thank me?'

"It was the same feeling I had when ... my kids were born," Siedlecki continues. "I started to cry. It made me feel really important that I had that influence."

Lately, Siedlecki admits, "I almost am afraid to say that I'm a teacher to some people."

Not anymore, he tells Buono, "because you called me. I'm a teacher, and I'm going to help as many people as I can to find their passion too."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Brian Reed.

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