May 06, 2022
A cut above
Donna Formichella, M.D. ’78 was the first woman to graduate as a general surgeon from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
By Vicki-Ann Downing ’21G
When Donna Formichella, M.D. ’78 graduated from Providence College with a degree in biology, only 3.4 percent of surgeons in the United States were women.
It was the era of designer jeans and disco music, energy shortages and rising inflation. In Washington, D.C., 100,000 people marched to support the Equal Rights Amendment. The number of working women had risen steadily throughout the decade, but more than half were in clerical and service positions. Of the more than 86,000 members of the American College of Surgeons, only 3,362 were women, The New York Times reported.
In the operating room, where surgeons were the undisputed team leads, it was said that women would not have the commanding presence or the physical stamina to endure the long hours that surgery required. Women applying to residency programs — a five- or six-year commitment — were asked whether they planned to have children and take time off, and how they would balance the needs of family with the demands of the occupation.
The odds were not in favor of a first-generation college student from Bridgeport, Conn., the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, achieving her goal of attending medical school and becoming a general surgeon. But anyone who believed that underestimated Donna Formichella, who retired in December after more than 33 years with the Southern California Permanente Medical Group.
“It was what I wanted to do, and I knew that I was capable of doing it,” Formichella said during an interview on campus in February. “I loved the science aspect of it, and the people aspect. It’s hands-on, and that appealed to me. And you are doing something good with your life. I wasn’t going to let anyone ignore me or bully me out of it.”
General surgeons specialize in a broad range of areas — the breast, skin, and abdomen, including gallbladder, hernias, stomach, and bowel. In a career bookended by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, Formichella performed thousands of operations. She also took the lead as assistant chief of surgery for Kaiser Permanente in Orange County from 2009-2019 and as chair of the Cancer Committee and Tumor Board for 25 years. For three decades, she was a clinical instructor in the residency program at the University of California, Irvine, mentoring young surgeons, many of them women. She also married and raised a son.
At her retirement party in December, Formichella spoke about the role surgeons play.
“We touch and influence so many lives over the course of our careers,” she said. “Many times it seems small and routine to us. But that is almost never the case for them. Patients entrust us with their lives and rely on us to know what we’re doing, make the right decisions and expertly perform their surgery. Most of the time we triumph but sometimes there are problems that just can’t be fixed, and that becomes a part of us, too.”
Formichella earned a medical degree from Columbia University in 1982 and was matched to Tufts-New England Medical Center for residency. Two years in, she learned she was one of six residents without a third-year surgical position. She could have switched to another medical specialty. But she wanted to be a surgeon, and in an era with no internet searches or email, she turned to telephone calls and letter writing to find a placement.
When Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles offered her a position starting in a week’s time, Formichella arranged for her car to be driven across the country, packed her suitcases, and flew out to find an apartment. The change added an extra year to her residency, but in 1988, Formichella became the first woman to graduate as a surgeon from Cedars-Sinai.
“It wasn’t that you were told not to become a surgeon, but you weren’t mentored or encouraged in medical school or residency the way that the men were,” Formichella said. “In surgery my third year of medical school, I was loving it, but I knew my male counterparts were receiving more attention than the women. In my entire residency of six years, I saw only one woman surgeon, and that was at Tufts, and she was new to the staff.”
In 1988, most physicians were in private practice, but joining a group practice meant an immediate salary to pay student loans, the opportunity to begin practicing and performing surgery right away, and a two-year path to partnership, which Formichella achieved in 1990.
Now, as she reaches her medical group’s mandatory retirement age of 65, half the surgeons in her practice are women. As partner emeritus, she continues to work two weeks each month, dividing her time between southern California and a new home in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. — a community she discovered after reconnecting with a PC roommate, Kris Vigneault Kennedy ’79.
Her ties to Providence remain strong. She remembers all-night study sessions with John Mullen, M.D. ’78 (now a radiation oncologist in Portland, Maine) and Russell Corcoran, M.D. ’78 (now an internist and geriatrician in Wakefield, R.I.). There were social events every weekend, picnics on Slavin lawn, basketball and hockey games, and because the drinking age was 18, visits to Brad’s, Louie’s, and the Rathskeller, too. She was a member of Student Congress and the Residence Life Committee and chaired her Junior Ring Weekend Committee with John Hannen ’78, now her husband.
“It was fun to be here,” Formichella said. “It was a great community. I still have PC friends from the time I was at PC, and I’ve even met new PC friends. It’s the community that brings us back.”
A Friar love story
In what might be the best line ever spoken at Providence College reunion, outside a mixer in ’64 Hall in June 2013, Donna Formichella, M.D. ’78 told classmate John Hannen ’78: “I have one regret in my life — letting you get away.”
Hannen wisely canceled all future plans and the couple married on July 5, 2015, at
St. Clements Castle and Marina in Portland, Conn., their home state, with PC friends in
Formichella and Hannen met when they were sophomores chairing their Junior Ring Weekend Committee. They stayed in touch throughout the years, though life took them in different directions. Formichella went to medical school and became a general surgeon in California. Hannen entered the U.S. Air Force and was a bomber pilot with service in the Gulf War, a squadron commander, an Air Force attaché in Brazil, and a defense attaché in Algeria. When he retired, he joined Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems and led business development in the Middle East, North Africa, and Brazil. They also married others and raised three children between them.
After reuniting at reunion, Hannen joined Formichella in California, where he became president of PC’s Southern California Alumni Network. They opened their Villa Park home to gatherings so incoming PC students could connect with alumni and current students. They even hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for 90 Friar basketball fans who traveled to California for the John Wooden Classic in Anaheim in 2015. At their 40th PC reunion in 2018, they were the co-chairs.
“PC gave us a great education, great friends and memories, a great foundation,
and it gave us each other,” Formichella said. “We are forever Friars.”