Recalling His Inspiration, A Neurosurgeon Thanks A Teacher

Dec 27, 2013
Originally published on December 27, 2013 7:06 am

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVE MATTINGLY, HOST:

Time again for StoryCorps. Today we'll hear middle-school science teacher Al Siedlecki and his former student Lee Buono. It's been a long time since Lee has been in middle school. He's a neurosurgeon now. But recently he came to StoryCorp with Al, whom he calls Mr. Si, to talk about a patient that reconnected him with his favorite teacher.

LEE BUONO: This patient comes in and he's got a benign tumor. It's pushing on his speech area. He can get some words out but it's almost unintelligible. It's almost like someone's sewing your mouth closed. So I'm talking to his wife, and we tried to lighten up the situation and they started asking me about myself. And they asked me who inspired me.

So, of course I mentioned you. We had the surgery. He gets his speech back and he's just excited and happy and crying and wanted to just hug me. And he said you make sure you call that teacher. You make sure you thank him. So I called you.

AL SIEDLECKI: I picked the phone up and you go, hi, it's Lee Buono. I said, Lee, what's going on, man? I haven't heard from you since you were in high school. And you said, I want to thank you. I was flabbergasted. 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.

And I started to cry. It made me feel really important that I had that influence on you. Lately I almost am afraid to say that I'm a teacher to some people. But I'm not 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.

MATTINGLY: That's Al Siedlecki with his former student Lee Buono and StoryCorps in Medford, New Jersey. Their story will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Get the StoryCorp podcast at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.