Dr. Joseph Savino sat by his father Silio’s bedside as death crept in.
It was 1994, and his father was battling metastatic cancer and brain tumor dementia. Around midnight, Silio told his son where he’d left a bit of money, asked Savino to take care of his mother and finally urged him in Italian to build his “sette dietro corte” with integrity and honesty at the University of Pennsylvania.
In English, “sette dietro corte” translates to something along the lines of “seven back court.” Savino was confused. He told his father he didn’t understand what he was trying to say, but his father was in pain. So the nurse gave him a milligram of morphine to ease his suffering.
Not long after, Silio passed.
It would be two years before the “sette dietro corte” mystery was unraveled, and in the years since, Savino certainly has built something at the University of Pennsylvania: a legacy. He was recently named the inaugural chair holder of the Abramson Family Professorship in Anesthesiology.
Established by Madlyn and Leonard Abramson in 2019, the professorship supports the work of a physician-scientist in the study of anesthesia and critical care. Savino, a Moorestown resident, plans to use the funding from the endowment to support translational clinical research efforts within Penn Medicine’s Heart and Vascular Intensive Care Unit.
A False Accusation
Born in the village of Montella, Provincia di Avellino in Italy, Savino and his family immigrated to the United States when he was a young child. His father was a stonemason, and so naturally, when Silio’s lifelong best friend, Carmen, asked him to build his house, he agreed.
One day, one of Silio’s laborers approached Carmen and accused Silio of cutting corners on the home because he wasn’t putting steel in the stone walls. Carmen came to Silio and asked him why. Silio explained that steel would actually weaken the stone and assured Carmen he had designed the home with strong arches to keep the walls firmly planted.
But the damage was done. Carmen was skeptical of Silio’s work, and the lifelong friendship disintegrated. Silio completed the home, but he was labeled a cheat in the small town of Montella and unable to get work.
So, Savino’s father had two choices: go to work in the factories of Northern Italy or move to America. He chose the latter.
Coming to America
Savino, his father and his older brother arrived in New York in March of 1963. Savino was 5 years old and his older brother, Felice, was 8. His mother, Ida, had arrived a few months earlier to set up their new lives. She found the family an apartment in Germantown, and they later purchased a small row home soon after in South Philadelphia.
Savino gained two younger brothers after the move to the United States. And while he worked as a stone mason and bricklayer during the summer and on weekends and expressed an interest in the family business, his father wouldn’t hear of him following in his footsteps. Silio wanted more for his sons and insisted his children earn degrees.
So that’s what Savino did: He was admitted to Penn for undergrad. There was never a particular person or event that inspired his career path, but he said it mostly boiled down to his aptitude for biology and chemistry. His family encouraged him to apply to medical school, and sure enough, he was accepted at Harvard.
When it came time to choose where he would do his residency, Penn was the clear frontrunner.
“There was really no decision,” he noted. “I was coming back to Philadelphia because that’s where my family was.”
He later met his wife, Sharon, a nurse at Penn, and the pair eventually moved to Moorestown, where they had three sons.
“Sette dietro corte”
Savino was a physician with Penn Medicine when his father succumbed to cancer. Two years after Silio passed, Savino and his mother traveled back to Montella to settle his father’s affairs.
Savino wandered into a bookstore, where he found a pictorial history of Montella. He bought the book as a keepsake and took it back to the home of an aunt where he and his mother were staying. Paging through the book, his aunt identified Silio and Carmen in one of the photos. Savino said he didn’t know who Carmen was.
Shocked that he’d never heard about Carmen’s house before, his aunt urged Ida to tell Savino the story and what happened after they’d left for America.
An earthquake hit Montella in 1980 and essentially leveled the town. Savino’s aunt ran out of her home to help, and as she was running through the streets, she saw a crowd gathering. She made her way through the crowd to see what they were all staring at: it was Carmen’s home.
To the left and right of Carmen’s house, homes were decimated. But Carmen’s house was still standing, and he, his wife and family were unharmed.
Upon hearing the story, Savino insisted on seeing the home. The next day, he, his mother and aunt walked to the house, and there was the address, carved into the stone home: “sette dietro corte.”
Suddenly, his father’s dying words made sense to Savino; he was urging him to build his own “sette dietro corte” in Penn’s operating rooms and intensive care units.
“Build it here at Penn,” Savino recalled. “Build it to save lives and to help others. Build it with integrity and honesty.”
Building a strong foundation
In his years at Penn, Savino has been hard at work saving lives. He started off doing clinical trials, asking questions and trying to find answers. He rose through the ranks, becoming the chief of Penn’s Division of Cardiac Anesthesia. He later became executive vice chairman for Clinical Affairs and Strategic Planning in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care.
When Savino tells people he’s an anesthesiologist, he often hears the joke, “You’re the guy who puts people to sleep.” Savino said more importantly, he’s the guy who wakes you up. While the surgeon is sewing a heart valve or doing other work, Savino maintains homeostasis ensuring the vital organs remain healthy and sound.
His career highs — of which there are many — include spearheading the development of Intraoperative Transesophageal Echocardiography, earning the title of Master Clinician and founding Penn’s Heart and Vascular Intensive Care Unit in collaboration with doctors Timothy Gardner and Bill Hanson.
The Heart and Vascular Intensive Care Unit has seen tremendous growth. When the doctors started the unit in 1994, they performed about 400 open-heart surgeries a year. In 2019, the number was around 2,800.
Laying new brick
Savino recently crossed paths with the Abramsons, philanthropists and the family for whom Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center is named. As such, he is the first chair holder of the Abramson Family Professorship in Anesthesiology, and he’d like to use the funds that come with the honor to support research efforts within cardiac operating rooms and the Heart and Vascular Intensive Care Unit.
Savino’s tentative plan is to have each of his 22 faculty members submit three important clinical questions, and from there, he’ll choose the top five or six. They might include “How to mitigate risks of stroke during an aortic valve replacement” or “How to decrease risk of bleeding after repeat heart surgeries.”
Savino said he feels as if the professorship is a large part of the “sette dietro corte” he’s building for his patients. His goal is to use the new resources from the endowment, and in collaboration with his team, he hopes to get some of those important questions answered.