EMU’s 2022 alumni awards will be presented at the Oct. 7-9 Homecoming and Family Weekend celebration.
Recipients include Amy Rosenberger ’86 and Camila Pandolfi ’12.
Dr. Joseph Gascho ‘68 – cardiologist, poet, author, photographer and professor – is the recipient of EMU’s 2022 Distinguished Service Award.
Gascho was a professor at The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Penn State Cardiology Fellowship Program for 25 years. His research has been funded by the National Institute of Health and has been documented in approximately 60 peer-reviewed and published papers. Gascho began exploring themes of medicine and his profession through the media of photography and poetry about 20 years ago.
“Penn State Hershey was the first medical school in the US to have a humanities department,” he said. “I didn’t realize that humanities emphasis when I came there, but it was there and changed my life.”
That same university honored his unique healing capacities and relationships with patients, families, and healthcare colleagues with the 2018 Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award.
Now recently retired, Gascho has by no means stopped working. “I have a lot of projects in the works,” he said. His collected works include five books of poetry, photography and memoir; his latest is Heart & Soul: A Cardiologist’s Life in Verse. (Learn more about Gascho’s arts and collected works at www.jgascho.com.)
Throughout his life, Gascho has been guided by his Anabaptist heritage. Psalm 16:6 — The lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places; Surely I have had a good inheritance — speaks to “how fortunate I’ve been,” he said.
Support from others
How did a Mennonite farm boy from Nebraska, educated in a one-room school, carve out an impressive medical career and his award-winning arts? There is no doubt Gascho worked hard for his success, but he acknowledges many people have made a tremendous contribution towards his accomplishments… beginning with his parents.
Gascho’s father moved the family from Nebraska to Virginia when his son was 13 so he could attend Eastern Mennonite High School. “He left behind a life as a respected pastor. He left behind precious family,” Gascho said. His father worked at EMC as a watchman and maintenance person for 75 cents an hour. (Years later, he would honor his father with a photography exhibit featuring Hershey Medical Center support staff, including a maintenance worker, a painter, a shuttle bus driver and others.)
His mother also influenced Gascho with her interest in photography and writing and being “ambitious for me,” he said. “I’d probably not have gone into medicine without her.” Gascho earned his MD from the University of Virginia and completed postdoctoral training there as well as at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
He also credits his wife, Barbara Sue Brunk, a registered nurse and chaplain, as “someone without whom I’d have never made it,” Gascho said. “She’s the person who has held our family together through the hassles of a physician’s sometimes wild life.” The couple have two adult children — Joseph Gascho ‘95, a harpsichordist and music professor at University of Michigan, and Susan Gascho-Cooke ‘97, a musician and pastor at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster — and four grandchildren.
Roots and influences
Gascho cites significant events that pointed towards a career in science and supported his interest in photography and poetry.
His time as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War is an example. He describes his experience as being a “human guinea pig…probably not the wisest thing I did.” In a NASA-sponsored project, Gascho endured two cardiac catheterizations, rides on a human centrifuge, 19 complete days of bed rest (which included bedpans and urinals), numerous blood draws and stringent diets. He was so hungry he remembers sneaking into the kitchen and eating “mustard off of a knife.” However, it showed him what medicine was like from the point of view of a patient. “Overall, a defining experience in my life… I knew despite it that I wanted to be a doctor, I could empathize with my patients, tell them I’ve had a heart cath myself.”
Gascho also counts his mentors as part of his good fortune. One significant influence guided him in “the decision to go into academic medicine rather than private practice.” His time as a professor at Penn State Hershey Medical Center exposed him to the strong humanities program. Another mentor with a degree in literature recognized Gascho’s talents as a poet and took the time to “encourage me, push me, critique me in a way that was helpful.”
Gashco’s intersecting work in medicine and the arts continued to evolve. Mid-career, he changed from specializing in cardiac catheterizations to reading echocardiograms. Learning a new skill set later in life was an “onerous process,” he said. “But the concept of echo … the seeing of heart structures and its broader concept… for me, looking at the image that I will photograph or write a poem about and then bringing that image to life as a photograph or a poem has been very important to me.”
A poignant example is the poem “To Myself” from his book Heart & Soul: A Cardiologist’s Life.
You gaze upon the image on the monitor
Made up of bits of sound that bounce from probe
Through skin to heart then back again
And think it shows what broke your heart.
I only wish there was a tool
I could use on me not you
To look inside not heart but soul
so I could know for what it yearns
so I could learn to make it whole.
Gascho describes several experiences in 2003 as “one of those serendipitous, unbelievable kind of ‘the-constellations-coming-together-in-a-wonderful-way.’” The gift of a Nikon digital camera inspired participation in a workshop on expressing spirituality through digital photography At the same time, he was studying the contemplative writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton. He came to understand that the creative side of his brain “was good and it pushed me in the direction of using my interest in photography and budding interest in poetry with fervor and without apology,” Gascho said. His initial project of his patients’ portraits came to fruition because of that workshop. “I worried the flame would die, but it has sustained me now for 19 years.”
Gascho’s 2022 essay “Putting A Human Face On Hospitals” encapsulates his seamless weaving of science and photography into a congruent whole, telling a more complete story of human life. Penn State houses exhibits of Gascho’s portraits — patients enjoying their favorite pastimes, doctors in settings outside the hospital context, and ancillary staff dressed to the nines with their tools, such as a mop, wrench, or clipboard. Such employees “are indispensable to a hospital’s functioning,” Gascho wrote in the exhibit abstract. “These unique displays of portrait photographs decrease stress and distress in a hospital environment and humanize both patients and health care workers.”
Growing up in a conservative church, Gascho was taught that God was a redeemer God. “That impacted me greatly, even into mid-career and church work.” Acting as an agent of God to “redeem” and extend God’s holistic peace was his highest priority.
“My epiphany,”he says,”was that God is also sustainer and creator.” The whole of his work, in medicine, poetry, and photography, then, “is doing God’s work,” he said. “My epiphany about God has been very important and crucial to me.”
Gascho’s devotion to his faith, and dedication to bring that to his work as a cardiologist, photographer and poet is reflected in the words of Albert Einstein, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mystical. It is the fundamental experience which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Lauren Jefferson contributed to this article. First published 8/15/22.