Friends and colleagues remembered Dr. Frank O. Avantaggio. Jr. for his skill as a surgeon, his dedication to his patients and his lasting impact on the hospital he served for almost 30 years.
Avantaggio died Feb. 8 at the age of 80, surrounded by his family. Born in Newton, Massachusetts, his family moved to Waldoboro in 1949. He attended Wesleyan University, Harvard Medical School and served two years in the United States Air Force. He joined the Miles Memorial Hospital staff in 1967 as a general surgeon, retiring in 1996.
At Miles, which became the Miles Campus of LincolnHealth in 2013, Avantaggio was the primary and often the only general surgeon, performing a wide range of surgeries, many of which are now the exclusive domain of specialists. On call 24 hours, he would begin his day rounding on patients at the hospital about 7 a.m. and begin surgery about an hour later.
After the day’s surgeries were done, he would see patients in his office in the afternoon, on a normal day there may be 24, and was often called back at night for emergencies.
In surgery, he worked with an economy of motion, each movement with precision and purpose. In conversation he could be abrupt, but those who knew him best said that behind a sometimes curmudgeonly demeanor was a deep devotion to his patients and his community.
He refused to send collection notices to patients who couldn’t pay, sometimes accepting lobsters in lieu of cash and more than once canceled a family vacation when a patient suffered a medical emergency.
“His patients loved him, absolutely loved him,” said Dr. Russell Mack, Vice President of Medical Affairs at LincolnHealth. “I think the thing to remember about him is his dedication, his kindness and his competency.”
Dr. Mack worked with Dr. Avantaggio beginning in 1980 both as a family doctor and an anesthesiologist. After completing a second residency in anesthesiology in 1988, Dr. Mack became a full-time anesthesiologist.
Avantaggio’s standing within the medical community made him the natural leader of the medical staff, said Dr. Mack. He played a large part in creating a culture of safety at Miles long before the federal government and insurance companies kept statistics on patient outcomes and medical errors.
“In those days it was just a feeling that you were safe when you were here. That you were going to be taken care of, that your doctors weren’t going to do slipshod work. That your doctors cared about you and your nurses cared about you,” said Dr. Mack.
Lincoln Medical Partners Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Edward White said when he came to Miles in 1986, Dr. Avantaggio’s role in the organization was instantly apparent.
“He demanded the best from the people he worked with,” said Dr. White. “What I discovered was that he really set the standard of care for this organization. We still benefit from that today.”
In those days, before government agencies and insurance companies took a bigger role in healthcare and before ambulance services had the capacity to transport seriously injured people long distances, small rural hospitals like Miles were both more self-reliant and independent.
Decisions were made through consensus between the hospital administration, medical staff and the board of trustees.
Within that context, Dr. Avantaggio played an important role in ensuring that Miles only offered services that could not be better provided elsewhere.
That conservative approach was also central to the way Dr. Avantaggio approached surgery, said LincolnHealth Surgical Nurse Valerie Drever, RN, who began working with him in 1980 after serving in hospitals in Connecticut and Colorado.
“He didn’t play the hero. He knew what his limitations were and what the limitations of the hospital were,” she said
In the operating room, Dr. Avantaggio had an old fashioned technique and he could sometimes be gruff, but his outcomes made up for everything.
“He was an excellent surgeon,” said Drever. “I don’t think there were many people in the community who didn’t have a part of their body that he hadn’t (operated on),” Drever said.
Within the community and within Miles, he had a role akin to that of the old country doctor, someone universally respected and trusted.
“He is going to be missed. When he retired, he turned in his license and everything else, but the respect never stopped. The respect was always there,” said Drever.
Mary York, Director of Lincoln Medical Partners Surgical Practices, was Dr. Avantaggio’s secretary for more than 20 years. She said what sometimes came across as a gruff manner was his need to use his time efficiently because he had so many patients.
The side that many people didn’t see of her former boss was his unfailing kindness to patients and those who worked under him.
“He was an old fashioned gentleman. There was not a day that went by in all those years that he didn’t stop and thank me for my help that day,” she said. “He helped me through the death of my parents and the death of my husband.”
When her husband’s cancer was in its final stages, Dr. Avantaggio arranged for him to be moved from Portland to Miles so Mary and he could spend their final days together.
He once told her to just run the office and make sure that he had enough money to retire on some day.
“His philosophy was that he was there to take care of the people. He never allowed me to send anybody to collections. He said people will pay when they are able,” said York.