Geisel School of Medicine professor Norman Snow remembered for generosity

by Sonia Qin | 3/7/17 2:25am


Geisel School of Medicine anatomy professor Norman Snow was known for his love of learning and passion for teaching. An accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon who was passionate about medical education, he cared deeply for his students, both inside and outside of the classroom.

On Feb. 9, Snow passed away at his home in Vermont. He had been diagnosed with advanced metastatic colon cancer only a couple of weeks before his passing. He was 72.

Rachael Mazzamurro Med’19 met Snow as a first-year medical student and said she often found herself in his office asking him questions or going to talk to him about her personal life.

“I asked him questions about classes he wasn’t teaching and probably hadn’t seen since medical school, and he always referred me four books to read and would always look up things in his office with me,” she said. “He was always curious about still learning, even though he was retired from practicing.”

Mazzamurro explained that Snow not only mentored her academically but also in finding a work-life balance and in family matters.

“He was probably one of the professors who got the most personal in terms of, he always asked about my family life, how life outside of medicine was going, how life outside of school was going,” she said. “In that way he was very compassionate, very interested in his students as more than just students, which I think was a very positive attribute of him.”

Snow was a cardiothoracic surgeon born in Burlington, Vermont, whose career spanned over 40 years. After his surgical internship at the University of Virginia, he was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1971 and sent to Cleveland, Ohio where he served as a captain in the Army’s Medical Corps. He completed his residency in general and cardiothoracic surgery at Case Western Reserve University and then began his career at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. After working there from 1978 to 1981, he moved back to Cleveland to become an associate professor at Case Western and director of cardiothoracic surgery for the MetroHealth Medical Center, formerly known as the Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital.

In 1980, he and his peers founded the Association for Surgical Education, of which he later served as president in 1988. He served as the founding medical director of Cleveland Metro Life Flight, the first air medical program in the area and one of the largest helicopter EMS programs in the country, and also chaired the trauma and emergency care committee of the Academy of Medicine of Cleveland and Northern Ohio.

When he was medical director for Life Flight, he covered for his colleagues during Christmas so they could enjoy their holidays with family, Renee Snow said.

“He and whoever was on the skeleton staff for the helicopter would spend time gathering gifts that the hospital people donated, and they would fly around to all of the hospitals that they served in the greater Cleveland area,” she added.

Snow also dressed up as Santa Claus and visited all the pediatric wards in the greater Cleveland area to deliver gifts to the kids.

“I could so imagine him doing that, dressing up as Santa Claus and cheering up all the kids in the hospital,” Geisel professor of medical education Virginia Lyons said. “That was just something that I thought really captured who he was, just the kind of person who always wanted to make everyone else happy.”

In 1999, Snow moved to Chicago, Illinois and served as chief of thoracic surgery at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center and professor of surgery at the university.

According to a Facebook post by his son Aaron Snow, Snow spent his career in government hospitals because he believed that health care should be a right and not a privilege.

Snow retired from clinical practice in 2011 and moved to a home overlooking Lake Fairlee in Vermont, where he had first met his wife, Renee Snow. The pair first met as camp counselors at Lake Fairlee Camp and married two years later. They were married for 48 years.

According to his wife, Snow had contacted Geisel’s head of the anatomy department several years before his retirement “to explore what opportunities there might be for him at this school.”

“One of the things that we value is experienced surgeons in helping to teach our anatomy courses to our medical students,” said Rand Swenson, who is the Geisel chair of both anatomy and medical education and a neurology professor.

At Geisel, Snow was involved with the admissions committee, the medical education committee and the faculty council.

“He was always willing to take on things that others were reluctant to take on, despite the fact that he was retired, essentially,” Swenson said. “It was remarkable to see how many things he was involved in, even in his retirement, and how much energy he got from that.”

Swenson added that Snow often helped students outside of class and helped faculty with their projects.

Lyons, who directs the gross anatomy course for medical students, met Snow as a colleague, as he helped the students in the laboratory. Lyons said that one of her favorite memories of Snow was how he would invite Geisel students to his home for Thanksgiving.

“He knew that a lot of them would go home to be with their families, but he would basically say, ‘Anybody who doesn’t have plans for Thanksgiving, if you’re stuck in Hanover and don’t have somebody to eat a meal with, come on out to my house,’” Lyons said.

Snow also organized two social events at his home for the anatomy department’s faculty.

“He really loved entertaining and having people over at his house,” Lyons said.

Renee Snow said that even in Cleveland and Chicago, Snow would often invite students in residence over to their home.

He was a creative chef, she said, and “would do wonderful things with fish … and pasta.” He loved cooking anything but dessert, she said.

According to his wife, Snow’s favorite pastime was spending time with his grandchildren and sons.

Renee Snow also said that Snow took “wonderful pictures of sunsets” and that he enjoyed going to good restaurants.

Lawrence Kogan Med’19 was interviewed for admission by Snow and is currently a member of the admissions committee himself. He said that Snow was passionate about everybody he interviewed.

“One question that he always liked to ask was, ‘If you could have dinner with anybody, alive or dead, who would it be?’” Kogan said. “He would come back with really funny stories about what people had said – it was a pleasure working with him.”

Like Mazzamurro, Megan Bunnell ’13 Med’19 first met Snow as a first-year medical student in her anatomy laboratory and also worked with him on the Geisel admissions committee.

She said that Snow always “did an excellent job of bringing to light what was important about each individual and what kinds of things people that didn’t necessarily meet that person could also connect to.” She added that he also never missed a single word or experience on any candidate’s application.

Lyons said that Snow encouraged students to apply for the Looking to the Future Scholarship, which is sponsored by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, of which he was a member. The scholarship allows selected medical students to attend the society’s annual meeting and learn more about thoracic surgery.

Kogan said that Snow was passionate about not only surgery and anatomy, but also making sure that everyone “was able to get the most out of their education.”

According to Bunnell, Snow taught students about the importance of the material they were learning.

“Sometimes it can just feel like memorization for the sake of memorization, but then you have someone like Dr. Snow, who had this long, wonderful career as a surgeon, and really had the opportunity to see why it matters that these anatomical relationships exist,” she explained.

Renee Snow also agreed that Snow would want medical students to think outside the limits of the textbook.

“I think he would want the medical students to know that it’s not just what’s in the book, that you have to really know that well, but you also need to add the art of medicine and compassion for their patients and family,” Renee Snow said. “Students should find someone to help mentor them so that they can really learn something in depth to take with them in the future.”

It is a tradition in medical school for second-year students to put on skits for the school community, Swenson said. This year, “Skit Night” was dedicated to Snow, and the students even produced a video dedicated to his memory.

“I think that we as an institution, have lost someone who, in his engagement with the community, was something of a role model,” Swenson said. “I know that his community in Vermont has lost a major citizen.”

Snow is survived by his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.