Constance Furcolo

'You don't forget people like that'

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Each word struck a blow — Lump. Cancer. Urgent.

What happened next for Constance Furcolo in a Chicago doctor's office changed the direction of her life.

"I'm calling Mayo Clinic," her physician said. Many people find hope and healing at Mayo. Few draw such strength and lasting desire to help others from two experiences more than 60 years ago.

I Had an Anchor

Connie first arrived at Mayo Clinic in 1954. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the second year of his presidency. TV's first power couple — Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — starred in the top-rated show I Love Lucy. Large-scale tests of the polio vaccine began in schools. In Rochester, the Mayo Building, planned for 10 stories, was under construction.

At Mayo, Connie met James Priestley, M.D., Ph.D., who worked with his team to rule out cancer. "At long last, I had an anchor. You don't forget people like that," recalls Connie, whose eyes sparkle as she describes the relief and sense of purpose that Dr. Priestley and his colleagues inspired in her. "They removed the lump and told me I'd be fine.

"You could say time proved them right."

Grasping Opportunities

Connie's younger years were spent in movement. Her father worked for the Treasury Department with transfers that relocated the family so often that she attended 28 elementary and secondary schools.

Her one constant was the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Wherever Connie lived, she could pick up the Met's radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoon. As a teenager, she set out on her own, heading by train from Jacksonville, Florida, to Chicago.

"I loved to sing. When I reached Chicago in 1946, I was accepted at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, where I continued my vocal studies." She also found a job at a hearing aid company as new technology was transforming the industry, and business took off.

Subsequently, she moved to New York City where she had an audition for the Met. This led to an offer to study voice at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, but she declined. "I had to work to make ends meet."

Although she did not become an opera singer, Connie showed perfect pitch in the timing and selections of her career. While in New York, she built upon her previous experience in the hearing aid business. By her mid-20s, she was managing three branches of a New York hearing aid company. Then, she was recruited to open a hearing aid franchise in the Washington, D.C., area, followed by a move to Minneapolis as part owner of a company that designed and manufactured electronic products.

"You keep going. You grasp the opportunities," she says.

But success in business affected her health.

The Wake-Up Call

In 1955, less than a year after dodging the cancer scare, Connie was back at Mayo Clinic.

"I was exhausted, working around the clock, never taking a vacation. My body just gave out. Friends drove me from Minneapolis to Rochester in the middle of the night."

At Mayo Clinic, she says, "I saw a flock of doctors. They said, 'Change your life or you'll have a nervous breakdown.'"

Connie sought reassurance from the staff, then requested to see Dr. Priestley. Her care team was happy to arrange it.

He came into the room and said, "Hello, Connie. Why are you here?" and listened intently to her. His advice after hearing Connie's story: "Listen to what the doctors say."

Getting the Job Done

Connie followed Mayo's advice and changed the course of her life. She sold her business in the Twin Cities and moved out of the Midwest. Her career continued its upward path. She served as an officer of an insurance company and vice president of a stock brokerage firm. She managed one of the largest union pension funds in the nation. While working full time, she earned a degree at Columbia University School of Business Administration. She capped her career as an executive with John Hancock Financial Services.

"Everywhere I went, I was practically the only woman. I never really thought about it. I just got the job done," Connie says.

Yet despite this pace, she achieved the balance that Dr. Priestley and his colleagues recommended. She made time to support children who are deaf and encourage young people pursuing careers in the performing arts. She wrote articles and lectured on financial planning, while also serving on the boards of national and international financial planning associations. Friends, books, music and travel brought enrichment.

Later in life, she met a man to share them with, Foster Furcolo. Foster had served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the former governor of Massachusetts.

"We loved and respected each other," Connie says, describing the bond they shared from their marriage in 1980 through his death in 1995. "We had plenty to talk about."

A Moment in Time

Now retired, Connie continues her love of learning. She remains active by managing investment portfolios for half-a-dozen friends. Connie combines her financial expertise with a passion to support Mayo Clinic. In addition to providing annual support, she named Mayo as a beneficiary of her charitable trust. This type of gift allows the benefactor to retain control of assets during his or her lifetime, ultimately transferring them to advance Mayo's humanitarian mission.

Connie has not visited Mayo Clinic since 1955, but Mayo remains a priority. She enjoys reading about Mayo's initiatives in patient care, research and education. When asked what Mayo Clinic means to her, she circles back to the skill and compassion of Dr. Priestley, who provided encouragement and a sense of direction when she needed it most.

"I've met a lot of doctors in my life," she says, "but never one like him."

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The Surgeon's Surgeon

Connie Furcolo had a list of outcomes she expected when she consented to surgery in 1954 after meeting James Priestley, M.D., Ph.D., and his team. She recalls Dr. Priestley listened to each requirement carefully. Then he responded politely, with a touch of humor, "Do you think you're God?"

Connie yielded nothing. Later, lying on a gurney en route to surgery, she reminded Dr. Priestley of her list.

"Remember what I told you," she admonished.

"Yes, God," came the deferential reply — and a smile.

Dr. Priestley's quick wit was just one of his extraordinary abilities. Peers called him "a surgeon's surgeon" whose innovations included performing the world's first total removal of the pancreas. He commanded a military hospital in the Pacific Theater of World War II and served as Mayo Clinic's chief executive officer.

"If you had to select a single quality for which Dr. Priestley was venerated," it was "his attitude toward patients," according to an article in The Mayo Alumnus magazine following his death in 1979.

Dr. Priestley, who spent 35 years on staff at Mayo Clinic, trained generations of physicians with the adage: "If the surgeon is not careful, the patient may be referred to as 'the common bile duct stricture in bed six' rather than 'Mrs. Thompson, the mother of four children.'"

In 1965, Mayo Clinic staff and alumni surgeons established the Priestley Society. It promotes Dr. Priestley's ideals in the art and science of surgery.

What Connie remembers most is the doctor's compassion toward her.

"When I woke up in my hospital room, Dr. Priestley and a retinue of doctors and nurses were there," she recalls. "He said the operation went well, but he was concerned about the dressing. He told the staff that, since I had red hair, it was likely I'd have delicate skin that was more sensitive to pain, so they should use a surgical tape that wouldn't hurt.

"It meant so much to me that the people at Mayo Clinic would go to that level of thoughtfulness. It makes me want to help Mayo so they can provide that kind of care to others."