Renaissance Man V. Imbasciani


An interview with Vito Imbasciani, M.D.’85, Ph.D. By John Turner


In 2014, Vito D. Imbasciani, M.D.’85, Ph.D. and George DiSalvo made a gift to create the first endowed lectureship in the United States focused on preparing culturally competent physicians who can provide medical care and prevention services that are specific to LGBTQ populations. This fall was the tenth annual Imbasciani/DiSalvo lecture and the featured speaker was Dallas Ducar, M.S.N., APRN. As Dr. Imbasciani and Mr. DiSalvo were able to attend in person, we took the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Imbasciani to reflect on his life and career.

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Where are you from and how did you end up at UVM to get your medical degree?
VI: I was born in the Hudson Valley, but my four grandparents came from Italy. After World War I, one of my grandfathers discovered a passion for music and joined John Phillips Sousa’s military band. He settled at West Point, where I later worked during high school and college summers.

I attended Cornell for my master’s and doctorate degrees, initially as a pre-med student but eventually pursuing a music major. Both degrees focused on music, leading to a Fulbright in Rome. I later taught music at Middlebury College, but my interest in medicine persisted.

Taking a chance, I drove 35 miles to the University of Vermont and had a transformative interview with the dean of admissions. Despite my unconventional humanities background, she accepted me. Today, I’m here—thanks to that chance she took on me.

Any early career decisions/speed bumps that you had to navigate?
Deciding to pursue medicine after a humanities-focused academic career, I had to catch up on the science. I took a postbaccalaureate year to meet the admissions requirements, alongside a position in the pathology department focusing on neurodegenerative diseases. While I didn’t choose pathology, my work there influenced my role as the chairman of the board of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which addresses degenerative and other processes of the brain and spinal cord, among many other diseases.

How did these early career choices affect where you studied and your path through medicine?
Initially, I considered combining my music Ph.D. with neurology. I planned a rotation at Harvard with a prominent neurologist but couldn’t, due to his unexpected death. This led me to explore urology, where I fell in love with the field. My journey continued with a urologic surgery residency at Yale, and shortly after, I found myself in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War as an Army Medical Corps captain.

Following the war, I started practicing urology in Los Angeles. A few years later, an earthquake destroyed my rental property, making me humorously consider myself a Californian by virtue of natural disasters, including the Gulf War and eventually, COVID-19.

Have you found a way to incorporate music into your medical practice?
It’s very difficult to translate what I did in my doctoral research working with 11th century Latin manuscripts in the depths of the Vatican archives, into clinical practice. However, this academic journey brought me two significant benefits. Firstly, my Fulbright experience in Italy ignited a passion for travel, respect for diverse cultures, and a love for languages. I now speak eight languages and can read four more.

Secondly, a Ph.D. equips you with the skills to conduct high-level research, assess existing knowledge, and ask critical questions. You’re taught to amass the materials to apply a critical apparatus to solving problems. And it works. People can use that advanced degree to do many, many different things. So, while I may not use music in my waiting room, I bring the valuable skills and experiences gained from my academic pursuits with me.

“My combat experience revealed the profound impact of modern warfare on the human brain, contributing to the challenges faced by returning veterans.”


Did your wartime deployments and experiences change you as a person and as a physician?
I felt a strong commitment to serve my country, a tradition passed down through generations in my family. My journey began with medical training at UVM College of Medicine and Yale, followed by a rewarding career as a war surgeon in the military. I continued my service even during the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” era, driven by the desire to provide the best medical care to our nation’s finest.

My military experience paved the way for a diverse career, including leadership roles in medical associations, the California Army National Guard, and government advisory committees. Notably, I served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs under Governor Brown, a position continued by Governor Newsom. In total, I spent eight years in California’s Governors’ cabinets and currently chair the Institute of Regenerative Medicine under Governor Newsom.

Out of those horrors of war, there’s a good that came out of it?
Yes. As California’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs for eight years, I had the privilege of serving the needs of 1.6 million veterans. My combat experience revealed the profound impact of modern warfare on the human brain, contributing to the challenges faced by returning veterans. While not all veterans return with physical injuries, many carry emotional and psychological burdens. The demand for care is substantial, especially as this is the first war since the American Revolution where the leading cause of death is not thoracic or abdominal injuries, thanks to improved bleeding control. Many soldiers now survive but with injuries “above the clavicles,” including PTSD, chronic brain encephalopathy, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, and limb loss.

Do you feel that those inclusive advances that were made in the military are being maintained and built upon or going in another direction?
With 27 years of service in the Army Medical Corps, including combat deployments, and now a decade as a retired colonel, I have a unique perspective. I worked behind the scenes to end the discriminatory policy against gay and lesbian individuals serving in the military. Despite initial resistance, significant progress was made, with the military now, in many ways, more inclusive than general society. Since the policy shift under President Obama, your sexual orientation, and, to some extent, your sexual identity, no longer impact your eligibility to serve the country in uniform.

A defining moment in my career came during President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign when he publicly acknowledged and thanked me. I introduced him to a large audience, emphasizing that he was not just the president but also my commander-in-chief. In his speech, he extensively thanked me for my contributions to ending the discriminatory policy, effectively concluding it for the military.

photo of three men gathering at lecture

(L-R) Dean Richard L. Page, M.D., Vito Imbasciani, M.D.’85, Ph.D., and George DiSalvo

You’ve held academic teaching positions as well as continuing to practice medicine. Do you enjoy one over the other or is it kind of a tie?
The age-old question of whether practicing or teaching medicine is more enjoyable is a challenging one. I happen to love both. When I’m not practicing, I miss teaching, and the reverse is also true. William Osler, a prominent American physician, wisely said, “To practice medicine without studying it is like going to sea without nautical charts. But to study medicine without practicing is not to go to sea at all.” I hold a profound passion for teaching, and even at an age when many physicians retire or consider it, I do not anticipate giving up clinical practice as long as I am able.

Knowing what you know now, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give a medical student who’s about to graduate?
You are all intelligent and blessed individuals, ready to embark on your journey into the world. However, isolation isn’t the path. You are assets to your community, your state, and your nation. You have a duty to engage in public health discussions, whether it’s vaccinations, women’s health, or other crucial topics.

Early involvement is key. Join your local and state medical societies. Remember, practicing medicine isn’t simply because you’re intelligent, your parents desired it, or you earned an M.D. from Larner or finished a prestigious residency. It’s your state legislature that allows you to practice medicine. To practice at your best and serve more patients, you must influence the legislative process, achieved by raising your voice and actively participating at county and state medical society levels.

“To practice at your best and serve more patients, you must influence the legislative process, achieved by raising your voice and actively participating at county and state medical society levels.”


Why is giving back so important, so meaningful for you?
Supporting the College of Medicine brings me immense satisfaction, and as a token of my gratitude, I want to give back. I’m deeply thankful to the late Dean of Admissions Carol Phillips, M.D., who admitted me with a humanities Ph.D., recognizing something special in me. I thank her, the faculty, and the College of Medicine for adding those two letters, “M.D.,” after my name.

My significant life achievements, from becoming a surgeon and war surgeon to serving in government and treating entire populations, all stem from earning my M.D. from UVM College of Medicine. From caring for California’s veterans to my role as the Stem Cell Agency director, responsible for funding research into genetic and stem cell cures for millions of Californians and potentially all Americans, none of this would have been possible without my medical education. So, I give back while I’m still alive to savor the joy over the years. VM

(Above) Vito D. Imbasciani, M.D.’85, Ph.D.