Linda Russo, M.D.
Linda Russo, M.D. ’90 is a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She is also director of the Dr. Bill Neches Heart Camp for Kids, one of the largest and longest-running camps of its kind in the country, held for 23 years at the YMCA’s Camp Kon-O-Kwee in Fombell, PA.
During her time at Immaculata, Russo participated in many extracurricular activities and, because of Immaculata’s smaller size, she was able to take advantage of all the opportunities for leadership.
“I also took every class that was offered in the Biology Department,” said Russo, “including the courses that were being added on genetic testing and all kinds of new technologies. It really did prepare me for medical school. I didn’t find any holes in my academics when I went on to other institutions.”
But Russo’s medical training did not dovetail with her graduation from Immaculata. After she earned a degree in biology, Russo spent the next four years working in a medical research lab, but decided to go to medical school because she missed working with people. She attended Creighton University School of Medicine in Nebraska where she also completed her pediatric internship and residency.
“I chose Creighton because I wanted to be in a people-oriented place and because it was a Catholic school,” said Russo. “Plus, I had friends already there who loved it and I loved it, too.”
Russo specialized in pediatric cardiology because her older brother Rick had four heart surgeries, and she loved the specialty. She is devoted to her work with her young patients, and to the camp that means so much to them and to their families.
“When I was in my pediatric residency, I was involved in a camp for kids with cancer and I just loved the experience,” said Russo, who first went out to the heart camp when she was a fellow training at Children’s Hospital.
“Most kids, especially 20 years ago, never met anyone else with heart disease,” said Russo. “They didn’t know there were other kids out there with scars on their chests, who had spent so much time in the hospital. It may be the first time they’ve ever been away from home, so camp is as much for the parents as it is for the kids. And because of all the medical support staff, families feel really comfortable leaving their children with us.”
The camp accepts youngsters ages 8 to 15, and they spend five days immersed in all the typical camp activities such as swimming, field games, fishing, and paddle boating. There’s always a carnival, complete with a dunk tank (for the doctors), and a dance with a theme.
“At the hospital we’re seeing these kids and they’re scared and upset,” said Russo. “But camp is a chance for us to see them and for them to see us outside of a clinical setting. We’re not going to draw their blood or take their blood pressure or do any of those kinds of things. They’re just there to run around without a care in the world.”
Aside from a minimal registration fee, the camp is funded primarily through the American Heart Association, which raises the majority of the money for its operation. The AHA has been the major supporter for the camp since it started with only 30 people total, including staff. Today, with the AHA’s continued support, it has grown to host 150 children and 50 staff.
“If you’re a patient of ours,” said Russo, “it’s free.”
One of the things Russo feels most strongly about in her work is educating the parents about their child’s condition. Because of her own family’s experiences, Russo makes it a priority to teach in a way that is clear and compassionate.
“I know what it’s like to be sitting there hearing all this complicated stuff,” she said. “So I draw pictures and help the whole family understand what’s going on. That’s the most rewarding part, the education component. And then sending the kids home, of course.”
Russo also is involved in a hospital-wide initiative to become more available to patients in western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio.
“We’re very actively involved in telemedicine,” said Russo, “where patients go to another hospital, but we are video linked with them so we can consult or read their echocardiograms and they don’t have to drive all the way down here. That’s our big push now.”
Last year, Russo was promoted–to a fourth degree black belt in the martial art of Tang Soo Do. She began her training more than 20 years ago when a woman she worked with in the lab introduced her to it.
“I had played soccer for 15 years before college,” said Russo, “and after college I needed exercise. Tang Soo Do was great for me. It is challenging and complicated, not just mindlessly running on a treadmill.”
Russo noted that most of what she has used from her martial arts training has been “attitude kinds of things, being comfortable taking charge, recognizing a problem was developing before you had to respond.”
But her favorite part about being a black belt? “It gives me the chance to teach kids.”