Maria Alonso, M.D.
When she was growing up, Maria Alonso, M.D. ’78, a pediatric and transplant surgeon at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and associate professor of surgery at the University of Cincinnati, was surrounded by people who inspired her to become a doctor. Both of her parents worked in the operating room of the local hospital, her father as OR director and her mother as a scrub tech, and her grandfather was an internist.
“We used to visit our grandparents in Maryland for a few weeks in the summer,” said Alonso, “and I remember my grandfather having his medical journals in the spare bedroom, and I would read through them, looking at the pictures and diagrams.”
Alonso also admits to “having a crush” on Chad Everett of the television drama Medical Center. “The lead was this character Joe Gannon and I remember an episode where he was performing this big transplant,” she said. The combination of real-life and fictional exposure to the world of medicine sparked Alonso’s initial interest and her eventual focus on surgery.
By the time she was in high school, Alonso’s other passionate interest was basketball. “It was the mid-seventies and I was one of the better players in the state of New Jersey,” she said. “There were only a handful of schools that played at the level that Immaculata was playing, and I knew these would be my last four years to play.”
Alonso met the Mighty Macs’ famed Head Coach Cathy Rush at a camp, then attended an open house at IC with a high school teammate, and her mind was made up, despite her father’s misgivings. “He was surrounded by surgeons who were sending their kids to these big schools, and he thought Immaculata might be a mistake, but I really liked it.”
Immaculata proved to be just what the doctor ordered, athletically and academically, and Alonso thrived. “I enjoyed the all-women’s atmosphere–we weren’t an afterthought. And the education was wonderful. I went to the University of Pennsylvania and most of my classmates were Ivy League grads but, as far as holding up my education to theirs, I was not behind.”
Alonso went on to surgical residency at Eastern Virginia Graduate School of Medicine in Norfolk, then fellowships in trauma/ critical care at Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems in Baltimore; trauma/burn at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; pediatric surgery at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, MO, and transplantation at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, OH.
Alonso has been in Cincinnati since 1994 performing general and thoracic surgery, as well as kidney, liver and intestine transplants in the pediatric population. Many of Alonso’s patients require only minor surgeries, and she considers these simple procedures some of the most satisfying. “The kids are healthy and you do one simple thing and they go home. The parents are excited, the kids are fine. It’s enjoyable and it keeps me sane.
“But I do get close to families with a transplant,” she said. “You get to know them, you can’t keep a distance. It’s more like the kind of relationship you would have with your family practice doctor. It can be intimate, and I find that very rewarding.”
When Alonso is away from work, she is still “working” hard. “I’m still very much into sports, any sports. I’ve taken up rowing lately because it’s less pounding on the joints. You can row and continue to race well into your 70s and 80s. In fact, I recently won my first national medal.”
Alonso went through a “triathlon phase,” and has scaled four of the seven continental summits, sustaining “some frost nip injury climbing Denali that hasn’t completely healed.” (Denali is another name for Mt. McKinley in Alaska and, as Alonso understates it, “Climbing is really hard work.”)
Adding to the challenge of the Denali climb was the route Alonso chose. “Most people who climb Denali climb the west buttress route,” she said. “Planes can fly in, there are specific camps along the way and you can pare down some of your gear as you go up.
“I did a traverse of Denali starting on the north side. I came down the west buttress route and the only way we could downsize was through the food we consumed.”
The climb took about a month of 16-hour days constantly moving, walking and carrying gear, a feat of physical courage and endurance that few mortals could ever accomplish, though Alonso is remarkably low-key about it. “I enjoy getting someplace under my own power,” she said, more impressed by the grandeur of nature than her own achievement.
“The views are beautiful,” said Alonso. “We got caught for three days in a snowstorm and had to shovel every six to eight hours, but it was so peaceful and quiet. You could hear the wind and avalanches and glaciers cracking. Being out in that kind of nature was amazing.”