Father-son surgical duo help save cancer patients, including son’s first-grade teacher

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Dr. John Coniglio has been a head and neck cancer surgeon in Rochester for more than 30 years.

“In the head and neck, you’re dealing with something that’s important to the patient, that’s visible to the general public, there’s speaking, swallowing, chewing,” he explains, “So it’s personal.”

It’s personal for all his patients but especially for Connie Wolf. As a non-smoker, she was shocked to be diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2012. When she was referred to Dr. Coniglio, she was familiar with him because she had been his son Andrew’s first-grade teacher back in 1993. She actually found and brought a picture she had taken of Andrew when he was in her class to her first appointment.

“I had the picture of the pumpkin with me. I had it and brought it in,” she recalls.

In 2012, Dr. Coniglio was able to remove the cancerous tongue lesions in Connie’s mouth. A decade later, Connie was diagnosed with cancer again, this time in her jaw. She knew exactly who to come back to.

“I realized I was in the best hands. I didn’t think anything of it,” she says about choosing Dr. Coniglio again for her care.

In the fall of last year, he came up with a plan to remove the cancer. There was a new doctor who had just joined the practice and was specially trained to help with her case, too.

“We just so happen to have a guy who reconstructs jaws,” Dr. Coniglio recalls telling Connie.

The guy was Dr. Andrew Coniglio.

“There was a pause, there was a silence, and she said, ‘I can’t believe one of my first-graders is going to operate on me,’” Dr. John Coniglio recalls.

Connie’s first-grade student was now a fellowship-trained head and neck specialist who had just returned home to Rochester to practice alongside his dad. Connie’s cancer removal and jaw reconstruction was one of the first joint surgeries the duo did together. Connie is doing great and when she comes in for check-ups she and Dr. Andrew Coniglio continue to reminisce.

It wasn’t a straight shot to medicine for Dr. Andrew.

“I went to college for classical voice actually and sang opera for a little bit but there was always this pull for medicine back,” the otolaryngologist tells News10NBC.

Dr. John, at first, pushed his son to continue with his passion.

“When he said, ‘Dad, I really want to go do a program and get back into pre-med and do some medicine,’ I said, ‘No, why don’t you give it another year?’” he recalls, but they both quickly realized medicine was Andrew’s future.

So what’s it like for the father-son team?

“When I first moved back, I actually was living in his basement for two months, so he was joking about it being 24/7 but it was literally 24/7,” jokes Dr. Andrew.

There’s a little more space now, but not much.

“So I’m the boomer and he’s the millennial and he brings the tech and I have the experience but he’s excellent from where he trained,” says Dr. John. “I’ve learned from him. It’s been great.”

This weekend, they’ll spend Father’s Day together with the rest of the Coniglio family, which coincidentally enough, circles back to Connie.

“I have a middle son that’s an attorney in town here and my daughter is a teacher in the Pittsford school district, the same district that Connie worked in,” Dr. John says.

It’s also Dr. Andrew’s first Father’s Day as a dad.

“Mother’s Day always took precedence but this year, because he’s a new father, this year it is in the forefront,” Dr. John says.