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Toothache saved Dunkirk native on 9/11; he's spent years giving back

Donato Tramuto woke up with a toothache on Sept. 10, 2001.

The Dunkirk native and healthcare executive had been scheduled to fly out of Logan International Airport the next morning. Instead, Tramuto changed his flight to allow him to  fly out sooner after seeing his dentist in Boston.

That’s why Tramuto wasn’t on United Airlines Flight 175 on the morning of Sept. 11 when it crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

But two friends and their 3-year-old son, who had been visiting Tramuto in Maine, kept their seats on the flight. Their deaths devastated Tramuto, and 15 years later he still feels survivor’s guilt.

The experience is one of several that Tramuto writes about with Chris Black in a new book, “Life’s Bulldozer Moments: How Adversity Leads to Success in Life and Business,” released last month by Hamilton Books.

As a child growing up in Dunkirk, Tramuto lost most of his hearing, and he endured numerous surgeries while struggling to succeed in school. He wears hearing aids now.

When he was a teenager, an older brother, Gerald, died in a car accident and a sister-in-law, Irish, died during childbirth because of a medical error.

He says in the book that the obstacles he’s encountered, and the tragedies endured by those close to him, have motivated him to do well and to do good.

“I find that value of giving back and always recognizing that what you have here today can be gone tomorrow,” Tramuto said. “And I don’t know what’s more powerful, the fear of failure or the fear of success. I’ve had both in my life, and I don’t take either of them for granted.”

Today, Tramuto is the chief executive of Healthways, a publicly traded healthcare company based in Nashville, Tenn., that offers programs to manage the health of people aged 50 and older.

Tramuto, 60, is just as well-known for his works with charity.

He started the Donato Tramuto Foundation to honor his friends who died in the 9/11 terror attacks. The foundation has given away more than $1 million in scholarships and grants to organizations.

Tramuto also founded Health eVillages, which puts mobile health technology in the hands of medical professionals and villagers in challenging clinical environments around the world.

Tramuto has homes in the Nashville area, in Ogunquit, Maine --- where he co-owns an inn and restaurant and where he held local office --- and in Florence, Italy.

But Dunkirk remains a part of him, and he returns regularly to visit family.

That’s where he sat down with The Buffalo News to talk about his ties to Western New York, his new book and the state of healthcare in this country.

Q: What do you carry with you from Dunkirk?

A: I think with success, unfortunately, comes a lot of this pomp and circumstance and all the stuff that I particularly don’t like. I’m still the very simple person that my classmates knew. I think I’ve learned the value of hard work. ... By all standards, I guess one could say I grew up very poor. We had a home, don’t get me wrong, but that’s all we had. And we all worked hard to keep our family together.

Q: You recently turned 60. How do you feel about that?

A: I think as you get to this age you realize that there’s “X” amount of time left. And for me that’s been very reflective to say that if I live to be 80, I have 240 months left. And when you say it like that -- next month it’s 239. ... A lot of people say, "When are you going to slow down?" I’m not going to slow down. I have “X” amount of months to get what I believe is, and has been, my commitment to make the world more just and fair, to do it in a way that I’m fortunate I have a platform to do it. And so it has made me more self-aware that time is going by fast, and while I will not change the world entirely, I can certainly do my part to make the contributions that I think can move the needle and make it a better world.

Q: How does a healthcare executive become an innkeeper and restaurateur?

A: When I sold my first company, I then decided that I would take some time off. And in the tourist area where I had my home, there were really not many good restaurants. And if anybody knows me, you know that when I commit to doing something, that you either do it right, or you don’t do it at all. And so we opened up the first restaurant in 2004, and that took off. Then I wanted an Italian restaurant, so we opened an Italian restaurant next door, and that took off. So I have to admit I’m not involved in the operations. I’ve been the strategist and the investor.

Q: You lost your hearing at the age of 8 and endured six surgeries over the years that followed. How did that affect you growing up?

A: You have to have these bulldozer moments. You have to be knocked down to get back up. Now I’m an international speaker. And people don’t realize the story. They think that I’ve always been able to speak with this level of fluency. And the reality is I failed the fifth grade. I was rejected from every single college I applied to because they all thought I had a disability. I had a speech impediment. I was isolated. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart. [I was] isolated, bullied. I couldn’t play sports, because of the surgeries. Now, I had a twin brother, who was very athletic, very academic, so you can only imagine this level of pressure.

Q: You say you get by on three or four hours of sleep a night, and you don’t so much as yawn during the day. What’s your secret?

A: When I do fall asleep, I fall asleep. And when I’m up and I’m doing work, I don’t think about sleep. But when I’m sleeping I don’t think about work. I shut it off. During that time period I am done and my focus is on getting the rest. I look forward to getting up in the morning.

Q: What’s the connection between your business and your charitable work?

A: I know healthcare very well, and so the fact that I am paid to that do that doesn’t embarrass me. But the reality is that because I’m paid well, I use those funds to help in my not-for-profit and to do good and to advance causes that mean a lot to me. So this social entrepreneurship is something that I’ve also learned about companies. A good leader has to recognize that you have to be a good corporate citizen. And in every company that I have led, and every company that I have started, we have had a philanthropic arm in that company. I say that because I don’t think you can put a soul in a company without having tapped into what people care about. And they do care about their work, but there is a perspective in their lives that they care about helping people. And this is why, when I form a culture, it’s very interesting. It’s like a family.

Q: What changes need to be made to rein in out-of-control healthcare spending?

A: There are several things that are creating this unfortunate escalation of cost. One is this medical malpractice. Until we address the tort reform bill, that’s going to be a significant challenge for us. You also have physicians -- and I know physicians are not going to like me saying this, but I’m going to say it -- we have this fee-for-service model that has to change. We have to go to more value-based payment. And I think physicians want to be rewarded on value, but we’ve rewarded them on every single service. The other thing that I think we’re going to have to recognize is that we have this philosophy that you can smoke, you can not wear your seat belt, and that the health care system is going to pay for that kind of behavior. And I think that has to stop. We have to reward people for the kinds of behaviors that we want them to have.

Q: Give me an example of how your Health eVillages program works.

A: In Ethiopia, there’s a population of 200 million people. There are only 2,500 physicians. So the light bulb went off. Wait a second, we can’t educate enough physicians. But imagine if I could take my technology. So this is where collaborative IQ came in. We went into East Africa. And now you have another problem: Who do you give these devices to if you don’t have doctors and nurses? And what we did is we trained 85 villagers. Just because you’re poor has no correlation to you not being smart. These folks, they’re smart. And so we educated 85 villagers on how to use the tablet, how to turn it on, and we downloaded it with a pregnancy app. They are the ones who know which mothers in the community are expecting a baby, and they bring them into their home and they can diagnose right there if there’s a high-risk pregnancy. And we’re done this now in South Sudan. We’ve done this for pediatric mortality. We’ve done this for maternal mortality.

Q: Why did you change your flight from Flight 175? And how did your friends end up on that flight?

A: The Monday morning, Sept. 10, I woke up with a toothache. And I was scheduled to speak in California that week on a healthcare-related topic. But the toothache was in my front tooth and it was so painful I said there was no way I’m going to be able to make this speech. Let me go and see my dentist in Boston, and the dentist’s office in Boston wasn’t far from Logan Airport. And my two friends and their 3-year-old had been visiting us in Maine that weekend. They lived in L.A. So I decided it’s better if I leave that night. And so they had flown into Rhode Island to be with us that weekend, and we got them to change their flight to go out with me on Tuesday, Sept. 11. And then I had called them when I was changing my flight, on Monday, to go out Monday night, to see if they would want to go out with me. But they said, no, we’re going to stay in Boston now and we’ll see you on Tuesday when you get to L.A. So I went to L.A. Monday night. And they kept their flight on United 175. So I changed my flight, I saved my life. They changed their flight, to go out with me on Sept. 11, and they lost their lives. That was a very tough moment in my life.

Q: When did you decide to start the foundation to honor Dan Brandhorst, Ron Gamboa and their son, David Brandhorst?

A:  I was struggling with why them and not me? What bothered me the most was the 3-year-old. That broke my heart. I could show you a picture. [Tramuto, eyes welling with tears, showed a reporter an image from Sept. 9, 2001, saved on his smartphone.] I have never erased even their phone number. Because I remember that day calling them and really thinking that this had been a bad dream. And so, as I was driving, I struggled with, I could either be bitter, I could have hatred in my heart, I could wallow. And why I titled my book “Life’s Bulldozer Moments” is because the beauty of being knocked down is you learn how to get back up. And I was able to go back and remember all those moments when I had been knocked down. What did I do, what were the things that I -- and that started to give me courage. And I planned a memorial in Maine, because many people had seen them that weekend. And it was at that memorial that I said I’m going to start this foundation.

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