Dr. Mike Fischetti, an oncologist, impassioned health care advocate and community activist, died Oct. 29 due to health complications. He was 76.
A 30-year Mountain View resident, Fischetti was a constant presence advocating for the rights of needy and underserved residents, openly speaking his mind on the plight of poverty and homelessness. He served on the board of directors for two local nonprofits, MayView Community Health Center and Hope's Corner, as well as the Santa Clara County Health Advisory Committee until his death.
Fischetti had a penchant for quickly connecting with people on a personal level, said Leslie Carmichael, director of Hope's Corner. The nonprofit runs a Saturday meal program for hungry residents, many of them homeless, and Fischetti would go out of his way to approach guests and assist them through "tough spots" in their lives, she said. He would help them sign up for services and get to doctors appointments.
"It was people who were kind of falling through the cracks, and he was able to befriend those people and help them when other people or agencies couldn't," Carmichael said.
She said Fischetti never lost sight of the systemic problems that caused people to end up desperate and in poverty, making him uniquely qualified to see how the right policies can help those in need.
"He was able to combine the personal connections and being involved on a personal level, helping our people in the community coming for showers and meals -- that sort of grass roots community-building -- while also working on the policy side and helping us to find our place. Where we could do our best to serve the community," she said.
Born in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City in 1943, Fischetti grew up a second-generation Southern Italian immigrant with his mother, who was widowed at an early age; many of the men on Fischetti's side of the family died young. Though his family members had a strong sense of social justice, Fischetti stuck out for his extraordinary empathy, said his wife, Dr. Marilyn Winkleby.
The couple met while students at UC Berkeleyâ€™s School of Public Health. As a student at Columbia University in his 20s, Winkleby said Fischetti volunteered to help the blind and accompanied rape victims to an abortion clinic. After moving to the Bay Area, the couple volunteered together in the 1980s at Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen in San Jose. He practiced internal medicine and was an internist and oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara before taking the role of preventive medicine chief at the site and establishing its hospice program.
Learning about the people coming to Hope's Corner wasn't an easy task, which made Fischetti's inroads all the more admirable. Winkleby said many of the hundreds of people who show up each weekend would reluctantly watch volunteers for six months to a year before speaking a word. When he was able to connect, it was clear that many of the people visiting Hope's Corner are the working poor: otherwise successful people struggling because of an unexpected medical emergency or bill that couldn't be paid. One frequent visitor had a doctoral degree and held six patents, while another held a master's degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did programming.
Fischetti was humble but gregarious, she said, getting involved with the clientele almost to a fault.
"Mike could really just relate to people from a lot of walks of life," Winkleby said. "People really liked him because he's a funny, clever guy."
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian told the Voice that Fischetti was purposeful, persistent and an "absolutely lovely human being," serving as an important advocate for Hope's Corner and MayView over the years. During an event in May celebrating $2 million in upgrades to the kitchen at Hope's Corner, Simitian teased Fischetti for relentlessly bugging him to attend the Saturday meal service and see it firsthand.
Around three years ago, when Simitian showed up at Hope's Corner, he said it was clear Fischetti was looking for county funding to upgrade the woefully inadequate kitchen. The effort led to a cross-agency partnership transforming the sanctuary space of Trinity United Methodist Church in Mountain View into a cold weather shelter for women and families with children.
"Beneath that very low-key, seemingly mellow, laid-back style that he had was a guy with a very steely resolve in the best of ways," Simitian said. "He just knew if he could get me down there he could gauge me, and he was right. And all sorts of good things came out of that."
In news stories and letters to the editor in theVoice, Fischetti's progressive stance is evident, from standing against the war in Iraq and serving as a local delegate for the Green Party to backing efforts to raise the minimum wage, questioning El Camino Hospital's high executive salaries and raising concerns about the city's recently passed RV ban.
In March 2016, Fischetti made a broad appeal to Mountain View's City Council to find ways to reduce youth homelessness in the city, citing numbers that took some council members by surprise. At the time, he cited data showing 135 students were homeless across the Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos High School districts.
"The number of homeless students in the U.S. has doubled following the great recession. And this number has remained high, likely sustained by stagnant wages and skyrocketing rents. Greed can be considered one of the underlying factors," Fischetti wrote in a letter shortly after the meeting. "If this does not bother us deeply, then we are not paying attention, do not care, or accept the fantasy that if we leave it to the market it will all work out."
Social justice was top of mind for both of them, Winkleby said, simply because it was impossible for them to ignore injustice and the need for action on a local level.
"We got the point when schools were calling us on Friday afternoon about their homeless families showing up saying they don't have enough diapers to make to Monday when the schools would open again," she said. "We'd get to know these families who were living along Cuesta Park and they had no food and diapers -- you cannot work with people and learn about their situation and not be involved."
Fischetti and Winkleby served together on the board for Hope's Corner since its inception -- Fischetti called it a stroke of good luck to have a soup kitchen right around the corner from his house -- and joined the MayView Community Health Center's board of directors in 2017 at a time when the small network of community clinics was floundering. The board at the time had no medical expertise and was facing major financial troubles, but has since gone through a complete overhaul and leadership change.
Ken Graham, MayView's executive director and former El Camino Hospital CEO, said Fischetti was committed to finding improvements for treating patients at the MayView clinic, which meant knowing the patients and the staff alike on a personal level. His ideas and recommendations were rooted in a career-long interest in helping low-income people find support for a healthier life, Graham said.
"He was determined to help by listening to other people, attend meetings, provide solutions to problems, and put himself deeply into the work and service to others. He was positive even when he became ill himself," Graham said.
Fischetti and Winkleby often took on advocacy work together, joining boards and progressive groups, and often jointly signing letters. Winkleby said she intends to stay involved in the community.
Fischetti attended Fordham Preparatory School and Columbia University, where he majored in philosophy and played football. He earned his medical degree from Albany Medical College where he was a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society and did an internal medicine residency at Boston University Medical Center. He served as a physician in the U.S. Army in the 1970s in the Korean DMZ, then completed a fellowship in oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Besides Winkleby, his wife of 31 years, Fischetti is survived by his children, Diana Fischetti and Desirae Moison, both of Bend, Ore., and Chris Yoshida of Santa Clara; and his two grandchildren, Logan and Olivia.
A memorial service for Fischetti will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Av. in Los Altos. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Access to Achievement Education Foundation, a local organization that supports the educational needs of low-income students. Donations can be brought to the service or mailed to Colonial Mortuary, 96 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View, CA 95050.