Former Marine sniper now helping veterans cope as Ohio psychiatrist

By RICK MCCRABB | Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio) | Published: December 1, 2019

HAMILTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — This isn’t where he expected to work.

When Jonathan I. Lazzara entered medical school, he crossed two potential specialty fields off his career list: gynecology and psychiatry.

No way was he going to be a psychiatrist.

“I couldn’t see myself wearing a corduroy jacket with leather elbows and smoking a pipe,” he said with a smile.

Then, as so often happens, life got in the way of his plans. He enlisted in the Marines, worked his way up the ranks, and, after he was discharged, he noticed some of his fellow Marines suffered from PTSD, or worse yet, committed suicide.

That’s when Lazzara switched lanes in the highway of life.

Last year, he joined the staff at Atrium Medical Center after completing his residency at Grandview Medical Center in Dayton. You guessed it: He works in the Behavioral Health Unit, one of the places he told himself to avoid.

Marquita Turner, chief operating officer/chief nursing officer at Atrium, said Lazzara has hit the hospital “like a storm” because of his passion for those suffering from mental illness.

She has been a nurse for 32 years and said she’s never seen anyone like Lazzara, who encourages and promotes morale in his department and throughout the hospital.

“He has elevated our program,” Turner said.

Turner said Lazzara’s military background in the Marines, where he was a sniper, is “disjointed” compared with the physician who now shows such compassion for his patients.

“That’s what makes him unique and intriguing,” she said.

He specializes in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, emotional disorders, psychotic disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance-related disorders, sexual and gender identity disorders and adjustment disorders.

That’s a lengthy way of saying his goal is acclimating his patients back into society with the fewest days in the hospital, with the smallest dose of medication.

And Atrium feels like home, though he lives in Columbus.

“This is exactly what I need to be doing,” he said.

He often remembers a conversation his father, an emergency room physician, relayed about his grandfather. His grandfather, he was told, “worked his butt off and hated every day” in a men’s clothing store.

So Lazzara made his own career path. He took off his stethoscope and told his father he was going to be a psychiatrist.

“That’s when I knew for sure I had chosen the right field,” he said. “I wanted to do what I wanted to do and love. Making an impact in someone’s life is the most priceless thing.”

He looked around the conference room as though he was searching for the right words. Then he found them.

“You change lives,” he said. “You may be the only good thing that happens in their life. You get a patient who can’t function in society and they’re depressed and they can’t go to the grocery or the movies. But we can give them their life back as a human being.”

There are 30 beds in Atrium’s Behavioral Health Unit and 10 of them are reserved for the patients with the most severe mental illnesses.

Lazzara, 43, compares the behavioral unit to a submarine. You need a key to get in and a key to get out.

During his time at Atrium, Lazzara said he’s impressed by how the departments remove their solos and work together for the betterment of the patient. He said it’s common for physicians, regardless of their specialty, to discuss appropriate treatment options for patients during lunch in the physicians’ lounge.

“This is how it’s supposed to be,” said Lazzara, who is divorced and has a 20-year-old daughter.

He feels the same way about his work attire. Instead of wearing a white lab coat over his shirt and tie and carrying a clipboard into every patient room, he prefers cargo pants and scrub tops. Several pens and his employee badge hang off his U.S. Marines lanyard.

Dr. Lazzara looks right at home.

©2019 the Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio)
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