Ask people to tell a story about Bob Gifford, and a silent pause follows. There are so many stories, comes the answer, too many. More telling than a specific anecdote is the overall impression, the qualities he conveys to those who know him. They recall him in the different roles he’s played in their lives and what they have learned from him.
“He had a way of asking questions so that each subsequent question was a new start,” says former student Lee Goldman, M.D. ’73, M.P.H. ’73, now chair of the department of medicine and associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. “The fact that you didn’t know the answer to the last one didn’t mean that he had lost faith in you. You got the feeling that he was rooting for you.”
It was that type of interaction that caught the eye of then-Dean Leon E. Rosenberg, M.D., HS ’63. “I had seen him take care of patients with great skill and humanity and I had watched him with students. He set expectations for students and insisted that they meet them. But he was always very gracious and kind about mentoring them and advising them,” Rosenberg says. “One of the best things I did as dean was to bring Bob into a position of leadership in student affairs and education. He had a commitment to education and to students’ lives that I felt would be exactly what the job required, and I was right.”
As a resident on the wards, Elizabeth Bradley Muskin, M.D., HS ’91, saw a new side of Gifford, even though she’d known him since she was five years old. Her mother and Gifford’s wife, Karlee, had been the best of friends and Muskin had grown up with the Gifford children. She studied medicine at Case Western Reserve University with Gifford’s son David, now a geriatrician in Rhode Island. When she returned to New Haven for her residency, she lived at the Gifford home. “Most attendings stand in the background,” she says. “When we went in to visit a patient, it would not be unusual for him to sit on the bed and hold the hand of a 90-year-old and talk to her about her personal issues. It would not be unusual for him to go back after rounds and talk to her again.”
Gifford has a story of his own to tell, one about a neighbor, a white coat and what it means to be a doctor. The Gifford family lived in a small house in West Haven, and one of their neighbors, hearing they had just arrived from South America, where Gifford and his wife had served in the Peace Corps, took them to be immigrants, like himself.
“He had been born and raised in Poland and spoke very little English,” Gifford said in his remarks to students during the White Coat Ceremony in 1998. “He was a robust, elderly gentleman whose hands gave unmistakable signs that he had worked hard all of his life. But Tony had something else inside that was very special. He cared about us as people. In his gnarled hands he brought some vegetables from his garden, some eggs from his henhouse, and a bottle of homemade wine from his cellar. It was an outpouring of caring and concern for a young family he felt to be in need.”
Every morning Gifford donned his white coat and walked to work at the nearby Veterans Hospital. Tony soon came to a simple conclusion. Gifford had found a job at the ice cream parlor down the hill.
“By a strange twist of fate,” Gifford continued, “Tony subsequently became seriously ill and was hospitalized, and there I was with my white coat on, not selling ice cream, but one of the doctors who cared for him in the hospital during his final days of life. And so, through the years, I have always come to associate the meaning of a white coat with this kind man who selflessly reached out to someone in need; this good man who cared so deeply about someone outside of himself; this generous, empathetic man who tried to be so reassuring; this decent, honest soul who simply wanted to help another human being. Those are the traits that should be permanently bound into the threads of the white coat you are about to receive and that will hopefully be a constant reminder to you of what being a doctor is all about.”