Ronald Salem honored with the Leffell prize for clinical excellence

Colleagues praised him for his calm disposition and mentorship

Dean Robert Alpern (right) presented Dr. Salem with a plaque.

Ronald R. Salem, MD, section chief of surgical oncology, was honored when Dean Robert Alpern, MD, called his name as the 2011 recipient of the Leffell Prize for Clinical Excellence.

Accepting the award was “like being at the Oscars, where you are surrounded by giants,” said Dr. Salem at a March 6 reception in the Medical Historical Library in the Sterling Hall of Medicine. “I’ve learned a lot from the individuals I’ve come to know and emulate here.”

He had no idea he was the recipient when he arrived at the reception, but started to catch on as he saw who else was there. Fellow surgeons, members of his staff and a contingent of his friends from New York were in attendance. His wife and son, and his mother-in-law who had traveled from South Carolina, waited outside the room for the presentation.

In his introduction, Dean Alpern described Dr. Salem as “absolutely dedicated to patient care and the role as a mentor that he plays. He works with extreme compassion, and his extraordinary caring nature is evident to all of his patients.”

Dean Alpern called up a colleague’s words to sum up Dr. Salem’s contributions: “Alfred Lord Tennyson once said, ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.’ What distinguishes Ron from many physicians is that he is not merely a repository of knowledge—most Yale physicians are—but that his ceaseless toil, vast experience and a natural ability to reflect upon both what others say and what he believes in have led him to acquire clinical wisdom that only a few are blessed with.”

Colleagues who nominated Dr. Salem for the award praised him for “his availability, his calm disposition during critical moments, and above all his counsel.” They wrote, “He is always teaching,” and he is “perhaps the best educator in the Department of Surgery.”

More than 20 years as a Yale surgeon

Dr. Salem, who is the Lampman Professor of Surgery and Oncology, and Professor of Diagnostic Radiology, joined Yale Medical Group 22 years ago to operate on patients with a wide range of cancers. He had previously worked as a general surgeon at Harare Hospital in Zimbabwe and as an emergency room physician at Guys Hospital in London.

He had completed his medical degree at the University of Rhodesia; his general surgery residency at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital in London; and his chief residency and a research fellowship at the New England Deaconess Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston.

At Yale, he created the Surgical Oncology Program, one of the busiest clinical practices in the Department of Surgery. The longer he pursued in this specialty, the more he found himself concentrating on patients with pancreatic cancer, one of the most difficult cancers to cure. “I’ve really been fascinated by how poor the outcome in pancreatic cancer is and how we as surgeons can improve that outcome,” he explained. “Pancreatic surgery was often considered too risky for patients. It has become much safer over the last 10 years, with low mortality rates of less than 1 percent.”

Dr. Salem has since been committed to advancing medical and surgical treatment, and integrating the latest techniques and minimally invasive surgery. He is one of the few high volume surgeons in the region with expertise in performing the Whipple procedure, the most commonly performed operation to treat pancreatic cancer by removing the head of the pancreas. He is known as the “go-to” pancreatic and biliary surgeon in the region.

Prize recognizes clinical excellence

The David J. Leffell Prize for Clinical Excellence was established four years ago with a gift from David Leffell, MD, deputy dean for clinical affairs, and his wife, Cindy, in honor of Dr. Leffell’s 30th Yale College reunion. Each year, the award recognizes a faculty member who best exemplifies clinical expertise, a commitment to teaching and the highest standards of care and compassion for patients.

Dr. Salem was chosen from among 20 nominees based on the recommendations of Chief Medical Officer Ronald Vender, MD; Roberta Hines, MD; Tom Hanson, MD; Tom Balcezak, MD; and past recipient Lynn Tanoue, MD. The winner receives a plaque, a check for $1,000 and his name on a plaque displayed in the Sterling Hall of Medicine.

Photos: Harold Shapiro

David J. Leffell Prize for Clinical Excellence