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Remembering Bonita Stanton

April 13, 2022

At the time of her passing, she was the inaugural dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in New Jersey, which welcomed 55 students in 2018 with a curriculum that recognized the impacts of social determinants of health, the importance of making health care accessible, and learning from communities about their health needs. Its mission dovetailed with Stanton’s own philosophy of medicine and medical education, forged during five years in Dhaka, Bangladesh, working on infant diarrhea. “She had every attribute that we looked for and she embodied every aspiration we had for the new school,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, M.D., HS ’85, who co-led the search committee that hired her and is filling in as interim dean. “Bonnie’s absence has created a terrible void in all of our lives.”

Friends, family, and colleagues remembered her warmth, her humility, her compassion, and her prevention strategies for infectious disease that saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. They recalled a giant in medicine who published more than 350 papers, edited a leading pediatrics textbook, and served on the advisory board of the Fogarty International Center of the NIH. She was also an avid hiker and a runner of marathons. Despite her renown, friends said, she remained down to earth. “Bonnie was a remarkably humble person. You would never know, meeting her, of all her accomplishments,” said her sister, Pamela Albertsen.

Stanton was born in New Haven in 1951, the second of three children, and grew up in North Haven. Her family spent summers on an island in Long Island Sound where they swam, fished, played cards, rowed boats, and lived without utilities or running water. Stanton’s love of nature drew her to science, then medicine. “By high school it was evident that she was tracking in the direction of medicine,” Albertsen said. “It fascinated her, and it appealed to a compassionate part of her.”

After graduating from Wellesley College, Stanton arrived at the School of Medicine. Classmate Richard Kayne, M.D. ’76, kept in touch with her over the years and recalled her warmth and humility, as well as her vision for medicine. “Every time I talked to her, I would come away happy,” he said, adding, “She was doing patient-centered care before it was popular.”

After residencies at Case Western Reserve University, where they had gone to Bangladesh for a clinical rotation, Stanton and her husband, John D. Clemens, M.D. ’76, FW ’81, returned to Yale for fellowships. She joined with other young parents (they had two daughters) to establish the Phyllis Bodel Childcare Center at the medical school. “For so many colleagues childcare was such a complicated part of training,” Kayne said. “The center changed careers for generations of trainees and faculty at Yale.”

After their fellowships, Stanton and Clemens joined the faculty and settled into lives and careers in New Haven until a call from for the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research changed their plans. The center asked them to spend three years in Bangladesh, where Clemens would work on a cholera vaccine and Stanton would work on infant diarrhea. “By 5 p.m. that day we had contacted a real estate agent to put our house on the market,” she told her classmates in a video she prepared for their 45th-year reunion.

As she began her study in Dhaka, Stanton saw that she needed input from the mothers who lived in a slum a mile from the only source of clean water. “It didn’t take much to realize that I couldn’t design the study,” said Stanton in a 2016 interview with Yale Medicine Magazine. “The women had to help me because I didn’t know anything about their culture and their circumstances.”

She recruited 25 women and taught them how to make and administer oral rehydration solution and to teach other women how to do it. Within three years 2,000 women had been trained. One of them, she recalled, came to her, and asked why not tackle prevention as well as treatment? “I was about to launch into a complicated explanation about primary and secondary prevention when I realized she was right,” she said. “We should be doing both.”

She worked with epidemiologists, relief agencies, government agencies and the World Bank on what was then the bank’s largest national health program. When her three-year assignment ended the World Bank hired her as its maternal child health specialist in Bangladesh for another two years.

In 1988 she returned to the United States and joined the faculty of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Her work shifted to HIV, then surging in public housing. With the help of two graduate students in anthropology, she recruited community members. “I wanted to be able to collaborate with residents of the housing units to understand paths of transmission among their youth,” she said.

From Baltimore she moved on to West Virginia University, then became chair of pediatrics at Wayne State University in Detroit. There, she was a mentor to a first-year resident, Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.P.H., now a professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Hanna-Attisha took inspiration from watching Stanton sit with patients and family to ensure they had everything they needed. Stanton also provided the tools she’d need at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, when, in 2015, she blew the whistle on lead in the city’s drinking water. “My work would not have been possible without her,” she said. When others cautioned that her role was not to hold press conferences to warn of the dangers of the city’s water, she responded, “This is exactly what pediatricians are supposed to do. This is how I was trained.”

In 2016, the Hackensack Meridian Medical School, ready to launch a new way of training doctors, recruited Stanton as its first dean. The school’s curriculum favored small group sessions over lectures—students would come to class prepared for problem-solving exercises under the guidance of faculty. The mantra, said Boscamp, was “the guide at your side, not the sage on the stage.” The school also partnered with Seton Hall’s College of Nursing and School of Health and Medical Sciences to train medical students along with students in nursing and other health care professions. In a class Stanton initiated called Human Dimension, students were paired with families to help them navigate the health care system. “She did not want people to come in and observe how you live like you’re being studied in a zoo,” Boscamp said. “She said we’re not doing this unless we can really deliver to those families.”

“She wanted to establish a medical school that had a strong commitment to addressing social determinants of disease and community contributions to wellness,” said Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., dean and Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health and professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Epidemiology and Public Health. They served together on the Fogarty board and often caught up every year at conferences. “She also wanted insights from social and political sciences to address patients’ contexts. She was trying to craft a new type of medical student who had a broader vision.”

No matter where she was working, Stanton sought to help the medically underserved abroad and at home. “She completely devoted her clinical and research career to diseases that were more prevalent in those populations,” said Vermund. “She was quite fearless, traveling all around the world, working in vulnerable neighborhoods in America’s cities.”

When she was unable to attend the class’s 45th year reunion, Stanton sent the video in which she recapped her career.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed every chapter of my career,” she said. “I am excited and optimistic that my current position, in which I plan to remain until the end of my career, will have a major impact on undergraduate medical education, and thereby on graduate medical education, and ultimately on the way we practice medicine in the United States.”

Submitted by Tiffany Penn on April 14, 2022