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Alumni honored for service to San Francisco’s uninsured

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


Two alumni of the School of Medicine were among four alumni to receive the Yale-Jefferson Public Service Award for their commitment to service and social responsibility in November. Richard D. Gibbs, M.D. ’86, and Patricia H. Gibbs, M.D. ’87, received the award for their service to the uninsured population of San Francisco. Twenty years ago the Gibbses, who met as first-year students while waiting to be assigned a cadaver in gross anatomy, gave up their private practice to open a free clinic. Their goal was to provide free, accessible medical care to the uninsured.

Since then the San Francisco Free Clinic has provided more than 100,000 patient visits. They have trained countless medical students from Yale and other schools who have completed primary care rotations there. And their clinic has served as a model and resource to students at the HAVEN Free Clinic in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood. The Gibbses have also served as advisors to HAVEN’s student leaders.

On November 22 they received the award at the annual assembly of the Association of Yale Alumni. The award, presented by Vice President Linda Lorimer, was first given in 2012. It is conferred by Students and Alumni of Yale (STAY) to recognize individuals who inspire the Yale community through their contributions to the greater good. Candidates must have a demonstrated involvement in a Yale service project or have made substantial use of Yale facilities or services for an outside service project.

The STAY award represents the local level of an award that is also given nationally. The Jefferson Awards began in 1972 to recognize community and public service in the United States. The awards also serve as a call to action to volunteers in local communities. National honorees have included Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Colin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey.

Two students who graduated this year also received awards for service by students. Natalia Emanuel, a Yale College graduate, worked with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project in the Prison Education Program. She also helped draft policy for inmate rights for the New York City Department of Correction and contributed to the creation of the first Social Impact Bonds system in the United States for the state of Massachusetts. Kara Scroggins, M.Div. ’13, was honored for mobilizing the Yale Divinity School (YDS) for community outreach. She helped generate a database of volunteer opportunities, organized the YDS Day of Service, and led numerous outreach programs as the student volunteer coordinator at the divinity school.

The Gibbs’ day in New Haven began with a video interview with the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. In the afternoon, after the assembly and awards ceremony, the couple spoke to students in medicine, public health, nursing, and the Physician Associate program, as well as Yale College students. The afternoon session was organized by Peter Ellis, M.D., who directs clinical clerkships in primary care for senior medical students at Yale, and nominated the Gibbses for the Jefferson award. The clerkship at the free clinic is one of the most highly regarded by medical students, who have described it as a “motivational clinical environment,” Ellis said.

“It is really a time to celebrate what the Gibbses have accomplished,” he said, adding a message for students in the health professions. “Go where there is the greatest need. It’s very sustaining. I think you’ll hear that today.”

Explaining their decision of 20 years ago to give up private practice and launch the free clinic, Tricia Gibbs said, “We realized there was this whole population of people in San Francisco that was not getting care. It started to feel that we could do something better with our training.”

The couple, said Tricia Gibbs, who skied on the U.S. Olympic team before pursuing a medical career, had begun to think about service. “What does service mean? How does that inform your life? I realized that a lot of my decisions in life were made according to the question ‘How can I best serve people?’,” she said.

At first, she said, “We got a lot of resistance from people who didn’t think it was possible to open a free clinic. The thing that really turned the tables was when we went to our physician colleagues and said, ‘Would you volunteer and help us? Maybe a couple of visits a month could you see patients and help us with specialty care?’ It was a turning point to see how willing doctors were to give. The outpouring of help was incredible. At that point we realized we were on the right track.”

All the physicians who volunteered their services in the beginning 20 years ago are still offering pro bono services, the Gibbses said.

Richard Gibbs, who was a professional ballet dancer before entering medical school, encouraged the students to think outside the box.

“Once you finish your training, you don’t have to do the standard thing,” he said. “The need to help people who are ill will not change. The one thing I feel strongly about is that the choices in front of you are as wide as you can imagine. … Because of the need for medical care, society affords you a broad range of ways to do it.” Also addressing the students were Melissa Lee, M.D. ’01, and her husband Scott McGarvey, M.D. The two worked for six years on a Navajo reservation in Chinle, Ariz., for the Indian Health Service. Lee had first gone to the area as a student for a rotation that she called “life-changing.”

“We worked in a hospital with 60 beds,” she said. “We practiced full-scope medicine. We covered our four-bed ICU and we got to really use the training that we had. We grew a lot and learned a lot. At the Brigham you call a cardiology consult and someone is there in moments. At Chinle when you’re calling for help, you’re calling Tucson, which is about seven hours away by car, and you’re trying to describe your patient, faxing the EKGs, and trying to get some advice about what to do.”

The couple now lives in New York City, where they hope to build the same sense of community they enjoyed in Arizona. “We are trying to figure out how to make our urban environment a sustainable environment for our family,” Lee said. “It’s not just what you do inside our office, it’s how you interact with your community.”

Related link: Video interview with Richard and Patricia Gibbs.