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Catching a dream

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2021 Issue 167

When Nancy Angoff, MD ’90, MPH ’81, MEd, HS ’93, decided finally to become a doctor, she’d had two children; put her husband through medical school while she was a junior high school English teacher; and had reached her late 30s. She had always found medicine fascinating, especially when her husband spoke about what he was learning, but for many reasons she did not believe that the door was open to her.

Instead of going to medical school, Angoff thought that she could get a master’s degree in public health and work in a field close to the practice of medicine. While working toward her MPH at Yale, she developed an interest in biomedical ethics and became a student representative to the Human Investigation Committee (HIC). That led to a position as associate chair of the HIC, where she became familiar with research on human subjects and worked with the medical faculty on writing their protocols. At a meeting of people who did similar work, Angoff sat next to a woman who asked her what she would do if she could do anything; without missing a beat, she replied that she would be a physician. When asked to explain why she had not, Angoff came up with several reasons including her age. She was reminded, “There is only one reason why you can’t, and that is if you can’t; and you don’t know because you have not tried.”

The next workday, a Monday, Angoff contacted Tom Lentz, MD, then the dean of admissions for Yale School of Medicine (YSM). She asked him point-blank whether she was too old to attend medical school. He told her that it was a hard road to travel, including taking the science classes she’d missed as an English major. Over the next 3½ years, while working full time for the HIC, she took all of the premedical course requirements at Yale College as well as the MCAT exam. She applied to YSM along with 10 other schools, and was admitted from the wait list. “I felt blessed,” Angoff said.

Between public health research, science classes, and medical school, Angoff’s experience of the 1980s gave her a front-row seat to the HIV/AIDS epidemic unfolding in the United States. New York City was one of the most conspicuously stricken cities. Soon, nearby New Haven was reeling too—especially its neighborhoods marked by poverty and its attendant misfortunes. Angoff was able to understand and work on treating the disease at a time when some physicians refused to see patients with HIV/AIDS, and those patients were branded with a terrible stigma. It was this stigma that helped shape what medicine was and is to Angoff: “It was imperative that I care for people, marginalized people, often people that other people didn’t necessarily want to care for.” She ended up writing her MD thesis on “Do Physicians Have an Ethical Obligation to Care for Patients with AIDS?”

The biggest opportunity Angoff encountered—one that would define her career—was the chance to apply for the new position of associate dean for student affairs under the administration of David Kessler, MD, the school’s 16th dean. Kessler created the position when Bob Gifford, MD, HS ’67, then associate dean of education and student affairs, retired. Kessler divided Gifford’s role into two positions: a deputy dean for education (currently occupied by Jessica Illuzzi, MD, MS ’06) and an associate dean for student affairs. Angoff was invited to be one of the 30 people interviewing for the second job, and Kessler chose her for the position.

“It’s a hard but fulfilling job. You’re on all the time,” said Angoff of the role. She often worried about the health and safety of YSM students, and feels a sense of pride in having helped them navigate personal, professional, and career challenges. Her background as a teacher and caregiver, and her own unusual trajectory to medicine filled her with a sense of purpose and duty that carried her through 23 years of service, including calls late at night and on weekends, tragic news, and good news. “You share the lows of students and their families, and the highs. It may be difficult, but it’s also been enormously rewarding.”

Angoff credits her professional success to the emotional well-being provided in equal parts by her family, her spouse, and the YSM community—including all of the remarkable colleagues with whom she works in student affairs, educational administration, the Department of Internal Medicine, and the Nathan Smith Clinic. It was in that clinic that she cared for patients with HIV for 27 years, developing strong and meaningful relationships from the time when the diagnosis of HIV was a death sentence to the present, when it is treated like a chronic disease.

When it comes to a guiding ethical framework, Angoff maintains that the most urgent requirement for a dean of students is to be present as a trusted mentor and advisor. “If you’re in this role, you cannot be unsteady, you cannot need students to love you, because that can be dysfunctional,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t care. You care deeply. You help guide them through this experience, which is a privilege for you, and then you get to sit back and watch them succeed and say ‘I know what that took. I know where that came from. I know what that person went through.’ And that’s a beautiful thing.”

Nancy Angoff gave over two decades of her life to YSM, and she’ll be greatly missed as she moves on to whatever she chooses next.