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Goodbye, Dr. Gifford

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1999 - Fall / 2000 - Winter


After 33 years at Yale and two false starts as a retiree, a roundly admired medical educator calls it a day. Sort of.

For the past two years Bob Gifford’s always-impending, always-delayed retirement has been a running joke at the Yale School of Medicine. Now comes the punch line. He’s leaving. This time he means it. After two year-long delays, the end of 1999 ushered in the beginning of his retirement as deputy dean for education. No more tasks await him. No more requests to stay on just another year. “I keep hoping,” says his colleague, mentor and friend Alvan R. Feinstein, M.D., HS ’54, Sterling Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, “that this is another announcement that will be rescinded and he will remain, but I doubt it.”

After 33 years spent in a variety of jobs at the medical school, Robert H. Gifford, M.D., HS ’67, hopes to take on a new task as a science teacher in the New Haven public schools. In his time at Yale he’s been a resident, fellow, professor, section chief, and associate and deputy dean, all titles that fail abysmally at describing his gift to students. His real accomplishments may be impossible to quantify. The students who have known him carry their own measure of him in their hearts, and Gifford may sum it up best himself. “I made some difference in the lives of medical students,” he says when asked, “helping them through the stress of medical school, developing a number of really close friends, making sure that medical students felt supported by the medical school in this difficult business of becoming a doctor.”

In his various posts, Gifford, 67, has done what he’s supposed to do-oversee medical education, write dean’s letters for graduating students, interview incoming students, give speeches, and help students into their white coats for the first time. He also has played ice hockey with them, counseled them, helped them raise money for charity, performed in student shows with them, taken classes with them, even given them away at weddings. Friends report that the Gifford home takes in medical students every summer.

This unlikely job description matches an equally unlikely career trajectory. So unlikely, in fact, that, in his early years at Yale, Gifford doubted there was a long-term place for him. His talents, he felt, pointed to teaching students and caring for patients, rather than to the laboratory research required for tenure.

Gifford’s journey into medicine started when he was a six-year-old boy growing up in a Boston suburb, son and grandson of Methodist ministers. His four-year-old brother was dying of meningitis. “I could see my mother and father and what it meant to them,” he says, recalling the moment he first considered becoming a doctor.

But almost two decades later his future remained uncertain. He was an Air Force lieutenant helping to train fighter pilots in the Libyan desert and had time on his hands. “I started to think about what I really wanted to do with my life,” he says. He applied to medical school. Accepted at Cornell and Tufts, he favored Cornell until he learned the medical campus was in New York City, not upstate Ithaca. In 1957 he started medical school at Tufts, near his hometown of Newton, Mass.

The optimism and enthusiasm of the Kennedy years swept him up in Washington, where he had gone for a pediatric residency. Friends encouraged him to enlist in the newly created Peace Corps. “My wife and I talked about it,” he says. “We figured there would be no other time in our life when we would be able to do that. We went to Bogota, Colombia, which at that time had the largest Peace Corps program in the world.” As medical director, Gifford was responsible for medical programs and the health of the 600 volunteers there. He found assignments for 30 volunteer nurses and created educational television shows to instruct rural families in nutrition. “We had volunteers out in the boondocks and they would herd the mothers into the schools to watch these TV programs.

“It really changed my whole idea of medicine and the world and the underserved,” he says of the poverty and suffering he saw in his travels through the country. “I became much more aware of people in my own country who had nothing.”

In 1966, at the end of his tour in Bogota, he came to Yale as a hospital resident. A rheumatology fellowship followed, then an appointment as assistant professor. The qualities that would endear him to students began to surface. Leo Cooney, M.D. ’69, Humana Foundation Professor of Geriatric Medicine, recalls Gifford, then a resident, shepherding him and other medical students through the wards. “He was very willing to spend time with students and residents,” Cooney says. “The time was very valuable because in discussing something with Bob, you always left with a much fuller understanding of the problem and what your options were. That was not just because of his advice, but the clarity of his discussion.”

Nevertheless, in those early days, Gifford felt he lacked research skills and was not, therefore, a good candidate for tenure. “I don’t think I ever would have been able to stay if it hadn’t been for some people who were very supportive of me,” he says. A collaboration with Feinstein tipped the scales in his favor. The two published in the New England Journal of Medicine a paper evaluating the use of anticoagulants in the treatment of myocardial infarction. “He was extremely generous in allowing my name to go first,” Gifford recalls. “It provided me with some academic credentials I wouldn’t have had.”

With his foot in the door at Yale, Gifford demonstrated his administrative skills, to the dismay of at least one colleague. “I thought, ‘Here is someone who really should be seeing patients and teaching students how to care for patients, and he’s going into administration,’ ” says Arthur Ebbert, M.D. HS ’63, professor emeritus of medicine.

In the early 1970s, Samuel O. Thier, M.D., then chair of the Department of Medicine and now the president and CEO of Partners HealthCare System in Boston, named Gifford chief of the first section of general internal medicine. In 1975 Gifford moved to the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven as assistant chief and later chief of the medical service. Ten years later then-Dean Leon Rosenberg, M.D., asked him to return to Yale as associate dean for education and student affairs. Students and their concerns have been at the forefront of his activities ever since. Those who have worked with him say his compassion embraces all around him. “The atmosphere that he instilled in student affairs was a family environment,” says Cynthia Andrien, M.S., assistant dean for student affairs. “He made it a pleasure to work here. He has this uncanny ability to welcome you into his life and really care about so many people.”

Carol C. Teitz, M.D. ’74, was one of those Gifford welcomed into his life. As an undergraduate she had planned a career in research until she spent a summer at the lab Gifford shared with Stephen E. Malawista, M.D., HS ’60, professor of medicine. When she found more pleasure in dealing with pediatric patients than with laboratory rats, Gifford offered some advice. “He said, ‘If you want to do this with people instead of rats, you need a medical degree,’ ” says Teitz, now an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Washington. A year later, when she returned to Yale as a first-year medical student, Gifford and his wife, Karlee, had a room waiting for her in their home in New Haven. “He was like my father,” Teitz says. “He kept an eye on who I was going out with.” At her wedding, Gifford stood in for her father, who had died when she was a child. He also showed her that a physician could lead a normal life. “He was the ultimate role model. He made it home for dinner every night,” says Teitz. “His relationship with Karlee and their kids was something I admired and aspired to.”

With Karlee, who retired recently as a librarian at Yale’s Department of Economics, Gifford raised four children. One son is now a physician in Rhode Island. Another writes copy for national television ad campaigns. His two daughters are teachers.

His departure from the medical school has taken two years. He had planned to retire in 1997, but agreed to stay on a year as associate dean for student affairs to ease the transition to the new administration of Dean David A. Kessler, M.D. A year later Kessler urged him to stay on another year as the first deputy dean for education. (His successor, Herbert Chase, M.D., was announced as Yale Medicine was going to press.) “Bob’s vision and years of commitment have shaped this school,” Kessler said in September, while introducing Gifford to first-year students. “He’s been a role model and a leader for a generation of medical students.”

Even in retirement, Gifford says he will maintain his links with Yale, as a preceptor to medical students at a homeless shelter. His idea of retirement is anything but passive. Although he plans to spend more time at his family enclave, a cottage on an island off the coast of Maine, during the school year he hopes to teach science to inner-city middle- and high-school students.

Like so many things in his life, a simple description fails to convey the task he’s set himself. He wants to make the students think. He wants them to learn to express their thoughts on paper. Those skills, he believes, will serve them no matter what dreams they pursue.

Teaching in an inner-city school harks back to something he started a few years ago. Accompanied by a handful of medical students, he taught science once a week in a New Haven high school. Gifford, who kept beehives to teach his own children about insect behavior, asked, for example, whether bees can see colors. The high-school students were soon devising experiments, then poking holes in them, pointing out alternative explanations or flaws in logic and reasoning. “When we did those problems, they seemed to get interested,” Gifford says.

As he prepares to leave Yale, he articulates his one regret. When asked to name his accomplishments, he answers, “Certainly not in education.” He failed, he believes, to effect changes in teaching and curriculum he has sought. Long a champion of the students, he felt their curriculum had grown so much as to threaten elements of the Yale System — time for reflection and independent study and small group sessions rather than large lectures. In speeches at the medical school he vented his frustration over departmental intransigence when it came to integrating courses. But again, he returns to the students. “The friendships with medical students have been the most satisfying for me,” he says. “There has to be someone who cares about them and gets to know them, someone they feel they can talk to.”