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The paths less traveled

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2011 - Spring


Doctors see themselves in all kinds of roles: confessors, problem-solvers, tour guides to the human body. But sometimes, to be leaders in medicine, alumni of the School of Medicine travel far from the bench or the clinic to do their most daring and inspiring work.

During Reunion weekend in June, four alumni shared their unique journeys—in journalism, drug development, and clinical care—to satisfying, if nontraditional, careers during a discussion called “The paths we’ve traveled.” Nancy R. Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93, associate dean for student affairs, moderated the panel. Angoff herself followed an unusual path to medical school—she began her working life as a middle school English teacher before deciding to become a doctor. Like others on the panel, Lisa Sanders, M.D. ’97, HS ’00, assistant clinical professor of medicine, took a circuitous route to medical school. She worked as a television news producer for 12 years, and it wasn’t until she saw a doctor save a drowning woman’s life on assignment that she made the decision to go into medicine. In fact, when she won an Emmy award for a “48 Hours” news piece, her first thought was that the gold statue would help get her accepted at Yale. In her third year at the School of Medicine, Sanders found that the art and science of diagnosis was the most exciting part of internal medicine; diagnosis was so much like solving a mystery she saw it as detective work. Soon, she began writing a column for the New York Times Magazine called “Diagnosis,” based on her Sherlockian approach to figuring out what ailed a patient. Next came an offer from a Hollywood producer. “They called and said they were creating a show based on my columns,” said Sanders. “About an irritable, arrogant, drug-addled doctor who hates patients and loves diagnosis.” Sanders agreed to consult on the program, “House, MD,” one of the most successful television dramas in history. Besides her television work, Sanders teaches in the internal medicine department at Yale and in 2009 wrote a book, Every Patient Tells a Story, about the art of diagnosis and the need for physical examination in medicine.

Franklin Top, M.D. ’61, knew he wanted to be an infectious disease doctor after traveling with his physician father into the poorer areas of Detroit during polio outbreaks in the 1940s. But he never knew his most creative and fulfilling time in medicine would be spent in the army and the biotech worlds. As an investigator and ultimately director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research during the Vietnam War, Top developed new vaccines against viruses.

His military career ended when he was transferred to the Pentagon. After three months he realized that he was moving away from infectious disease research, his first love in medicine. He joined MedImmune Inc. as the fourth employee in 1989 and went on to help develop the biotech firm’s FluMist vaccine, HPV vaccine, and Synagis, which prevents RSV infection in infants.

Top said any of the risky business moves he made were grounded in a sense of independence and responsibility learned in medical school. “Those were the four most productive years of my life in terms of getting my act together,” said Top.

Finally, married alums Richard Gibbs, M.D. ’86, and Tricia Gibbs, M.D. ’87, HS ’88, spoke about their journey as family practitioners and directors of a free clinic in San Francisco.

Both the Gibbs were non-traditional medical students. Tricia was a professional Alpine skier whose own orthopaedic surgeon said she should consider medical school instead of veterinary school, and Richard was a male danseur in the ballet world for 12 years.

“Yale really took a chance on me,” said Richard who said he wanted to work with people in a family practice to “fill the hole that left me when I went offstage.”

Living in San Francisco, where 25 percent of residents don’t have health care, changed or “flipped the shingle” on how the Gibbs saw themselves as family practice doctors.

They opened a clinic that only treats the uninsured, and sees up to 8,000 patients per year. The Gibbs only take private foundation money to fund the clinic and have a network of medical specialists who donate their time and services on staff. The clinic has become a popular model in San Francisco and now has 10 to 12 Yale students rotate through the practice each year.

During the question and answer period all panelists talked about how risk and independence allowed them to become medical leaders in their own ways.

“Three or four times in your life you make a decision that’s risky, or that can change our life,” said Top.

The Gibbs offered a continuation on that theme, saying that, when making a risky decision, “… the more you hear the word ‘no’ the more you know you’re on the right track,” said Tricia Gibbs.

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