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Will the real Peggy Bia please stand up?

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Spring


Since she arrived at Yale in the 1970s for a fellowship in nephrology, Margaret J. Bia, M.D., FW ’78, has crossed paths with just about anyone who’s studied medicine here, and with her oversize personality, sharp wit, and broad Brooklyn accent, you always know when she’s passed your way. Generations of students have had a blast spoofing her—with affection—in the second-year show. So it was fitting that when it came time to honor her on the occasion of her stepping down as a teacher at the School of Medicine (she will stay on as a clinician), Bia’s friend and colleague Nancy R. Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93, asked four students who had portrayed Bia to appear in costume (think cheap blond wig) and in character (think Brooklyn accent), and have some fun at her expense one last time. And no one laughed harder than Bia herself.

At the reception on May 8, Jack Hughes, M.D., professor of medicine, introduced the four students—Jessica Berger, Jessica Gold, Alice Lu, and Sam Sondalle—by asking the “real Peggy Bia” to present herself. “We have a problem, however,” Hughes told the crowd of faculty, alumni, and students in Cohen Auditorium. “We have several people who claim to be the honoree. We will try to sort this out and figure out who, in fact, is the honoree.”

The four students took seats on the podium and introduced themselves. “I am the one and only original real Doctah Bia.” “Fuhget it. I’m Doctah Bia.” And so it went.

What is your favorite part of teaching Yale medical students, Hughes asked. “It’s probably all the insightful questions they ask, like ‘This is Yale, so it isn’t mandatory, right?’ ” replied Bia #2, played by Sondalle.

Bia #4 (played by Berger) commented on the latest Match results. “This year we produced like nine friggin’ million dermatologists. What’s up with that?”

And from Bia #3 (played by Gold). “I’d like to thank everyone for coming here. It’s well deserved. Let’s take a moment of silence to reflect on how awesome I am.”

“This has been very helpful, and very perplexing,” said Hughes. “Will the real Peggy Bia please stand up?”

At that, the four impersonators rose and brought a bouquet of flowers to the real Peggy Bia, to a resounding ovation from the crowd.

The fun was not over, however. Hughes read a statement taking Bia to task for an incident in March involving popcorn and a microwave that led to the evacuation of Harkness dormitory, a day care center on the ground floor, and the building’s offices. According to the statement, Bia “with grievous abuse of the workplace, did cause to arise within a hitherto untarnished and well-functioning microwave oven a conflagration of unprecedented magnitude within the Office of Education, accompanied by the thoughtless destruction of foodstuffs of uncertain nutritional value, but clear psychological value, and with resultant despoilment of the surrounding environment. ... said conflagration caused an unprecedented outpouring of smoke that put the health and safety of other occupants of the workplace at unconscionable risk, including vulnerable medical students weakened by long hours of constant study and psychological abuse ... .”

Once the laughter subsided, the talks turned serious, sort of, as speaker after speaker extolled Bia’s legacy at the School of Medicine, often through hilarious anecdotes.

“Amidst all the humor and creativity is an amazing outpouring of affection for you,” said Richard Belitsky, M.D., HS ’82, FW ’83, deputy dean for education, the Harold W. Jockers Associate Professor of Medical Education, and associate professor of psychiatry. Belitsky spoke on behalf of Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, who was in California. “Thank you for decades of service to this school. Thank you for your unwavering commitment to medical student education. And, especially, thank you for helping every one of our students become such an extraordinary physician. Thank you for being such a good colleague, advisor, supporter, and mentor for all of us. You’ve also been a wonderful friend. Your impact on all of us has been profound, and the lessons you leave us with will endure.”

Ted W. Love, M.D. ’85, who works in the pharmaceutical industry in the Bay area, said, “When you see the dean, you should tell him I had the choice of having dinner with him in San Francisco or being here with you.” Quick with a reply, Bia said, “You bet I will, and I’ll love it.”

Leo Cooney, M.D. ’69, Humana Foundation Professor of Geriatric Medicine, recalled Bia’s response to his students’ performance at the University of Connecticut, where they hone their physical exam skills in practice rooms.

“Peggy paints this picture of a clinical tutor, how you engage with people, how you be a life tutor to them—she doesn’t tell you about the UConn phone call,” Cooney said, before taking on a Brooklyn accent and mimicking Bia. “ ‘Leo, Leo, your students have screwed up again at UConn. They couldn’t do a Weber test [a screening test for hearing]. They’ve got to do a Weber test before they go on rounds. ... The students have got to get this. If they can finally learn how to do a Weber test, then they can make a diagnosis of an acoustic neuroma and get a good internship at a New York hospital, not some dump in Long Island. So, Leo, please, try to do a little better next time.’ ”

Speaking on behalf of students, Vivek Kulkarni, M.D. ’14, co-president of this year’s graduating class, said that students had struggled to find an appropriate gift that would “encapsulate everything Dr. Bia has done for us.” In the end, they created a lecture series that will invite speakers who will inspire students and faculty to be better doctors. “It is not something tangible that she has given us. It is inspiration. It is more than just the skills to be a good doctor, it is the passion to want to be a better doctor,” Kulkarni said. “We feel very lucky to have been taught by Dr. Bia. ... Thank you very much, Dr. Bia, for everything. We are very indebted to you.”

Bia herself had the last word.

“I am not retiring,” Bia said, “just leaving medical education, working less, taking time to have a more balanced life. My biggest emotion is one of gratitude, to have had the opportunity to build the clinical skills program over the last 15 years. It is such a privilege to be a doctor. The relationship between doctor and patient is as important to medical care as clinical science and clinical reasoning. We built the program based on those values. ... I pass the torch now to everyone who is in this room. Thank you for coming.”

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