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Standing on Cedar Street

July 20, 2022
by Byron Kennedy

Yale School of Medicine held its first in-person reunion since 2019, and the first led by Dean Nancy Brown, MD. Attendees couldn’t get enough.

Hundreds of Yale School of Medicine alumni reunited with classmates and learned about progress at YSM on June 3-4, in a welcome return to campus for the first in-person reunion since 2019.

Alumni did not have a reunion in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, reunion was held virtually because COVID cases were still widespread. Alumni said this was a necessary stop-gap, but was not as good as attending in person.

"In a virtual reunion you don't see the people and don't see what's changed on campus. I have an enormous attachment to Yale, so being here in person is a pleasure," said Jack Levin, MD '57, as he prepared to tour the Yale Center for Medical Simulation, where students practice working on patients using mannequins and other technology.

Many members of the classes of 1970 and 1971 attended this year's reunion to belatedly celebrate the 50th anniversary of their graduation. John Foster, MD '71, said his classmates held a reunion on Zoom last year, which tied the group together and helped its fundraising efforts for financial aid. Nevertheless, Foster wanted the opportunity of being back on campus.

"This is a wonderful reunion under the circumstances. It's great to come back and see the bricks and mortar. I’ve been out for so long that few of the people I knew are still here, but the buildings are," Foster said.

Anne McB. Curtis, MD '70, said some of her classmates did not come because they were worried about the increasing number of COVID-19 cases. But she set those concerns aside and was glad she did. Curtis said she particularly enjoyed a tour of the medical school's anatomy lab and was interested to learn about the digital tools that instructors use at the medical school.

"To see how education has changed is interesting," Curtis said. "It makes learning about medicine look so much fun. And doing this online would have lost a bit of the spirit. Zoom is not conducive to chatting."

Organizers said that about 250 alumni participated in the reunion, and that they were pleased with the turnout. Alumni toured school facilities like the simulation center, which the school has updated with new technology and other improvements in recent years.

In the clinical skills practice space, staff showed how students practice ultrasound examinations with portable, easy-to-use tablet computers. Alumni also watched mock interviews with live actors where students simulated sharing difficult news about a diagnosis with patients and families.

Other events included class meetings and dinners where alumni could mingle and reconnect. For example, John Blanton, MD '70, hosted some of his classmates at his home on the first day of the reunion.

"I was a little disappointed because not as many people came as I hoped. But did we have a good time? Yes, no question about it," Blanton said.

The reunion was also a chance for school leaders to connect with alumni and share their vision for the future. A recurring theme was the importance of fostering a more diverse student body and faculty. One of the first events of the reunion was the unveiling of a portrait of Beatrix A. McCleary Hamburg, MD '48. Hamburg was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale School of Medicine, and she had a distinguished career in adolescent psychiatry.

In remarks to alumni, Dean Nancy J. Brown, MD, said the school wrote a plan for boosting diversity, equity, and inclusion. She noted that nearly a third of the most recently admitted class comes from minority groups and others traditionally underrepresented in medicine.

This year’s reunion was Brown’s first in person. Arriving at Yale in 2020 just before the pandemic struck, Brown made tough decisions about which events to hold in person and which to organize via remote technology as COVID-19 spread across the world. She gave an update on recent developments at the school and shared her vision for providing enough financial aid so that students graduate without debt. Now, many take out loans totaling tens of thousands of dollars to finance their medical school education at Yale. Alumni greeted Brown's announcement about fundraising for financial aid with a round of applause.

One example of the type of support Brown envisions for the school is the Robert Malison, MD ’87, Student Research Fellowship Fund. Conceived of by Elliott Levy, MD ’87, and Barry Weinstock, MD ’87, the fund started out as a way to honor a classmate. “Bob stayed at Yale after commencement and trained three decades of students and residents. He was an important person to us, and to the hospital, and we wanted to establish something to help commemorate his energy and interests for future scholars,” said Weinstock.

“Medical research is an integral part of Yale’s medical education,” said Levy, “and it was especially gratifying to support medical students through the memory of our respected colleague, a gifted teacher, and beloved member of Yale’s faculty.”

When Levy approached him originally, said Weinstock, they hoped to raise $250,000 to endow the fund. Over the course of pulling that together, Levy and Weinstock reconnected with classmates. The project ended up being more than just a way to honor Malison, but a tribute to the type of spirit produced in MD classes by the Yale system.

“The process of building this fund created a lot of goodwill. We’d seen each other over Zoom the last two years, but we as a class never created a thing like this together. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the experience of working together to honor Bob Malison’s career and values helped make this a reunion we all really looked forward to,” said Weinstock.

Toward the end of the reunion, alumni gathered to celebrate Dr. Robert Gifford's 90th birthday. Gifford started at Yale as a medical resident in 1966 and eventually became deputy dean for education at the medical school. His career at Yale spanned 33 years, and he remained involved after retiring in 1999.

Few people mentioned the titles or official roles that Gifford held. Instead, they talked about how he helped them through difficult times while they were in school.

"It was comforting to know that I could come to him and that he would listen without judgment," said Mauricio Garrido, MD '97.

Amita Bhatt, MD '87, fought back tears as she described how Gifford diagnosed her with an auto-immune condition while she was a medical student.

"I would not have made it without him," Bhatt said. "He taught me how compassionate a doctor needs to be and that a doctor always has to look out for the patient. He made me a much better doctor because I was his patient, and I learned what it takes to be a really great doctor."

Gifford said he came to Yale after serving in the Peace Corps in Colombia and only planned on staying for a year. However, the opportunity to educate new doctors prompted him to stay. He talked about the graduates he knew who had influential careers in medicine and those whose weddings he officiated.

"The part I liked best was the close interaction with students and the friendships," Gifford said.

Gifford echoed Dean Brown's remarks about the importance of fostering a more diverse student body at the medical school and offering students more financial aid.

"We have accepted spectacular candidates only to learn that they opted to go to another school because Yale's financial package did not match that of our sister schools. We have lost many superb students because of this," he said.

Submitted by Tiffany Penn on August 04, 2022