BY ROBIN EISNER
ASK LINDA LEWIS ABOUT HER 26 YEARS AS DEAN OF STUDENTS at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and she will tell you it lasted 9,527 days, through seven U.S. presidents, six Columbia University presidents, eight hospital presidents, seven deans, and "many, many, many" medical center vice presidents.
During that time, she estimates she consumed 10,490 cups of coffee, 8,000 Diet Cokes, 2,927 Diet Sprites, and 209 leftover sandwiches. After all, she needed some caffeine and nourishment when attending hundreds of student and faculty meetings and signing her name more than 200,000 times on many documents, including the 4,050 dean's letters (edited six times each) that her office sent to residency programs on behalf of graduating P&S students. (She gave up caffeine three years ago.)
Dr. Lewis, who stepped down on June 30 as Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs but is staying on as a clinical professor of neurology, attributes her longevity to a good sense of humor. She refuses credit for her role in nurturing thousands of incipient doctors, who then helped thousands of patients. "I was doing my job," she says in her no-nonsense and direct manner. "P&S students simply are wonderful, truly the best and the brightest."
But colleagues, students, and administrators are less reticent in describing her dedication, commitment, and sense of responsibility to the students and to the institution. While she counts sandwiches, others enumerate the many contributions she has made in an office she essentially defined. Here are a few of her achievements, among many: She improved the mentoring of medical students with special advisory deans. She enhanced the M.D./M.P.H. and M.D./M.B.A. dual degree programs. She increased psychological support to students through a variety of programs, including AIMS (Addiction Illness: Medical Solutions), the Student Success Network, and the Center for Student Wellness. She helped strengthen the minority affairs office and the housing office. And the list goes on.
She did it all while routinely coming in at 5 a.m. and working late, even on weekends. "Several of us arrive at work to find LDL [for Linda Donelle Lewis] e-mails written earlier in the day," says Clare Rooney, assistant dean of student affairs. Yet Dr. Lewis, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and has a weekend residence in Millerton, N.Y., still had time to plant flowers on campus, go horseback riding in Central Park, visit an ailing medical student after midnight in the ER, travel to seven continents (pictures from which decorate her office), and begin an ancillary career in historic preservation (so she can play, she says, "in the dirt"). She has been taking classes at Columbia's architecture school since 2001.
"Over the years, I have found her very direct, very thorough, and very thoughtful in her approach to any issue," says Dr. Thomas Q. Morris, Alumni Professor Emeritus of Clinical Medicine. "I have always marveled how she comes up with solutions that are both sensible and sensitive. She also was extremely effective and always available. There was no task she ever turned down."
"It has always been amazing to me, her stamina, energy and dedication to her position," says Dr. Hilda Y. Hutcherson, associate dean for diversity and minority affairs. "But what is truly special about her is her commitment to see others, both students and colleagues, succeed. That cannot be taught. That is a very unique trait. Look at what she has accomplished. It is staggering."
When the late Don Tapley was dean, P&S recruited Dr. Lewis to become Associate Dean of Student Affairs in 1979. She had been running the neurology clinic and was attending at Harlem Hospital, St. Luke's Hospital, and New York-Presbyterian. Paul Marks'49 created the student affairs position in the early 1970s when he was dean of the Faculty of Medicine and vice president for health sciences, as part of a reorganization of the administrative structure at P&S to create offices dedicated to student affairs, admissions, and business matters, among others. Dr. Lewis succeeded the first student affairs dean, Dr. Ann Peterson, who had been in the position for seven years and left to complete her M.S. degree at MIT.
Dr. Lewis inherited from Dr. Peterson the use of orientation packages for first-year students, promotion committees for the progressing medical students, a program that provided psychiatric consults for troubled students which still exists plus a few other initiatives. But the dean of students office as it exists today evolved under Dr. Lewis' leadership.
"Dr. Lewis has been the face of the school to the students, guiding us through our major changes each year," says Jonathan Amiel, 2007 class president. "I doubt there is anyone who has advised more medical students than she has."
Her office is responsible for all aspects of the students' progress, academic and nonacademic, throughout their years at P&S. The student affairs office coordinates many student activities, including orientation, the White Coat Ceremony, the new Advisory Deans program, the match process for residency programs, licensure exams, commencement, graduation awards, NIH research fellowships, fourth-year exchange programs with 25 foreign universities, and what's well known among students as "the dean's letter." Dr. Lewis also sat on committees related to student housing, security, minorities, curriculum, financial aid, and the P&S Club.
"Dr. Lewis is a strong advocate for the students to the administration," says Ellen Spilker, director of student financial planning. "She has always supported as much financial aid as possible to students so their debt burden is low."
Linda Lewis with students
The dean of students office also gets involved if a student is having trouble. If a first-year student needs tutoring, appointments for review sessions will be set up with second-year students in the Student Success Network, which the student affairs office helped to establish in 1991. The office also provides other tutoring programs, when a student falls behind due to illness or a family emergency. The office played a role in creating the Center for Student Wellness, which provides coaching in stress, relaxation, and time management, in 2002. The AIMS program, created in 1986, addresses substance abuse and addiction issues students sometimes face.
A new way to support students was the establishment in 2003 of five Advisory Deans, the creation of which students and the dean of students office spearheaded. Each class now is divided into groups of 30 students under the mentorship of one of the five deans. The faculty members meet with the students to discuss personal and professional development and residency choices. "They give you an opinion of your interests and find residents and attendings for you to talk with," Mr. Amiel says. Before the advisory dean program, every four students in a class were assigned an adviser, but the position was unpaid and the advisers weren't equally available.
While always supportive of students, Dr. Lewis also has been quite direct in assessing their skills and likelihood of success in a particular specialty. "She has always been forthright in her assessment of each student's clinical ability," says Monjri Shah, 2005 class president. "She doesn't sugar-coat the truth. It can sting at first, but in the
long run it is far more valuable than false praise."
Students knew they couldn't just come to her office,
which was always open, and whine about concerns they
were having. "She expected us to have solutions to the problems
we raised," says Matthew Carty'02, who with other
students helped establish the Center for Student Wellness.
By imparting that sense of responsibility and, hence,
professionalism to the students, says Anke Nolting, Ph.D.,
associate dean for alumni relations and development, Dr.
Lewis was a vital role model for them. "She was not just a
dean taking care of paperwork. The students emulated the
strength of her character."
That character was forged in Beech Bottom, W.Va.,
where she grew up after her family moved there from
Ohio when she was 6 years old. Her father worked as a
machinist for Wheeling Steel. Her mother raised four kids
and Dr. Lewis says "ran everything in town — the church,
the PTA, the 4-H Club, you name it." Beech Bottom was a
very attractive small town with 147 houses, tree-lined
streets, and wide lawns built on the site of an old Ohio
River fort, with abundant exercise resources — for hiking
local hills or restoring forests.
"My father was extremely smart," Dr. Lewis says.
"He just couldn't tolerate anyone who didn't have common
sense." He became supervisor of the mill, working
under a general manager. When Wheeling Steel sold the
houses to the occupants in 1953, her father became the
town's first mayor. The family spent weekends and summers
in their log cabin, which her father had built in
Kentucky on the farm where he was born. There she
learned to fish, hunt, and grow a large garden.
Dr. Lewis proudly talks about her siblings: Her older
step-brother, who died six years ago, worked for
Honeywell. Her older sister, a widow, obtained her bachelor's
degree in accounting the same month she got her
Medicare card at age 62. Her younger sister is a Ph.D.
psychologist and her younger brother, a mortician, is the
county coroner in West Virginia where they grew up.
Dr. Lewis knew she wanted to be a doctor in fifth
grade. She says she didn't know why, but simply because
she wanted to. "Many people don't necessarily know why
they want to do things," she says. She has found that
medical students choose their specialties by being
attracted to residents or "they find something about the patients they like and it makes them feel both comfortable
She majored in biology and chemistry, with a minor in
history, at Bethany College, graduating magna cum laude
with a bachelor of science degree in 1961. She has served
on Bethany College's Board of Trustees since 1989. She
obtained her M.D. in 1965 from West Virginia University
School of Medicine. During medical school, she spent four
months in a mission hospital in India and has continued to
travel throughout her life, hiking in such places as Nepal,
New Zealand, Cambodia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Patagonia, and
Antarctica, to name a few. She encourages medical students
to travel to "expand their horizons, because it does."
She did her first residency from 1965 to 1968 in internal
medicine at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and St.
Luke's Hospital Center and a second one, in neurology,
from 1968 to 1971 at Case Western and Columbia-
Presbyterian. She met her future husband, Gary Gambuti, in
1967, when she was a resident at St. Luke's and he was a
hospital administrator. He ultimately became its president.
Although she says her husband has not gotten involved
in her career — nor she in his — he played an important role
in her becoming the dean in 1979. He pointed out to her that
she could no longer be an attending at St. Luke's once she
became his wife. "Was that a proposal?" she asked him.
They married in 1979 — the same week St. Luke's and
Roosevelt merged — and she became dean.
Besides her role as dean of students, Dr. Lewis is an
esteemed neurologist. In her tongue-in-cheek enumeration
of her years at P&S, she says she has seen more than
7,600 patients. She has won numerous awards, including
being made an honorary P&S alumna in 2002.
Dr. Lewis says one key aspect of P&S students has
not changed in her nearly three decades of working with
them. "They just want to do good," Dr. Lewis says. "They
want to help people." Students today, she says, are trying
to incorporate more quality of life issues when choosing their specialties to have more time with their families. The
reason for the change, she says, is because 50 percent of
physicians are now women. Dr. Lewis recently initiated a
"Women in Medicine" program to highlight the issues
women face in the field.
Her most important advice to her successor, Dr. Lisa
Mellman, is to make the paperwork in the office electronic.
Currently, each student has a manila folder with
forms faculty members fill out by hand. "All of this can be
done electronically, which would make the work of the
office more efficient," Dr. Lewis says.
Colleagues and students are disappointed to see the
Lewis Era end but are grateful she will remain on campus.
She says she has made lifelong friends at P&S and has
enormous respect for its faculty. She is stepping down,
she says, because "there are other things I want to do for
the next 26 years of my life."
One appreciation of Linda Lewis
Jerome Groopman'76 was a student at P&S before Linda Lewis' tenure as dean of students. Nevertheless, she played a vital role in his life during his neurology rotation as a medical student and, more recently, as physician for people close to him.
In fact, Dr. Groopman was so impressed by a lesson he learned from Dr. Lewis, he named a chapter in his book,
"Second Opinions," after one of her aphorisms: "Don't just do something, stand there." The chapter addresses the problem doctors have in providing a patient treatment when it is unclear what the treatment should be.
"Increasingly, I have appreciated that maxim," says Dr. Groopman, the Dina and Raphael Recanati Chair of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, chief of experimental medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and a contributor to the New Yorker. "The nature of medicine these days is putting more pressure on doctors for a quick diagnosis and quick treatment." Patients, he says, often are desperate for some action and doctors feel it is expected of them to intervene.
But Dr. Groopman says uncertainty is "integral to the fabric of clinical medicine." Many times, he says, doctors do not have a clear diagnosis to pursue. "Linda understands that equipoise, which marks her as an exemplary physician. Sometimes you don't do anything, and that, in fact, is the best care."