After an extraordinary 12-year tenure, the first physician CEO of the Gold Foundation will be receiving the 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medal
“I don’t ever remember not wanting to be a doctor. As soon as consciousness and memory allowed, I have the sense that I was interested,” recalled Dr. Richard I. Levin.
The future President and CEO of The Arnold P. Gold Foundation grew up as the son of a doctor. His father was one of two doctors in a “very small, sleepy” New Jersey town, which had played a small role in the Revolutionary War. The doctor families lived side by side on Main Street, separated by a white picket fence. The Levins were Jewish and had two boys. The McDonnells were Catholic and had a bevy of children who were mostly girls.
Dr. Jack Levin made house calls, worked at the hospital, and saw patients in their family home, an old Victorian house. And in this happy childhood, surrounded by neighboring children, his son Richard watched the world of doctors in action.
“What I saw in both of these men — Jack Levin and George McDonnell — were people who were held in the greatest respect. Patients would come to the side entrance to our house with pies and cakes and eggs – dozens of eggs in cartons! – just to say thank you, although for some this was barter in lieu of cash as reimbursement,” Dr. Levin said.
“I got to be part of this on the periphery,” he explained. “I guess it thrilled me that what went on in that little office adjacent to our kitchen was magical. It caused people to view my father and the whole family as having a special place in the life of this small colonial town.
“The position that he and George held was as unelected mayors, as the most trusted people. Secrets were shared and never divulged. The people in the town depended on each of them to provide advice on family matters, personal matters, as well as health matters.
“I was there when my mom and dad would discuss these things, and it somehow seduced me, it attracted me immediately. From a very young age, I thought I wanted to be a doctor like him.”
Rich did go on to become a doctor, a cardiologist, a researcher, the founder of a diagnostics company, a professor, and much more. He studied at Yale and NYU School of Medicine, where he completed a cardiology fellowship. He rose in the ranks of academic medicine to Vice Dean for Education, Faculty, and Academic Affairs, and Professor Medicine at NYU School of Medicine and Attending Physician at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. And then he and his wife, Jane, moved to Canada, where he took the post of Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-Principal for Health Affairs at McGill University.
Dr. Levin served as President of the New York Heart Association and on the Board of Directors of the American Heart Association. He is the recipient of numerous honors, including a Clinician Scientist Award from the National Institutes of Health and an honorary doctorate from Wake Forest University. He is also a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
And at the Gold Foundation’s 2023 Gala, Dr. Levin will be receiving the National Humanism in Medicine Medal in recognition of his leadership in humanism and his compassionate care as a physician. He will be honored alongside three other clinician leaders, Dr. Gina S. Brown, Dean of Howard University’s College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences; the Honorable Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and President Emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine; and Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx, Dean of the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and Gold Trustee.
“Rich has been a phenomenal leader of the Gold Foundation, and we are delighted to be celebrating him in this special way,” said Dr. Richard C. Sheerr, Chairman of the Board of Trustees. “The growth of the Gold Foundation under his leadership has been remarkable, and he is leaving the organization in a wonderful place for its next phase.”
Meeting the Gold Humanism Honor Society
During his long and distinguished career in academic medicine, Dr. Levin had a chance encounter with the Gold Humanism Honor Society. He was already a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, which recognizes academic achievement. But he hadn’t heard of a new honor society devoted to compassion. Not yet.
His introduction came through another doctor in the family who became a GHHS member first.
His own daughter, Jennifer Levin (now Jennifer Workman), was in medical school when she told him about GHHS. She had been selected to be a member. During the induction ceremony, each new member had someone dear to them pin them with the GHHS pin, and Jenny picked her dad. “It was one of the most moving moments” said the senior Dr. Levin.
The Gold Humanism Honor Society was created, of course, by The Arnold P. Gold Foundation. Dr. Levin was finishing his tenure at McGill University in Canada, where the Gold Foundation did not have a presence, and indeed, no nonprofit organization at all championing humanism in healthcare. But, as it turned out, the Gold Foundation was searching for a new President and CEO.
In 2012, after a national search, Dr. Levin became the second President and CEO of the Gold Foundation. The leading nonprofit of humanistic care had a strong first two decades under its two founders, namesake Dr. Arnold P. Gold, who was a world-renowned pediatric neurologist at Columbia, and his wife, Dr. Sandra Gold, who grew the nonprofit as its founding President and CEO.
Dr. Levin was given a mandate to expand its mission of humanism in healthcare. Over his 12 years of leadership, Dr. Levin oversaw that expansion of the foundation, bringing in nursing schools and nurses, corporate leaders, greater support from medical schools, prestigious awards that honored immigrant healthcare leaders and humanistic doctors in Canada. He built a new staff leadership team and, together with Board Chair Dr. Jordan Cohen, followed by Chair Richard Sheerr, expanded the Board of Trustees, bringing in national leaders of medicine, nursing, and finance.
Through all of the nonprofit’s growth, its core mission thrived on stories and connections, which drew more people into the fold. Dr. Levin spoke at more than a hundred events during his tenure as Gold President, from White Coat Ceremonies to commencements to academic and corporate conferences. He spoke movingly of the modern challenges to humanism, the way forward, the innovations and people who offered hope, and the necessity of maintaining the human connection in healthcare.
He brought a remarkable stage presence to the important task at hand, which was great luck for the Gold Foundation. For though Dr. Levin always knew he wanted to be a doctor, he almost became a theater actor, instead.
All the world’s a stage
When Rich was a freshman in high school, he got his first taste of the magic of the stage.
He was cast as a juror in the play The Trial of Lucullus, in which the Roman Emperor is on trial for his deadly exploits.
Emperor Lucullus “was important for his country but was responsible for all these deaths,” explained Dr. Levin, summarizing the play. “Could Lucullus be forgiven? I didn’t think he could.”
“I had a very small role, just a couple of lines, about how my son Faber had died under the emperor’s direction. As I was giving my speech, I had the command of the stage,” Dr. Levin recalled. “The audience was silent.”
Then into the stillness, the prosecutor asked, essentially: How do you feel about that, Lucullus?
“It was one of those moments,” said Dr. Levin. “Boy, I was hooked after that!”
“From there, right through Yale, when I did both Shakespeare and modern works, it was for me, part of the whole. It wasn’t, in some fundamental way, that different from thinking about being a doctor,” he said. “They both had to do with understanding human complexity and the human adventure. Theater was one engagement, medicine was another.”
But over time, he had to choose. Which would become his career and his life’s work?
“As time went by, it became very difficult to make this decision,” Dr. Levin remembered. “And ultimately, Jane and I made this decision together. That the life that we wanted was more likely to be achieved by following the original pathway toward medicine. By the end of my junior year of college, it was clear that that was where I would go.”
Yet through his journey in medicine – from student to professor, dean to CEO – he never gave up the magic of the stage.
“I never gave up that contact with the audience, which I’ve had through these wonderful jobs for the rest of my life in medicine,” he said. “I’ve managed to be able to speak to audiences throughout, and it’s been an important and fabulous part of life.”
Introduction to humanism in medicine at Bellevue
From high school and his first introduction to theater, Dr. Levin went on to Yale and then the NYU School of Medicine. He was, whether realizing it fully or not, following in his father’s shadow. Then, on to residency at NYU and Bellevue Hospital, America’s oldest public hospital and a storied institution in New York City where no patients are turned away.
His residency at Bellevue shaped him enormously. The newly minted Dr. Levin discovered illness and mortality in their kaleidoscope of different experiences, treated by different kinds of physicians.
“I saw that there was such a spectrum of approaches by physicians of all sorts of shades of gray,” he said. “Some followed the modern precept that you couldn’t get too emotionally involved because it would render you ineffective. Others were arrogant and mean in the face of illness, which they interpreted as the fault of the patient.”
He learned as much from role models of compassion as he did from these attending physicians who were anything but humanistic.
“I was acutely aware, when I was in the presence of someone – a physician, mentor, teacher – whose behavior changed in a circumstance in which they lashed out at a patient for failing to care for themselves or bringing on their own illness,” he remembered. “Interpretations which we understand in general and more so now really can’t be part of the interaction, never.”
Dr. Levin witnessed a whole range, from judgmental doctors to compassionate doctors “who became role models for me, because they managed somehow to combine lives in biological science with bedside practice, and I thought it was just extraordinary.”
“I didn’t call it that in those days, but it was clearly humanism in medicine.”
Science and compassion, together
After those foundational years in medicine, Dr. Levin had a long and distinguished career, which included a time as an entrepreneur and founder of a diagnostics company. When he took over the helm of the Gold Foundation, he brought all of these varied experiences with him, as well as his understanding of the life of a doctor, connecting with the patient.
The modern challenges to humanism seem to be continuously increasing. One issue is time.
“I trained at a time when doctors could spend very long sessions with their patients, exploring things,” he explained, which was a stark contrast from “this 7-minute efficiency stuff, in order to cover the costs of modern medicine. It’s very different.”
“It’s much more difficult to achieve that human connection when someone in the system is looking closely at the amount of time that you spend with each patient and marking you for it, grading you for it,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary change.”
In his speeches and presentations, talking with fellow CEOs, deans, donors, and Gold community members, Dr. Levin has emphasized the healing power of the human connection – for both patients and clinicians. In an era when burnout rates are at record levels, and shortages of doctors and nurses are accelerating the problem, connection is a buffer for burnout and a balm for the tension in modern medicine. Research has borne this out, showed that there is real data to back up the power of compassion and connection and tie it to improved outcomes, well-being and the bottom line.
Listening to a patient’s story is a critical part of healthcare.
Today, he lamented, the “thinking is perhaps that the narrative is not important. It was in those days.”
“That’s why what we do at the foundation is so important, because it tries to capture these lost opportunities and moments in a modern context built on the framework of science.”
Learn about the other three 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medalists: Dr. Gina Spivey-Brown, the Honorable Dr. Louis Sullivan, and Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx. All were celebrated at the 2023 Annual Gala in New York City.