Leading by Example

Dr. Milton Gumbs: Leading by Example

Throughout the Bronx, the friendly face of Dr. Milton Gumbs is familiar to those who have seen local MTA buses sporting ads for the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center, where he has been a general surgeon for more than 40 years and is vice president for medical affairs and medical director. At Einstein, prospective medical students may meet him across the interviewer's desk, while Einstein students and residents have long sought him out for advice and assistance.  He recently was named associate dean emeritus of diversity enhancement at Einstein, following more than 22 years as associate dean.

Dr. Milton Gumbs
Dr. Milton Gumbs
The Bronx is a long way from Anguilla, the Caribbean island in the British West Indies where Dr. Gumbs grew up. As a boy, he often tagged along when Dr. MacDonald, a family friend who was a general practitioner, made visits to patients. He also would go to the local hospital, run by his aunt, who allowed him to observe the various activities of the clinical staff. This early exposure to medicine planted a seed about pursuing a career in healthcare and helping others.

As a general surgeon, Dr. Gumbs — or simply Gumbs, as colleagues and students know him affectionately — has saved countless lives and tended to patients' varying needs.

"I'm most proud of my work in behalf of the patients at Bronx Lebanon, making sure they receive the best medical care possible in the best environment possible," he said. That has included a lot of trauma surgery, along with a general focus on the gastrointestinal and abdominal regions of the body.

Through his work at Einstein and Bronx Lebanon, Dr. Gumbs also has served as a mentor to future generations of doctors. In 1989, he was appointed associate dean for minority affairs at Einstein. The office has since been renamed "diversity enhancement." Established in 1982 to support underrepresented minorities at the College of Medicine, the office focuses on medical student recruitment, development and coordination of academic support services, academic monitoring and student counseling.

As its head, Dr. Gumbs has provided leadership and oversight of these functions while aiding the medical school's administration in a variety of capacities, including serving as a member of the admissions committee and of the committee on student promotions and professional standards.

"I took on the role at a difficult time, when many students felt that more could be done to support them," he recalled. "I worked with Al Kuperman and Mike Reichgott to put things in place that addressed students' concerns. We encouraged early tutoring and academic support when it was needed. And although some students resisted, we made sure they felt more supported."

He continued, "It's something we continually work at, because it's important to never be complacent with what you've accomplished and to evaluate how you can improve."

"Gumbs is both honest and kind," said Dr. George Ruiz, an alumnus from the class of 1998 who is now a cardiologist in Washington, D.C. "That's not always easy to do, but he tells you what you need to hear in a way that you can truly work with it and be a better person, and a better doctor."

He added, "As recently as a few months ago, he helped me rethink a difficulty I was having, and I'm lucky that he cares enough to call it like it is, to force me to reconsider my position, to challenge me to continue to grow and to remind me that I still need to be the kid that walked into Belfer, hungry to learn and eager to make a difference."

"Gumbs always challenged me," agreed Dr. Stanley Frencher, a member of Einstein's class of 2006 who is proud to call Dr. Gumbs his mentor. "He pushed me to consider things thoroughly and to be sure that I was passionate about the field I chose."

When that field proved to be surgery, a discipline that Dr. Gumbs had suggested Frencher consider, that wasn't enough for Gumbs. "When I got to Einstein, I wanted internal medicine, like my pops," explained Dr. Frencher. "Even though Gumbs had steered me toward surgery, when I told him I had picked it, he pushed me to justify why it was right for me.

"He also knew how my interest in public health fit with general surgery and helped with that, too," added Dr. Frencher, who took a year off from his Einstein studies to earn an M.P.H. "My decision to go into urology was a ‘heart' decision, because it's something I'm passionate about."

"Gumbs has been a tremendous role model for our students, and a great support," noted Nilda I. Soto, assistant dean of diversity enhancement, who has worked closely with Dr. Gumbs for more than 20 years. "He is available to them by cell phone practically 24/7 and has identified faculty at Bronx Lebanon who can provide mentoring and assistance. He also has been known to do one-on-one tutorials to help students prepare for their clerkship shelf examinations and Boards. And, he has helped countless students apply for and secure competitive residency programs." As a result, a sizeable number of diversity students have entered surgical specialties.

"I advise students to do something they like, where they feel they will shine and, at the end of the day, they can really enjoy," said Dr. Gumbs. "I remind them not to be discouraged by first appearances and to give each exposure to a discipline a chance, perhaps by talking to people to get a variety of perspectives."

For Dr. Gumbs, the pursuit of a medical career began in Bologna, Italy, where he attended Bologna Medical School after getting his bachelor's degree from Washington Square College of New York University. "He had to learn Italian to get through his med school courses," said Dr. Frencher. "Medical school is difficult enough in your native tongue."

Following medical school, Dr. Gumbs completed his residency in general surgery at Bronx Lebanon and got board certified. He joined the hospital''s staff in 1973, but was then called away for two years of military service.

He then returned to the Bronx, where he made the people and medical students of the borough his highest priorities. In addition to his work with Einstein students, he has trained hundreds of surgical residents and mentored clinical research in general surgery. 

His leadership has not been limited to Einstein and Bronx Lebanon. Through the years, he has served as president of the Bronx Medical Society, the Bronx chapter of the American College of Surgery and Bronx Lebanon's Medical Board, as well as a governor of the American College of Surgeons. He also is a member of numerous professional societies. And, he can be seen on his weekly cable television health program, and is a staunch advocate for examining how to improve both patient safety and medical errors.

"These issues need to be addressed very carefully and honestly," noted Dr. Gumbs. "We need to be better about listening to patients and being more humble."

Though he is too modest to say so, his influence has struck close to home as well. He and his wife, Marisa, a retired social worker, have two children. Both followed their parents into healthcare — their daughter, Lisa, is a nurse practitioner and their son, Andrew, specializes in minimally invasive surgery. On a recent trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos, Dr. Gumbs had the opportunity to hear Andrew speak on a panel.

"Andrew went into surgery in spite of me, and we're never in the same circles, so it was a special occasion," he explained. "He's much brighter than me and he's a very good surgeon."

With a gleam in his eyes, Dr. Gumbs then added, "As I listened to him, I felt proud."

Posted on: Friday, October 07, 2011