A “Good Name” Matters Most
From the clinic to the C-suite, Edward Halperin, CEO of NYMC, holds fast to his core values: advancing the best medical care while staying mindful of “the other side of the stethoscope.”
Photos by stefan radtke
As a doctor with a keen sense of both history and humanity, Edward C. Halperin, MD, MA, was familiar with New York Medical College long before he was approached in 2011 to serve as its chancellor and CEO. At the time, he was vice provost of the School of Medicine at University of Louisville, Kentucky, overseeing a period of rapid growth in research funding.
“When the headhunter called me, I said, ‘I’ve written articles [about] that school!’” says Halperin. “New York Medical College has been a bastion against bigotry in health-science education since 1860.”
But upon arriving, he says, the college’s uncertain fate under its previous affiliation with the New York Archdiocese had cast a dark cloud overhead. “In 2012, this campus had crumbling buildings, Sheetrock falling down. I inherited a situation in which morale was low.”
In response, Halperin conceived the Heritage Halls project, “to restore our artifacts and glorify our past,” shedding light on the college’s buried history. Wearing coveralls to work, he squeezed into tunnels, rummaged through bins and crawled into attics to find 50 paintings on the campus grounds. He dusted them off, wrote descriptive captions and affixed them to campus walls.
Far more than just a gesture of nostalgia, he explains, it was a “conscious management strategy” to lift chins — and spirits — as the college joined the Touro College and University System.
“I wanted people to look upward, notice the paintings, read the material that highlights the contributions of women and African Americans and say, ‘I am proud to work here!’” Halperin says.
Halperin’s Jewish sensibility aligns well with Touro College’s mission: embracing diversity and promoting social justice through health education. Even today, Halperin says, NYMC has among the highest percentage of minority students at a US medical school.
“This country has progressed with fits and starts regarding health institutions under Jewish auspices,” he says. “At this point, the largest such institution is Touro, which graduates about four percent of all US physicians every year and is committed to diversity. The idea that I might contribute to growing that, to create New York’s first new dental school in 50 years, maybe at the end of my career I can look back and say what I clearly did accomplish.”
Those accomplishments are already piling up: In September 2017, Halperin will formally open the new on-campus nursing school. Under his leadership, the college has launched MS programs in biostatistics, biology education, and biomedical ethics; unveiled a state-of-the-art Clinical Skills and Simulation Center; and started BioInc@NYMC, the only biotechnology incubator in the region on the campus of a medical school. Overall student enrollment has risen by 30 percent, and the college’s School of Medicine now has the highest percentage of under-represented minorities of any mainstream medical school in the US. Halperin has signed a long-term agreement with Westchester Medical Center, renewed an agreement with Metropolitan Hospital Medical Center and forged academic ties with both Brookdale University Medical Center in Brooklyn and Good Samaritan Hospital in Rockland County. And to secure the future of the college and its students, he brought in the largest endowment in over a decade while increasing scholarships by 74 percent.
Touro’s CEO, Rabbi Moshe Krupka, considers Halperin the ideal leader: “He came to us first and foremost as an outstanding scientist, clinician, and educator, but what enhances his presence and position here is that he has built his career upon the same two pillars that we stand upon: to strengthen the Jewish heritage of social justice and to serve humanity.”
Born in New Jersey, Halperin studied economics at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, then received his MD from Yale and an MA from Duke. He rose through the ranks at Duke, to become professor and chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology, vice dean of the School of Medicine, and associate vice chancellor. In 2006, he was named dean of the School of Medicine and professor of radiation oncology, pediatrics, and history at the University of Louisville — which, after he became vice provost, in 2011, enjoyed the fastest rate of growth in NIH funding in the US for two consecutive years.
From his executive perch, Halperin still actively practices radiation oncology, seeing young patients two half-days each week. The struggle of treating children with cancer — something that unsettles many physicians — profoundly shaped the early days of Halperin’s career, when he found that anesthesiologists routinely worked with the frail and elderly but balked at sedating a 4-year-old so that he or she could receive radiation therapy. “‘Won’t that child die anyway?’” he recalls them asking.
“Doctors often seek a scientific rationale to understand a sick patient: ‘He had lung cancer, but he smoked three packs a day.’ This is how we explain why bad things happen to people,” he says. “But what 4-year-old has drunk, smoked or sat in the sun too much? If you think there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful God and that the world has a rational basis — please explain to me a 4-year-old with a brain tumor?”
In treating his young and sick patients, Halperin struggled to find answers to the random strikes of tragedy that defied reason or explanation. “Then I thought: If philosophers can’t explain this after 4,000 years, I doubt Edward Halperin can figure it out. I made a decision that [treating] kids with cancer…should be where I invested my energy, fighting the good fight and leaving the unanswerable unanswered,” he adds.
Halperin also teaches a History of Medicine course to all first-year students at New York Medical College. Most chairmen, deans, and chancellors devote less time to clinical care and teaching over the years, he says, but he remains a proud exception to the rule.
“The standard view is that as you move up the hierarchy, you get a bigger institutional picture of how parts fit together,” he says. “However, the higher someone moves up in the hierarchy, the thicker the blinders get. You only talk to people in the executive suite. If you spend your day with the same circle of people, it’s rather easy to find yourself hermetically sealed and in charge of an organization you no longer understand.
“My job is not balancing the budget of the college, deciding what capital projects to pursue or meeting with donors; it’s generating knowledge about the cause, prevention, and treatment of diseases and disorders, and educating the next generation of healthcare providers,” he adds.
Galvanized by current events, Halperin has written editorials decrying President Trump’s budget cuts for medical research and immigration restrictions, which he feels impede the flow of ideas. On TV, he has criticized the market-based, profit-driven model of healthcare in the US, but he is careful to distinguish between his remarks as chancellor/CEO and those of Edward Halperin.
“It is immoral for people with jobs like mine to superimpose their views on students or faculty,” he explains. “It is an abuse of authority for me to use the classroom podium [to air] my views on single-payer healthcare.”
Yet the thread of humanity that binds doctors and patients springs vibrantly from his career tapestry. He reminds students that they will one day be “on the other side of the stethoscope.”
“You can teach medical students causes and differential diagnoses, but illness doesn’t occur outside the context of human response,” he explains. “You can’t heal fractured humanity if you don’t understand your own.”
In his office, Halperin keeps a collection of finger puppets from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. It’s a flourish of whimsy that reveals something deeper: an abiding compassion for children who need the comfort of a familiar story in the midst of cancer treatment. His wife, Sharon, says that Halperin made note of the stories their three daughters would request at bedtime and made a point of collecting those characters on his travels.
“Getting a phone call or visit from a patient he treated as a toddler or young child who is now in their 20s — maybe they are about to get married — the fact that they go back to him for milestones is what keeps him going,” says Sharon. “He tries to instill a godliness to the work; it’s not just a clinician speaking.”
Halperin traces his success to one evening in New Haven when he impulsively agreed to “party” at an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the night he met Sharon.
“It is my wife,” he asserts, “who deserves all the credit for everything [I’ve accomplished].”
Perhaps it’s this humility that compels him, while teaching medical history, to reject the “dead white men doing heroic things, moving from triumph to triumph” mantra.
“I teach students about who discovered the circulation of blood, penicillin, X-rays, organ transplantation, the [doctors] who saved babies by warning against Thalidomide…but also topics like the role of white doctors in the treatment of enslaved Africans, or doctors involved in torture at Guantanamo Bay,” he says. “Not to take away my students’ heroes, but so they can see human nature in 360 degrees and what role they will play in medicine.”
This rich and varied career — conscious of humanity and cultivating goodness — rests not upon accomplishment, he says, but reputation. He takes his motto from Simeon the Righteous, a Jewish high priest in post-Biblical times known for piety and kindness: “‘A person might be known by their scholarship and good deeds, but a good name is most important of all.’ I would like to be perceived as an honorable person who adheres to a code of conduct and models good behavior.”
Melissa Pheterson is a health, wellness and lifestyle reporter based in Western New York.