First-year medical students start classes at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine this month--and starting with them is Dr. Henri Ford, the new dean at the school who's already breaking ground as the first Haitian leader in the job.
His connection to UM started 17 years ago, when his sister suffered serious burns after her dress caught fire. She was airlifted from Haiti to Miami, where she spent six weeks in the burn ICU at Jackson Memorial, being cared for by the physicians from UM. Eventually she made a full recovery.
"For this miracle, I'm completely indebted to the staff at Jackson and the doctors of UM," Ford says.
But he says much of his life has been leading to this moment.
Ford moved from Port-au-Prince to Brooklyn when he was a teenager. From there he went to Princeton University for college, followed by Harvard Medical School, eventually becoming a pediatric surgeon and, until this summer, vice dean at the University of Southern California's med school.
In 2010, he joined doctors from the University of Miami to volunteer in Haiti in the days after the earthquake.
"The human catastrophe that I witnessed could never be adequately described," he says. "It was then that I recognized that I needed to remain engaged. I needed to help build an infrastructure that can support trauma critical care in Haiti."
Ford joined the board of Project Medishare, an organization tied to UM's med school that does health care development work in Haiti.
Long before it opened up, Ford had been telling people the dean position at UM was his dream job.
"I said the only way I would leave Los Angeles is if I were coming here as the dean of the medical school," he recalls.
Now that he's here, Ford says he wants to build a state-of-the-art research facility and attract a diverse group of faculty and students.
"I felt this was a calling," Ford says. "I feel that I can make a difference here."
He sat down to talk to Health News Florida about his new role and his vision for the school. Read excerpts from that conversation and listen below:
On recruiting diverse students--particularly students with economically diverse backgrounds--when the medical school costs more than a quarter million dollars:
That is one of the challenges. We recognize that for the talented, underrepresented minority students that we want to bring to the University of Miami School of Medicine, they are at a premium.
We have to be able to offer them some recruitment scholarships so that they will not choose to turn us down. Because some other medical school will get them because they offer more money--we want to get that out of the equation.
On what he wants first-year medical students to understand as they begin this process:
I met with them and I told them how proud I am to be part of their class because we are all starting together.
I reminded them of the reasons why they went into medical school. It's because they want to help alleviate human suffering.
It's extremely important for them to understand the need to devote time to ensure that mentally, physically and otherwise they are prepared for the journey.
The data show that 50 percent of U.S. and British medical students end up experiencing some degree of depression during the course of the training. It's important for them to be aware of this, and they cannot live in isolation.
What stuck with him through his career from his first week of medical school:
I distinctly remember during orientation, some of my friends were talking about their aspirations and one of them said, "look I'm going to become a dean of a medical school."
I looked at him as he was completely out of his mind. At the time I said, "I just want to pass so I can graduate from medical school."
But as I got exposed to my super-achieving classmates, I recognized that I had to aspire to do a whole lot more.
During my years at Harvard Medical School, we rarely, rarely saw a black faculty member. It was deplorable.
I had to do more.
On coming to a place with such close ties to where he grew up:
It's been absolutely invigorating.
The Haitians in the community who are aware of my presence, they feel an inordinate amount of pride in and it is as if they are much more excited about my job than I am (laughs).
Every time they look at me with that big ole smile, they say, "we can't believe this is happening."