How the First Affiliation Between Harvard Medical School and a Community Hospital Outside of Massachusetts Came to Pass
By Donald Leka
“May there never develop in me the notion that my education is complete, but give me the strength and leisure and zeal continually to enlarge my knowledge.” (Maimonides, 1135 – 1204.)
In a speech to the Executive Board of Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre, New York on September 7, 1976, Dr. Agim Leka (1924 – 2018), a member of Mercy’s Medical Staff Education Committee, spoke passionately of the importance of continuing education for physicians to improve patient care.
While lamenting the recent loss of free-standing internship programs across the country due to changes in the American Medical Association’s (AMA) internship accreditation policies, Dr. Leka’s speech focused on Mercy Hospital’s recently established and unprecedented association with Harvard Medical School.
The new education affiliation, the first by Harvard Medical School with a community hospital outside of Massachusetts, was envisioned by Dr. Leka to advance Mercy’s post-graduate educational program for the hospital’s professional staff and all doctors in Nassau County, Suffolk County and the surrounding metropolitan area, and to establish Mercy Hospital as a center on Long Island for the dissemination of the latest knowledge in medical science and technology.
In the 1970s medicine was changing rapidly as a result of new scientific breakthroughs in preventing and fighting diseases and emerging new technologies like Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT scans) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI scans). Dr. Leka felt strongly that physicians had to actively participate in continuing education programs to keep up with the latest developments in order to provide the best possible care to their patients.
Dr. Leka ideated the liaison to advance the education of medical professionals and improve the care of patients on Long Island during his participation in continuing education programs at Harvard Medical School in Boston in 1974. He initiated discussions with the Associate Dean of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Continuing Education, Dr. Stephen E. Goldfinger, and was authorized by Mercy Hospital to negotiate the arrangement. Dr. Leka’s vision excited the hopes and imagination of the leadership at Mercy Hospital and garnered their strong support including that of the late Alfred W. Marks, M.D., Director of Medicine.
The Harvard-Mercy relationship was formally announced on April 25, 1975. The upshot of the Harvard-Mercy Collaboration was the “Advances in Medicine” Seminar Program that kicked off at Mercy Hospital on June 11, 1975.
The program was designed to serve the approximately 2,200 physicians in Nassau County and 1,000 in Suffolk County and physicians in the New York metropolitan area at-large. The seminars were recognized by the AMA and physicians who attended the lecture series earned credits toward the AMA Physician’s Recognition Award.
This program of lectures was a success, bringing some of the world’s most keen minds in medical science and technology to Long Island including: the late Dr. George F. Cahill, Jr., an American scientist and international authority on diabetes who made pivotal discoveries about the role of insulin in metabolism; the late Dr. Ramzi S. Cotran, the world renowned Pathologist and Nephrologist (kidney diseases) who was one of the founders of the modern field of vascular biology and the main author of the essential Robbins Pathologic Basis of Disease; the late Paul F. J. New, M.D., an internationally-acclaimed neuro-radiologist who pioneered the use of new technologies in medicine by physicians including CT scanners and EMI (total body) scanners, beginning in the early- and mid- 1970s; the late Arnold N. Weinberg, M.D., a leading infectious disease specialist who conducted pioneering research on combining antibiotics to destroy bacteria with high levels of antibiotic resistance; Peter C. Block, M.D., a pioneer in interventional cardiology who made numerous contributions in the field of cardiology, including helping to develop the subspecialty of structural heart disease; and, Dr. Kurt C. Bloch, a leading allergist-immunologist who developed innovative approaches in desensitizing patients who were dangerously allergic to drugs that were essential to their care.
The reception from physicians to the Seminar Program at Mercy Hospital was enthusiastic. In a letter dated June 20, 1975, the late Dr. Arnold Trietman, an instructor in cardiology at Stony Brook Medical College and a fellow of the American College of Cardiology, congratulated Dr. Leka on a “very auspicious beginning with your lecture series at Mercy Hospital.” In a letter dated June 25, 1976, Mercy Hospital’s Director of Medicine, Dr. Marks, stated that the Harvard professors have been “impressed” with the physicians attending the seminars, and the reception from the physicians to the Harvard lectures has been “outstanding” – and that the program was being extended.
The program also received positive press coverage from The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Long Island Press, Newsday and in medical journals. The seminars were also broadcast on the Physicians Radio Network for the benefit of all physicians.
Reading my father’s correspondence, speeches and press clippings from this period rekindled warm memories. As a child, I enjoyed accompanying my father on his rounds at Mercy Hospital. The nuns and nurses were kindhearted and in those days always had lollipops and candy at their stations. Most importantly, it was an opportunity to spend time with Dad and observe and learn from him in action. When my father was away at Harvard for extended periods of time, I missed him.
In his professional life, as in his personal life, my father was energetic, dedicated and warm, and I enjoyed being around him. He was always convivial with his colleagues and the hospital staff. He was attentive, patient and comforting to his patients, and always available. In a letter dated August 25, 1975, the late Dr. Ronald M. Abel, a cardio-thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at The New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center, conveyed his personal gratitude to my father for the care he provided to his father-in-law, and emphasized “you have no idea how comforting you were to my mother-in-law and my wife” during his care. My father received countless letters of gratitude for the quality of care he provided to his patients and their families throughout his career.
In reading for the first time some of his correspondence and speeches, I was struck by the careful relationship-building, intricate negotiations and his unwavering belief that anything was possible, despite the long odds of a community hospital establishing a long-distance relationship with such a prestigious institution at that time.
I appreciated his precise use of English, particularly when one considers that English was his fifth language and that he had immigrated to the United States as an adult. I was also inspired by what he was able to achieve within the framework and limitations of the highly bureaucratic health and education systems.
Just as my father gave me a view into his professional life, I have done the same with my now teenage son, Dylan, in my fields of cloud computing, artificial intelligence and blockchain, having him participate in product development and marketing meetings. He has also accompanied me at meetings with leading technology companies like Microsoft and Intel. I look forward to doing the same with my younger son, Owen.
In his speech to the Executive Board of Mercy Hospital on September 7, 1976, Dr. Leka challenged Board Members to re-double their efforts to continue to improve the institution. “The status quo is not sufficient to satisfy either our hearts or our minds,” he stated.
Dr. Leka also urged physicians to embrace the “natural quest for improvement” through continuing education in order to provide patients with the highest standards of care in light of rapid advances in scientific discoveries and emerging technologies.
To assure the continuity and advancement of the program with Harvard Medical School, Dr. Leka spoke of the need for unity between the different departments of Mercy Hospital and the importance of a sense of common purpose. He stated, “If we divide ourselves into affiliations with a multitude of institutions who have not committed themselves to the idea of recognizing the needs of the whole, our strength with be dissipated and one by one, each department will succumb to the reality of a lack of pull.”
In the spirit of renewal of the bicentennial year, Dr. Leka demonstrated that with imagination, initiative and determination, all things are possible in America, and set a high standard for his children and grandchildren. – By Donald Leka
(The top photo above: MEDICAL EDUCATION Department head, Dr. Alfred Marks, (left) speaks with Harvard Medical School Professor George F. Cahill, Jr. after seminar held recently at Mercy Hospital on the subject of “Obesity, and Clinical Aspects Of Metabolism”. Shown right: Agim Leka, M.D. and Lawrence Ziff, M.D., chairman of Mercy Hospital’s Medical Education Committee, both Of whom have been working With Dr. Marks on continuing education programs for physicians and surgeons at Mercy.)