Ralph A. O’Connell: New York Medical College
Joan Baum, Ph.D.
not as well known perhaps as some other medical schools in the
New York City area, the School of Medicine at New York Medical
College in Valhalla, in Westchester County, is hardly a well-kept
secret. Most people are particularly aware of the 140 year-old
private health sciences university through its teaching affiliation
with St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center and with Metropolitan
Hospital, two of the busiest medical complexes in the City, though
some may also know of the College’s outreach with a foster care
agency in the Bronx. It is St. Vincent’s, however, where New York
Medical College students were recently most visible. At least
50 third-year students were working there on September 11th and
saw the chaos in the streets, helped out where they could, and
then realized with growing horror the next day what it meant when
patients stopped arriving.
The difference between the bucolic Hudson Valley campus where
students live and study and the heady urban scene, with its constant
supply of emergency room patients felled by drugs and violence,
is certainly appreciated by the Dean and Provost of New York Medical
College, Dr. Ralph A. O’Connell, who is also Vice-Chairman, Emeritus
of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Vincent’s. The Dean, a
graduate of Cornell Medical College, is proud of New York Medical
College’s unique position in the state: the only academic biomedical
and pharmaceutical research institution between New York City
and Albany. The College is also a resource for community physicians
and faculty, a place of employment for area residents, contributing
to the economy of the region, and, most of all, a competitive
medical school educating physicians, scientists and healthcare
professionals, who, reportedly, “score markedly higher than the
national average in standardized tests.” Close to half the diverse
student body are women, and graduates can be found in 98 medical
centers across the country.
A typical class has 185 students, “rather large,” the Dean acknowledges,
but for that reason even more challenging to deliver the best
medical education with as much attention to individuals as possible.
On average, he points out, doctors spend eight minutes with their
patients. The Dean clearly wants his own graduates to spend more.
He sets a model in this regard. Reflecting on the events of September
11th he notes that he was able to get downtown the next day, an
“eerie experience,” and spoke to students who saw the second plane
hit and who subsequently were witness to the desolation of families
and friends who kept descending on the hospital, looking for names
or bodies. And then, when the anthrax scares materialized, these
same students faced surging crowds insisting on nasal swabs. Were
the students traumatized? Did they waver about staying in medicine?
There is no hesitation. The Dean is soft-spoken but swift and
Dean O’Connell is proud of his curriculum, of the fact that New
York Medical College had already incorporated new emphases demanded
by a world facing bio-terrorism, and of the care with which the
College is moving to respond to the extraordinary explosion of
information, particularly in light of the genome project. His
related priorities for students, he says, are medical research
and getting students to learn how to explore what they need to
know. “Take AIDS,” for example. “The Internet can access 100,000
sites, but which ones are of value?” When he speaks of graduating
“well trained” students, Dean O’Connell means those who are not
only up-to-date but those whose basic science skills are solidly
in place; whose clinical work has taught them the value of getting
to know their patients; and whose disposition to incorporate the
training they receive in medical ethics courses represents real
commitment. Ethics, in fact, infuses three years at New York Medical
College, starting with courses in principles and moving on to
case analyses, thus paralleling the principles/case history track
in the sciences.
Dr. Ralph O’Connell became Dean of New York Medical College’s
1,600-member student body, he says, because he enjoys working
on various and complex issues and talking with students and colleagues,
though obviously all the conversations have obviously not prevented
him from pursuing his own research, much of it in the areas of
psychiatry, psychopharmacology and psychopathology. The Dean is
also an active community member, serving as both an elected and
appointed board member of schools, charities, councils and clubs,
including the Archdiocese of New York, with which New York Medical
College is affiliated, though not in a formal legal or fiscal
in Teutonic lore may be the resting place of the heroes, but clearly,
for Dean O’Connell it is the birthplace of heroes to come.
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