From immigrant beginnings, Dr. Henri Ford has reached rarefied heights in American medicine, graduating from Harvard Medical School, training as a pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and, over the past 13 years, serving as vice president and chief of surgery for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
This week, Ford climbed another step in his professional career. He was named the new dean of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
Born in Haiti, Ford immigrated to Brooklyn with his family at 13, and he has returned often to his native country to help provide medical care, train doctors and plant the seeds for healthcare infrastructure that he hopes will one day provide many on the island a better life.
UM’s dedication to Haiti, particularly its deployment of surgical teams and other resources following the January 2010 earthquake, played a critical role in Ford’s decision to accept the top job at the Miller School of Medicine.
“This is my dream job,” Ford said on Monday from his office at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, where he is vice dean, professor and vice chair for clinical affairs in the department of surgery. “As I reflect on my journey in American medicine, I truly feel I’ve been preparing all my life to assume a role like this one.”
It’s humbling and truly a privilege to be coming in as the dean and chief academic officer to give back to an institution that has meant so much to me and the Haitian people.
Dr. Henri Ford, new dean of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine
Ford is driven and ambitious. His motto, he said, is, “There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence.” And he means it.
“What enticed me,” Ford explained of his decision, “is that I firmly believe UHealth [University of Miami Health System] and the Miller School of Medicine must become the preferred destination of people seeking the latest advances in healthcare and biomedical research, both nationally and internationally. We have to be the destination of choice.”
Ford starts the job June 1. He said he wants to create a close relationship between UM’s medical school, the university’s healthcare system and the broader community, not just South Florida but the Caribbean, South America and the Western Hemisphere.
“We have to become really a major hub of clinical and biomedical innovation,” he said. “We have to be able to invest in discovery and then have the wherewithal to translate clinical discovery into clinical intervention that will improve health globally.”
And he understands the need for profit in order to drive the mission. In the last year, UHealth’s main hospital has lost millions of dollars and the facility’s patients have dwindled.
While Ford will lead the medical school, and the former dean, Dr. Edward Abraham, has been named UHealth’s chief executive, Ford said the interplay between the two institutions will be critical to the success of both.
“When you look at the Miller School of Medicine, you can see it has a unique opportunity to leverage the strength of the health system and the affiliated hospital, as well as all the other schools, such as the school of nursing, the college of engineering and business administration,” he said. “If we can promote the convergence of these schools and signature programs then we will have the complimentary expertise not only to solve complex problems in research and healthcare, but also to potentially apply the solutions globally and help educate the next generation of doctors and scientists.”
814 Students enrolled in the UM Miller School of Medicine in fall 2017
Like past leaders of UM’s healthcare institutions, Ford believes the university must emphasize translating biomedical breakthroughs into clinical applications for patients.
“There’s a chance to establish a culture of excellence and scientific research and promote translation of discoveries into interventions that will transform lives, improve communities and transform global health,” he said.
Ford also wants the chance to work at an institution that has helped him both personally and professionally, he said.
“It’s great for me to be in a position to give back to an institution that has helped my native country unselfishly,” he said. “One of the things that really attracted me to the University of Miami was their unwavering support for the people of Haiti. The deployment by the University of Miami was truly unparalleled and unequaled. I’ve just never seen another university become so engaged and deploy so many resources during the relief effort.”
Ford said he aims to recruit the best medical students and keep them in residency and later practicing in Miami. But he also understands that the cost of medical school can be a significant barrier to recruiting the best.
“Medical student debt is a serious problem,” he said. “It’s almost a national crisis, and we have to be serious about coming up with scholarships to help defray the cost of attending medical school.”
As a teen immigrant from Port-au-Prince, Ford said he adapted quickly to his new home and high school in Brooklyn, New York, even if his teachers insisted on calling him Henri instead of Ronald, his middle name and the one he had used in his native country.
Medical student debt is a serious problem.
Dr. Henri Ford, new dean of UM’s Miller School of Medicine
But assimilating in the United States was nothing like the culture shock Ford experienced when he went to college in New Jersey.
“While the adjustment from Haiti to Brooklyn was a little bit rough,” he said, “it really did pale in comparison to the culture shock I was going to experience going from Brooklyn to Princeton. I became exposed to a certain amount of wealth opulence and so forth that was really unprecedented.”
He never forgot his beginnings, though.
Ford said his first encounter with UM came through his sister, a school principal in his native Port-au-Prince. About 17 years ago, he said, his sister suffered significant burns over 35 percent of her body. She was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center, where she spent six weeks in the intensive care unit.
“It was the UM doctors and the folks at Jackson that really saved her,” he said. “That was my introduction to the University of Miami.”
Ford would cross paths with UM again in January 2010 after the devastating earthquake that killed thousands.
Living in Los Angeles and busy with his career, Ford said he had stopped visiting the island on an annual basis in about 2003. There had been political turmoil in Haiti, and Ford said he worried about “kidnappings and so forth.”
But after the earthquake, Ford said he stopped worrying about his safety.
“I knew my presence was needed given the skills I possess,” he said. “Surgeon, trauma, critical care and infections — that’s exactly what was needed after the earthquake when you had so many children who had been injured.”
Since then, Ford said he travels to Haiti several times a year to work as a doctor, to train surgeons on the island and to help create the foundation for a reliable healthcare system.
“Had there been reasonable trauma infrastructure,” he said of Haiti after the earthquake, “I think the morbidity that we saw, the mortality that resulted from this earthquake would have been significantly less.”
Ford said he is looking forward to living in Miami, home to the nation’s largest Haitian immigrant community. He sees important parallels between Los Angeles and Miami, two booming cities shaped by immigration, with a widespread need for greater access to healthcare, he said.
In Los Angeles, he said, USC plays a similar role in partnering with the county hospital to help provide care for all residents regardless of their ability to pay.
“It’s reminiscent of our engagement at USC and Keck, where we serve the county hospital and also children’s hospital that really very much supports a lot of indigent children,” he said. “So that mission-based philosophy where we have to address the needs of the community is central to our success, both as an academic health center but also as a resource for everyone else for the community that we serve.”