Roger Gollub, a model for leadership in public health

Dr. Roger Gollub and his beloved golden retriever, Sophie, at the famous Balto  statue in downtown Anchorage.

Dr. Roger Gollub and his beloved golden retriever, Sophie, at the famous Balto statue in downtown Anchorage.

Five years ago today, on a cold Alaska night, I was awoken by a strange phone call left on my answering machine saying something had happened to my Anchorage friend, Dr. Roger Gollub. Confused, I called the emergency room at the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue, a remote bush city in the Northwest Arctic Borough, 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi Sea. Roger had flown there a day earlier on assignment—I was with him the night before. I could not believe what I heard. The medical personnel told me, with great difficulty, that one of county’s finest pediatricians and public health caregivers had died from injuries sustained on a trail just outside of town that night.

Dr. Roger Gollub, a career pediatrician with the U.S.  Public Health Service’s Indian Health Service, never returned home from his short visit to care for patients in this mostly Native community. He, along with a coworker, were mushing on a shared-use trail in subzero weather, under Alaska’s majestic starry skies, when they were run over by a snowmachine. The driver had a criminal background and was under the influence of drugs and booze. It was about a senseless a crime as I could have ever imagined, and more brutal because of the injuries Roger and his coworker sustained. (Note, Roger’s colleague survived, but only after heroic procedures and months of recovery, all costing more than any non-wealthy person can afford.)

After a bitter scream of disbelief upon hearing the news, I caught myself and thought, what would Roger do. I then spring into action for the next 24 turbulent hours, and the years beyond. In fact, my response to Roger’s tragic passing continues to this day. I would never have gone back to graduate school and earned my MPH in 2012 had I not been inspired by Roger’s amazing life’s work. He remains the finest man I have ever known.

Roger Gollub's good friend and champion in so many uncountable ways, Gunnar Knapp, stands by spot where Roger was taken. Thanks, Gunnar, for sharing this with all of us who cared about Roger.

Roger Gollub’s good friend and champion in so many uncountable ways, Gunnar Knapp, stands by the spot where Roger was taken on Nov. 19, 2008. Thanks, Gunnar, for sharing this with all of us who cared about Roger.

Roger had just retired from a distinguished career, which included an epidemiological residence with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and path-breaking work with Native American and Alaskan Native communities (details here). He was still working under contract serving his many patients, and thinking about an active life ahead, including research, time with his wife and two daughters, projects with the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club, and travels he long delayed. Roger’s death forever changed my life, but also in a good way. From that time on I vowed to work even harder at showing the type of leadership that Roger demonstrated throughout his life.

Though he was only 5’6”, Roger towered above his peers as a professional, and particularly as an exemplary caregiver who understood his young Native American and Alaskan Native patients and their families. He was named physician of the year by the national health agency he dedicated his life too. He had legions of fans across the U.S. Public Health Service who held him in the highest of regards.

At Roger Gollub's "Celebration of Life," hundreds of well-wishers offered condolences and happy memories of one of Alaska's finest doctors ever (December 2008).

At Roger Gollub’s “Celebration of Life,” hundreds of well-wishers offered condolences and happy memories of one of Alaska’s finest doctors ever (December 2008).

I saw hardened, even stoic and cantankerous men who knew him through his ham radio activities openly weep when trying to make sense of his death. (Roger was an advanced ham, who knew Morse code, and who brought amazing life into the local club.) I saw more than 500 mostly Alaskan Natives give him the highest honors normally bestowed only to revered elders. I heard dozens of stories describing how Roger helped and even saved their very sick children, all while preventing costly medical waste within a sometimes-inefficient bureaucratic health delivery system. That alone is amazing, and Roger never expressed cynicism about that system that often thwarted him and his seasoned colleagues.

This letter, published in the Anchorage Daily News shortly after his death, captured a sentiment that lit up the blog coverage of his passing, with comments pouring in nationwide: “I am sure I’m not the only one who feels a great loss with the recent passing of Dr. Roger Gollub. He was truly a man with a servant’s heart and had a tremendous impact on my family. As a pediatrician at the Alaska Native Medical Center, he has shown pure dedication to the Native community and loved each and every patient. He had a place in my heart and my children’s. Once, my daughter had to see another doctor while he was on vacation, and cried for her doctor to come back. The world will never see another with the same compassion, dedication, intellect, integrity and valor as he. I was privileged to know this man for six years and he will never be forgotten in my children’s heart and mine. Linda Tomaganuk Anchorage.”

On the darkest of days, Roger still managed to smile. He always took phone calls from worried parents–at home, in his car, on his walks, wherever. How many doctors take house calls, or personal calls, ever? That was Roger. That was the kind of leader he was. He breathed it. He lived it.

Roger demonstrated to me examples of the leadership that I admire most:

Emotional Intelligence: Roger demonstrated this trait that most researchers say is the best predictor of leadership. He never appeared flustered. His coworkers described his ability to bring chaotic situations under control, in hospital wards or during infectious disease outbreaks, with a calm, deliberative, thorough, and positive manner. It proved contagious, and he earned trust and credibility among his peers.

Understanding of and Respect from his Peers: Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest politician, was infamous for his empathy and his ability to understand his friends and opponents, which helped him articulate decisions and policy choices that always seemed perfectly suited for the difficult challenges ahead. He knew where the audience was, and where he needed them to go. Roger was celebrated in the Indian Health Service for his true commitment to community based participatory research, for which he earned the deepest respect from his Native American medical professionals. Mention Roger to anyone who has worked in this community, and you will quickly learn of Roger’s deep and genuine appreciation for the community he served during his lifetime. I met a former career pediatrician in the Indian Health Service last spring and mentioned Roger’s name, and was greeted by the most contagious grin I had seen in months. One University of Washington School of Public Health faculty member, who specializes in the field of community based participatory research and who knew Roger in New Mexico, said unequivocally, “Roger was the real deal.”

Leading by Example: Dorris Kearns Goodwin’s portrayal of Lincoln’s wartime cabinet, his famous “team of rivals,” highlights Lincoln’s eventual winning over of Democrat Edward Stanton. Before the Civil War, the former Ohio attorney had ridiculed and mocked the then lesser-known Illinois lawyer as a “long-armed ape” during a legal case during which Stanton shunned Lincoln’s work. Lincoln did not hold a grudge, and he then sought out Stanton to run the War Department during the Civil War, because he had the right qualities to master a complex organization. Stanton later become Lincoln’s strongest ally. Lincoln’s ability to put aside personal grudges and genuinely collaborate even with his political rivals was not an act. It was genuine.

Roger treated everyone he interacted with, even those who did not return the courtesy, with respect. I never once heard him utter a bitter word or even cynical comments, even when I expected them. I have met few people who have demonstrated this trait. Roger had a work ethic paralleled by few. He put in 12-hour days and longer, never compromised his duties as a father or husband, and excelled at nearly anything he tried to do—medicine, engineering, ham radio communications, running, parenting, research, epidemiology, research. Roger adopted practices seeing patients that saved taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, which his peers steadfastly noted at his funeral. He never sought glory, though during his life he was gaining a national reputation he could never even imagine.

That tiny little guy you see in the front row, in the middle, is team captain Roger Gollub (University City Senior High School Track Team, 1973).

The small guy in the front row, in the middle, is team captain Roger Gollub (University City Senior High School Track Team, 1973).

Roger  particularly demonstrated this talent at University City High School, where he ran track and cross country. I attended the same high school, though ten years after Roger. Roger was the smallest man on an interracial track team, which was comprised of very large young men who towered over Roger. Racial tensions were real here, but so were the strong bonds. I know this school, and I can assure you this is a serious alpha dog environment and not for the faint of heart, particularly among young, competitive men. Roger’s peers voted him captain of the track team, because he pushed the bar farther and competed harder and ran faster than all of them. In short, he inspired them to do better. He never asked for that title. He earned it. He made his team a genuine competitor at the state level. Roger carried that excellence to Yale where he competed for the Yale track team as well. (Roger’s own running hero was Olympian Edwin Moses.)

Moral Vision and Visionary: Roger’s values were nurtured in his Jewish, middle-class upbringing in a diverse community, University City, Mo., which we both called home. (I lived next door to Roger, but only briefly overlapped when I was younger, as he was 10 years older.) It was an often-hard place to learn about racial differences, but also a great place to dream big about pursing a path that made a difference. Roger knew exactly who he was and what he wanted. He graduated class valedictorian in 1973, and never forgot his roots. His vision was, as his friends said, a mix of Mighty Mouse heroism mixed with the Star Trek prime directive to do no harm–and yes, these describe his actions and values as a doctor working cross-culturally.

At Roger Gollub's celebration of life, his family assembled assorted "tools of the trade" he used to care for sick kids, and of course the famous lobster hat.

At Roger Gollub’s celebration of life, his family assembled assorted “tools of the trade” he used to care for sick kids, and of course the famous lobster hat.

I never once saw Roger lose faith in others or in the inherent goodness of people. His service to patients, the core mission of the U.S. Public Health Service, and purposes far bigger than himself can be seen in every personal and professional choice he ever made. He demonstrated and articulated a clear, humane vision for health care, community, family, race relations, and society that he blazed intensely everyday, inspiring dozens if not hundreds by his example.

Don’t be fooled by that doctor you see in this picture with a goofy grin, and a lobster hat and Elmo toys. That was a master professional’s slight of hand to get nervous kids comfortable and the most conniving of change agent’s subversive and effective strategy to reform a health care system that has long forgotten how to put compassion ahead of egos and profits.

I have yet to meet anyone in the field of public health and public service who embodied all of the leadership traits Roger seemed to have in spades. Sometimes we just get dealt the right hand and can say, damn, I was lucky I had a chance to work with or know such a gifted, natural leader. Thanks, Roger!

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2 thoughts on “Roger Gollub, a model for leadership in public health

  1. Thanks for this wonderful memory. I was just in “Roger” territory in Albuquerque and the Zuni pueblo. I even saw the Artichoke Cafe where Roger took me in the hope of seeing Awadagin Pratt. I was so happy when he and Diane and the girls moved to Anchorage though our actual contacts were brief due to busy lives, they were always special.

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