This the fourth profile about our distinguished academicians. The previous ones include Drs. Rodrigue Mortel, Fritz François, Vladimir Berthaud. Do enjoy the reading.
Gary Désir, MD, from natif-natal to blue-blooded Yalie.
One of the great institutions of the land, Yale University School of Medicine, has as its Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, one of our own, born and raised in the motherland. Gary Désir’s life story is the type that doesn’t make the news but the very type we need to remind ourselves of what we are capable of and what we can be remembered for.
If ever there was a propitious time to remind some nincompoop about the historical fact that people from different backgrounds help to make America a great tapestry of talented folks, this would be it. Like a clarion call against the dimwits of the world, in the midst of the month commemorating the cultural value of our group, let’s continue to showcase our accomplishments.
After finishing his class of Rhétorique from St Louis de Gonzague and while vacationing in the US in June of 1972, his father suggested to him that he should remain to finish his education here. He took some English classes at Columbia University during that summer and applied for college then at both Columbia and NYU. He was accepted at both and NYU offered him the chance to begin classes in the spring rather than the fall of 1973. He jumped at the offer and 3 and a half years later, he graduated magna cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa with a BS in Biology. With a choice between Johns Hopkins and Yale, he chose the latter because of his singular curriculum with an emphasis on independent and less structured learning process. In 1980, he graduated with honors and became part of Alpha Omega Alpha. With a choice of renowned institutions to pick from for his training, he decided to remain at Yale because the then chairman of Internal Medicine, Dr. Thier, paid special attention to his human resources and gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Newlyweds, his physician-wife classmate, Deborah Dyett, and he were to have the same call schedule so they can spend time together. That sealed his decision and he has remained at the institution since.
He did a training in Internal Medicine from 1980 to 1983. This was followed by one year of clinical Fellowship in Nephrology plus 3 years of research Fellowship in Nephrology with specialization in Molecular Physiology and more specifically about potassium channels. His entry into academic medicine was eased by his participation in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation “Minority Medical Faculty Development Program.” The creation of such opportunity was spearheaded by Harold Amos who taught Microbiology at Harvard for almost 50 years and became the first African-American Chairman of that department. The program is now named after him (Harold Amos Faculty Development Program). In what amounts to being at the right place at the right time, Gary applied for the program in 1987, one year after its debut.
It provided a solid foundation for doing research. The application process was rigorous and he had the necessary backing of his institution. The yearly stipend was $35,000 plus an additional $25,000 for supply money for a period of four consecutive years. That afforded him the possibility of doing research, publishing and obtaining other research grants, the lifeblood of academia with the motto “publish or perish.” His formative experience with his mentor, Dr. Peter Aronson, at the Development Program was earth shattering and left a lasting impression on him. It turned out to be a win-win situation for him and his institution. His four years spent were a training ground and put him in a competitive position to tackle the cutthroat competition for survival in academic medicine. His first academic appointment was in 1988, as Assistant Professor at Yale Medical School on a tenure track. Touched by the help he received during his association with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, he decided that he, in turn, would help his fellow citizens when given a chance and he has not missed a beat doing so.
His career was launched on a steady track. Up until his present chairmanship position (that involves a lot of administrative tasks), his time was spread between research (80%), clinical work (15%) and teaching Physiology (5%), a combination he craved for. He moved his lab to the Veterans Administration Connecticut Health System (VACHS) Hospital in West Haven, CT in 1992 and remained there until now. He was elevated to Assistant Professor in 1993 and Full Professor in 2003. He served as Section Chief of Nephrology of VACHS from 1997 to 2004. From 2004 till 2013, he served as Chair of Internal Medicine at VACHS. Under his leadership this institution was one of the crown jewels of the national Veterans Administration health system, earning the distinction of five stars, one of only five in the nation.
In 2013, he was appointed interim Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine. Two and a half years later, he was named the permanent Chair.
During his illustrious scientific career, his most outstanding achievement is the discovery of Renalase, an interesting dual-purpose enzyme and hormone depending on its site of action. Renalase functions as an intracellular enzyme that modulates energy production, but once secreted in the plasma, it protects against cell injury and stress. He holds several patents related to the discovery of renalase and its pathways and its use as a therapeutic agent for acute tissue injury and cancer. He is the scientific founder of a privately held biotech company, Personal Therapeutics, focused on commercializing renalase and its pathway, and it is now actively looking at two possible scenarios:
- Renalase agonist to protect against tissue injury in myocardial infarction, pancreatitis, acute kidney injury.
- Renalase antagonist as a means of fighting cancer cells that highjack the Renalase pathway as a survival mechanism.
This is significant bench work with huge potential therapeutic benefits and the originality of the work is worthy of any number of prestigious awards.
On the social front, Gary (full disclosure: he and I were classmates in Haiti), has been involved with two programs he feels strongly about:
- The active recruitment and retention of minority candidates at the University, be it at the student or faculty level. In fact, once a year, he and his wife Dr. Deborah Dyett Desir host a special gathering for faculty members at his home and helps them to socialize and find a friendly/conducive environment at the sprawling campus. This effort is known by the acronym MORE, for Minority Organization for Retention & Expansion and has been in existence for past 10 years. Dovetailing on this model, he has now instituted a similar program within the postgraduate training program at the Medical School, called Diversity and Inclusion Program. It spans the whole spectrum of the clinical specialties. The person in charge is a native of the Dominican Republic, Dr. Inginia Genao.
- Yale-L’Hôpital Albert Schweitzer agro-forestry project. From 2011 till 2016, he became involved in the “Sustainable Development in Post-Disaster Context,” a graduate course at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, showcasing Haiti. The hospital was embarking on a reclamation project of reforestation of denuded surrounding mountains. He collaborated with Gordon Geballe to design a project that helped on several levels: chronic disease management (hypertension and diabetes), public health training (water and food safety, breast feeding). On an annual basis, a team of students from various disciplines (nursing, political sciences, forestry, medicine) would travel from Yale to Haiti and do hands-on work without competing with local labor. It was a successful effort and plenty of timber (mahogany and oak), was planted. Practical research on the appropriate types of crops to grow was a resounding success. Nowadays, he is leading an effort to provide training at Yale under his guidance to Haitian cadre from Albert Schweitzer with all expenses paid. So far, a handful of professionals have participated.
He is the proud father of 4 children Carl, Matthew, Christopher, and Alexandra. Still with his hands full, he is an avid collector of Haitian art (his uncle and cousins are owners of Nader’s Galleries in Haiti), hiking, biking, running and reading.
Reynald Altéma, MD