Reynald Altema, MD

We are all familiar with a smart fellow that we call a bolid  in our vernacular. Such a person embodies a lot of prized qualities: the uncanny ability to solve difficult problems, humility, and the pride in teaching others. Such a combination is rare, for the average smart person tends to be arrogant. In our culture, we are proud of a smart person who also happens to be a good teacher. We should not be surprised to find out that other cultures also reward such individuals.
In the best example of meritocracy at work, no less than one of our known has been the beneficiary of a remarkable fast track at one prestigious institution of higher learning right here in New York City, NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Fritz François who had presented at our annual convention twice within the past six years was named the Chief of the Department of Medicine at the Tisch Hospital of NYU, only nine years removed from his Fellowship training!
That a rapid ascent could happen to Dr. François is indicative of the brilliance of the man. His bio is very interesting indeed. He emigrated to the US from Haiti at the age of 10. He was born from modest parents and he wears his humble origin with a badge of honor. He readily volunteers the information that his father retired as a janitor. Yet he graduated cum laude from NYU with a major in philosophy and was the commencement speaker. (When I first met him at our convention in Aruba on the beach, he was reading a philosophy book of Kant in a new format called e-book on the coolest gadget at the time: the Kindle). He then attended Medical School at NYU and completed his postgraduate training at the same institution, including a Chief Residency in Medicine and a Fellowship in GI. Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe the awe inspiring CV he calls his. While a Fellow, he was already an Assistant Program Director of Internal Medicine Residency, a position he held for three years. Once his training finished, he remained on the Faculty as Assistant Professor of Medicine and within four years vaulted to Assistant Dean, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Diversity. As of 2013, he became an Associate Professor of Medicine with Tenure and as of July 2013, he was promoted to the position of Chief of Medicine. This would be the envy of anyone to have such a distinguished academic path. However, and this is the very interesting part, this very impressive swath is only part of the story. Three years after his Fellowship in GI, he obtained a Masters in Clinical Investigation. His academic teachings include the School of Medicine, the School of Law and the School of Public Health. This is still the tip of the iceberg of his academic activities. He is a premier researcher and has the rarest of distinctions: he is able to obtain sizable grants year after year for his bench work.
This is very refreshing to notice that he is a throwback to the days when clinical examination along with teaching, were at the pinnacle of the practice of medicine, giving us renowned clinicians such as Osler, Laennec, Cushing… Unfortunately nowadays at major academic centers, the trend for an academician veers toward clinical investigation for publication and clinical practice i.e. seeing, taking care of patients as well as teaching students and residents alike is sneered at. If ever one needed proof that the two are not mutually exclusive (ceci n’empêche pas cela), he is the poster person for such straddling of both aspects. I keep being reminded by my colleagues who studied back home that an emphasis on bedside examination and diagnosis rather than the modern tendency to jump to lab exams was the norm in the days of yore and further that clinical acumen was always a source of pride and a mark of distinction.
His areas of investigation include Colon Cancer, H. Pylori, GERD, Adipokines in GI health and disease. (It is of interest to note that the GI tract is becoming a source of intense scrutiny as the source of numerous and unrelated systemic illnesses when it is not functioning well).
Dr. Fritz François, as we alluded to earlier, qualifies as a bolid because his academic credentials are second to none, he has the keen sense of looking for a solution outside of the box and above all, he is in the rarefied atmosphere of being a scholar teacher. NYU has bestowed upon him the title of Distinguished Teaching Award earlier this year, a reward rarely given in its long history! In fact the list of awards he has earned over the years is mind-boggling. It would take too much real estate to enumerate all of them. A brief sampling would start with his undergraduate days; he received yearly the Larry Silverstein Academic Achievement Scholar and his senior year, the NYU Founder’s Day Scholar. During Medical School, for two years he was a National Medical Fellowships Scholar and did research in Biomedicine and Addiction respectively. In 2004, he received Rising Star Research Award from no less than the National Cancer Institute. He was a five-time recipient of the American Society of GI Endoscopy Crystal Award: Diversity/Gender Research. He became a member of the medical honor society of Alpha Omega Alpha of NYU as of 2010. His undergraduate degree in Philosophy has been put to good use because he has received numerous awards for his humanitarian work: in 2010 after the infamous earthquake in Haiti, he led a team of volunteers to help and later on the same year he was awarded a Haiti Heroes Award by the Greater NY Hospitals Association, and the Dept. of Medicine Humanism Award (NYU). In 2011, he received the MLK Humanitarian Award from NYU and in 2012 the Haitian Humanitarian Award from the Haitian Consulate General.
As an academician, he has already published more than 50 papers. He serves on the editorial board of several peer-reviewed journals and as a consultant for many others. He revels in trying to create more diversity in Medicine among its practitioners and has mentored numerous students and Fellows.
Were one to conclude from the above exposé that Dr. Francois is a driven man with an alpha male ego pursuing work to the exclusion of family life, one would be sadly mistaken for he believes in conjugal harmony and takes pleasure in involving his close ones to participate in his leisurely activities. For example, along with his adolescent son and his wife, he has been taking classes in Tae Kwon Do for the past two years and soon they will all be black belts! Or one might mention that the whole family avidly participates in obstacle races and for this year has completed a5K Zombie and 5K MudManX runs.
His influence has transcended the confines of his campus. Earlier in the year, he was paired with Dr. Collins, Director of the NIH on a panel for the launching of LabTV, a video project sponsored by MedTV, of academicians discussing their lives and projects; it is aimed primarily at furthering the exposure of bright minority scientists and hopefully to encourage youngsters to consider such career paths. He is actively working with a team at NYU to come up with a video to be broadcast on LabTV.

What does a passionate of philosophy with access to the great thinkers of our planet from the legendary fabulists Aesopus to La Fontaine, from the oft quoted and polemical Aristotle to Voltaire, the analytical but secular Descartes to the insightful but religious St Thomas of Aquinas want to pick as a memorable saying? Tellingly a Haitian proverb: Min ampil, chaj pa lou! Folks on this side of the Atlantic would say It takes a whole village… This drives home the observation that as maligned as our motherland is, its products, like its sons and daughters as well as its language, can attain any summit. Excellence is achievable irrespective of gender or national origin. This is a most welcomed counterpoint to the redolent images of the wretched poverty or the allegorical construct of a scarred country either in the throes of a grand mal seizure or in a permanent state of postictal coma.

Dr. François with his wife.            The François family

It has become customary this time of autumn for the past century to honor prominent scientists who have produced seminal work with the most prestigious of awards: the Nobel Prize. We can only hope that one day his pioneering inquisition into the mysteries of the GI tract and its effects on health will be considered worthy of such a cap.

It is quite clear the man has a very busy schedule; but true to form he doesn’t cease to amaze when one considers the following: he still finds time to run 50 miles and bike 20 miles a week!
Ayibobo for our bolid of the first order.


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