Jack Gardner has led two lives. And the world is better off for it.
After a long and highly successful stint in the business world, the 1965 graduate of Fairfield University launched a second career in the medical field, attending the Yale School of Medicine and graduating as a certified/licensed physician assistant in 2001. That accomplishment in and of itself is impressive. But it is what Gardner has done during his second career that has touched the lives of so many and inspired those wherever he has practiced. He talked of his transition as retired vice president of Travelers/Citigroup (in 1997) to the medical field, and the intense study and effort it took to become a physician assistant.
“I enjoyed the transition immensely and thrived. I had many prior years working with people. Because I was much older than my fellow students and medical peers I had to take the initiative and reach out to address their underlying concern, which was ‘will I fit in?”’
Well, the Portsmouth, N.H. resident has fit in nicely. He has practiced in numerous foreign nations, including Madagascar, Vietnam, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, India, Ukraine, Mexico, Uganda and Haiti, 15 in all, some as many as 12 times, spending countless hours assessing and treating the health needs of individuals. He has personally treated over 10,000 people in developing countries, and if necessary, personally paid for additional medication and/or hospitalization for his patients. In addition, he has recruited and mentored various types of medical students (physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and medical Doctors) during developing country medical trips, worked with in-country medical people to improve their medical infrastructure and guided American medical non-governmental organizations to be more medically effective.
Gardner’s tireless work has earned him a number of honors, including the Olanchito, Honduras Mayor’s Outstanding Civic Achievement Award, and, perhaps a crowning honor, designation as the American Academy of Physician Assistants Humanitarian of the Year in 2012.
“For me the PA Humanitarian of the Year Award offered up two messages,” he said. “PA is a new medical profession that started in the 1960s. All but a few of the 80,000 PAs in the USA were in their first career. The honor meant that older, second career people can bring a lifetime of additional skills and perspectives. Secondly, PA work is not restricted to medical work in the USA.”
Somewhat ironically, the medical field had always interested Gardner, even though his career took a different direction upon graduation from college.
“When I started my undergraduate college career I was thinking pre-med. For a number of reasons I didn’t pursue it. However, I always had the thought ‘maybe someday.’ So the medicine choice was the relatively easy decision.”
During his first career, Gardner received the prestigious “Chairman’s Award,” for the creation, development and management of a new business unit, led a large part of the information technology integration of the Travelers and Aetna merger and earned an MS in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute while working. He said he found good use for skills learned during his business years when subsequently working in the medical field in developing countries.
In 1993, while still working for Travelers/Citigroup, he rebooted his interest in medicine and determined that the physician assistant path would allow him to practice meaningful clinical work in the shortest amount of time. He took night classes, completing eight science courses (“This was a big change for me because one of my criteria for a good year at Fairfield was no science courses.”) with a GPA of 4.0. He also became a working emergency medical technician during this time, receiving East Hampton, Conn.’s “EMT of the Year Award.” He applied to the Yale PA Program for 1998 and was one of only 35 accepted out of 535 applicants. He discussed his head-long venture into the medical field.
“How ‘to do medicine’ was the big decision. I looked at becoming an M.D., but it would require too many years at that point in my life. Nursing removed the decision making that I had spent the previous 30 years doing. PA was a relatively new field. PA (the equivalent of clinical officer in developing countries) would give me both clinical patient contact and decision making. I could do the Yale PA program in a little over two years, full time, with no summers off. My wife Rosemary’s (the couple has a daughter, Kristen) moral support made it all possible.”
He continued, “When I graduated from Yale Medical School I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do. I knew I wasn’t looking for a ‘paying job.’ During my primary care clinical rotation in upstate New York I worked at an inner-city clinic during the day and with migrant workers at night. Many of my patients were recent immigrants or temporary agricultural workers. They started me towards my current work.”
During his journeys he came to believe that what is taught in American medical schools is the “gold standard.” He explained, “The vast majority of the world does not practice medicine that way. You have to spend time in a specific developing country to learn the needs and how they practice medicine in that area.” He said that distance and poverty are severe hurdles for local people looking for medical care in developing countries. “There are also a very large number of NGOs trying to help in developing countries. However, their efforts are fragmented and often short term.”
Gardner says taking people on developing country medical trips has shown that there are a large number of medical and non-medical Americans interested in the type of work he is doing. “However, American medical people sometimes overlook what came before surgery, medical technology and medicines.
Specifically, clean water, management of human waste, health education and vaccinations came first. Because of this, handing out medicines is often only short term relief.” Knowing the high mortality and high morbidity problems for a particular area is key, he said, as well as knowing the supporting medical capabilities in that area.
Gardner’s introduction of various types of medical students, current medical practitioners, and non-medical people to developing country medicine has a purpose.
“My hope is that this introduction and my training will be their first step in continuing work of this type.” Gardner currently undertakes projects that are part of the “delivering healthcare story,” such as clean water, health education, agricultural seeds to address malnutrition and eyeglasses.
To help spread the word about his work he has lectured and published trip summaries and pictures for all his journeys. Gardner pays all his expenses on his trips abroad and does not accept compensation or contributions.
He recalled his days at Fairfield. “Fathers O’Connell and Egan were always there for a “helpful chat” when I needed one. I have fond memories of my friend Jim Zelle and his family. Because of the 50th reunion we have reconnected and I will be visiting him in the spring.”
Gardner has come a long way from washing dishes while attending Fairfield in order to pay his expenses. Now, he’s working to create a cleaner and healthier world for thousands of less fortunate people. As he modestly said, “I am just walking the talk I heard at Fairfield.”