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Milestone: A Look Back at Downstate's First Graduating Class, July 24, 1860

First Class at SUNY Downstate

SUNY Downstate celebrated a momentous milestone on July 24th – the 160th anniversary of the first class to graduate from our founding institution, the Collegiate Division of the Long Island College Hospital, also known as LICH. The vision that launched us, the strength of our first faculty, and the excellence of our first class of students were predictive of the strong institution that SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University is today.

Downstate was the first medical school in the United States to teach clinical medicine to students at the hospital bedside—an innovative, and controversial method of instruction in 1860. So, to our students, residents, fellows, and faculty, as you make your hospital rounds, keep in mind that it was our institution that introduced this practice to American medicine.

The first class matriculated on March 29, 1860. Out of a class of 58 students, 21 would participate in the first graduation ceremony four months later. Students came from 12 states, from up and down the eastern seaboard and as far away as Colorado and California, as well as from four foreign countries. Candidates for admission were expected to have studied medicine for three years under the direction of a regular practitioner, be at least 21 years old, and to have good moral character. To graduate, students were required to submit a thesis, in their own handwriting, on a medical subject. 

Our first students studied and graduated during the run-up to the Civil War. In 1860, slavery was a major topic of discussion in Brooklyn’s streets, newspapers, and church pulpits—and likely at LICH. It is interesting to note that much of the same passions are still topics of discussion today. That the leadership of LICH asked Reverend Storrs, a pastor known for his emphatic opposition to slavery, to deliver the prayer at our first graduation provides a clue that LICH strongly supported the abolition of slavery. Social justice discourse, education and advocacy are not new concepts to SUNY Downstate.

Of our first class of graduates, at least eight that we know of fought in the Civil War after graduation, three on the side of the Confederacy, and five for the U.S. Army. Reverend Dr. John Scudder was born in India and returned there to serve as head of the Government and Mission Hospital in the city of Vellore. Born in Martinique, Dr. Arthur Du Berceau, who received Downstate’s first diploma, was also Downstate’s first Caribbean student. His will stipulated that after his death, his diploma be returned to LICH.

In many ways, the Downstate of today is like the Downstate of yesterday. In the 160 years since our doors first opened, we continue to remain united in purpose. We were forged in innovation, grounded in excellence, have persevered through determination, and remain committed to serving our community and advancing medical knowledge. We are Downstate, and we are worth fighting for.

I'd like to extend a very special thank you to Ms. Ellen Watson, AVP in the Office of Communications and Marketing for sharing this beautifully researched and detailed piece on Downstate's history with me with me and our beloved institution.

For more information on Downstate’s history, please see  Downstate’s First Graduating Class, July 24, 1860 on our website and SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University – A History, by Jack E. Termine, Arcadia Publishing.


College of Medicine

Urology Resident Dr. Arturo Holmes Speaks About Wearing Scrubs as a Shield Against Racial Profiling

Dr. Holmes

In the months since the tragic killing of George Floyd, ongoing conversations about police brutality, prejudice, and racial disparities continue to echo around the world. It was an act so horrific, it not only forced our country to confront our history, assess our societal norms, and address a fleeting sense of humanity—it also inspired a great deal of internal reflection in men and women of color grappling with ongoing injustice, while also attempting to articulate the experience of being black in America, while simply going through life's daily rituals.

Dr. Holmes profile

One of those individuals was Downstate Urology Resident, Arturo E. Holmes II, M.D., who recently opened up about his experiences dealing with racial profiling where he detailed his story to the Washington Post in a perspective piece entitled, I’m a Black Doctor. I Wear My Scrubs Everywhere. Dr. Holmes discussed using his scrubs as a layer of protection from prejudice, hate, and any potential harm that may come to him.

In the compelling piece, Dr. Holmes notes, “I wear scrubs and a mask when I’m shopping at the grocery store, rollerblading home from work and even meeting up with friends, always seeking to preemptively exonerate my blackness with my professional garb. It’s about protecting myself. Like many black Americans, I’ve been followed by security personnel through department stores without cause and pulled over by police officers at night for no reason.”  

Dr. Homles is by no means alone, as his story is all too familiar for many. It’s an unfortunate and brutal reality that countless black men and women experience. Rather than freely living as they are, many black professionals live in fear and apprehension, and as a result feel the need to add positive professional identifiers atop their blackness to avoid discriminationhoping be met with respectful and dignified exchanges with those they encounter in the outside world.

Dr. Holmes

Dr. Homles' story was then featured on News12 in “‘I'm human just like you.' Brooklyn doctor opens up about racial profiling” where he expanded on his thoughts, sharing that since being pulled over by police in 2019, his uniform has almost been used as a safety net with the “hopes that his scrubs will change the mind of anyone who would pre-judge him by the color of his skin.”

Although he doesn't believe that anyone—regardless of race, faith, or sexual orientation—should ever have to hide behind a professional uniform, he shared that he will continue to do so until the day comes when he is received in plain clothes with the same dignity and respect as when he wears his clinical attire.

Dr. Holmes’s story has intrigued and touched so many that he had the ability to expand on his story with WebMD’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. John Whyte, MD, and the Washington Post Podcast in forthcoming stories. He also has upcoming appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America and ABC’s Nightline.

I’d like to extend my sincere appreciation to Dr. Holmes for bravely sharing his story, for honestly detailing his personal experiences, and for being a voice in the community that is relatable for so many. All of Downstate stands with him, as well as with our fellow students, faculty, and staff who share in his lived experiences.


College of Nursing

Dr. Marie Tse-Valcin Featured as Guest Speaker for Hot 97’s Community Healthcare Drive & Mix

Dr. Marie Tse-ValcinIn exciting news, Marie Tse-Valcin, DNP, FNP-BC, RN, Clinical Adjunct Professor in the College of Nursing (CON), was featured as a guest speaker on Hot 97.0 FM Radio's Live Special "Healthcare Drive and Mix" with Laura Stylez and DJ Kast One. 

Dr. Valcin's presentation zeroed in on information that can reach and help protect some of the hardest hit communities in New York City from the devastating impacts of the novel coronavirus.

Her talking points addressed the myths and facts about COVID-19, ways to prevent the spread, the importance of wearing a face mask, telehealth visits, and the importance of preventative care. 

Hot 97 logoNurses contributions to the improvement of public health in response to pandemics goes all the way back to the days of Nightingale—the founder of modern nursing. In the early 1900's during the influenza crisis, nurses were vigilant about promoting and putting into practice the teachings of Nightingale, an advocate for thorough handwashing and steadfast sanitation.

In the years since, nurses around the world have continued to answer the call time and time again, serving as front line providers, and direct health liaisons for the community, during some of the world’s most recent infectious disease crises, including our ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

I'd like to take this moment to extend my deep appreciation to Dr. Valcin for reaching and spreading vital, life-saving information to communities who need it most. I'd also like to offer my sincere gratitude to all of the nurses in our College of Nursing, at the University Hospital of Brooklyn, and across our clinical sites. You have been essential to Downstate's COVID-response, to protecting and helping to heal the communities we serve, and I am humbled by your commitment to your patients and your purpose. 


School of Public Health

Dr. Karen Benker Retires from the School of Public Health

benker photo

Today, I’d like to shine a light on the work of Karen E. Benker, M.D., MPH, Associate Dean for Community Relations and Interim Chair for Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health (SPH).

In August 1998, Dr. Benker joined Downstate as Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Practice. Prior to her faculty appointment, she was the Family Practice Fellow in Faculty Development. From 1998 to 2004, Dr. Benker served as Medical Director of Family Health Services and as Coordinator of Geriatrics Training for the Family Practice residents.

benker photo 2Dr. Benker is Board Certified in both Family Medicine and Preventive Medicine, and held faculty appointments in both Family Medicine and Preventive Medicine. In 2004, she relinquished her full-time duties in Family Practice to concentrate on developing and implementing the Master of Public Health Program at SUNY Downstate. As the Department of Preventive Medicine evolved into Downstate's School of Public Health, Dr. Benker took her place as one of the School's core faculty members.

In the School of Public Health, Dr. Benker's work centered around improving the adaptation of health and social services to the public health needs of urban and immigrant populations. Her main educational focus was training competent public health practitioners. She has also served as Co-coordinator of the Culminating Experience—the final project MPH students complete for graduation. As Associate Dean for Community Public Health Affairs, she helped the program maintain active relationships with over 30 community-based organizations and agencies for collaborative work and student fieldwork.

Benker photo 3

Dr. Benker's early research and advocacy focused on homeless families, foster children, and abused children. Most recently, her areas of research included prevention of infant mortality, as well as smoking cessation and cancer prevention. She has received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the evaluation of an innovative community coalition to lower infant mortality in Brownsville, Brooklyn by promoting pre-conceptual maternal health and lowering stress during pregnancy. She is site-principal investigator for a National Cancer Institute-funded Minority-Based Community Clinical Oncology Program study comparing the nicotine lozenge to the patch for smoking cessation. She is also principal investigator on a local study to investigate and understand how local cancer patients would like to receive education about clinical trials.

Benker photo 4

In 2012, Dr. Benker was named Director of Community Medicine in the Family Medicine Residency Training Program.

After nearly 25 years of distinguished service, Dr. Benker has announced her plan to retire. While congratulations on her retirement are certainly in order, Dean Kitaw Demissie, M.D., Ph.D, the SPH Family, the Downstate community, and I would like to thank Dr. Benker for her leadership, unwavering commitment to our students, for adding to the quality of Downstate’s fabric, and for her service to this community.


School of Health Professions

COTAD hosts LGBTQIA+ and Occupation Discussion for PRIDE Month

Pride Flag

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Intersex, asexual, and ally (LGBTQIA+) individuals often face challenges and barriers to accessing needed health services. These barriers and obstacles can result in  worsened health outcomes for these individuals, with challenges that include stigma, discrimination, violence, and rejection by families and communities. One of the most difficult obstacles can be discrimination and inequality in the workplace.

COTAD logo

Discrimination in the work place against individuals because of their sexual orientation occurs when an employee is subjected to negative employment action, harassment, or denial of certain benefits specifically because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Occupational discrimination within the LGBTQIA+ community has long been part of the workplace in America, and while federal, state, and local laws, as well as increased social awareness, have improved the situation dramatically, many members of this community still face obstacles at work related to their sexual orientation.

COTAD logo

In response to these compounding inequities, the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates (COTAD), a student-led association of occupational therapy students from the School of Health Professions (SOHP) held an enriched discussion on LGBTQIA+ and Occupation as part of PRIDE month.  This critical and timely discussion focused on history, social disparities, healthcare concerns, youth and adolescent transitions, and the impact of racial disparities within these communities, and everyday occupations are influenced by inequities. 

Important topics such as social stigma, mental health, gender identity, and occupational justice were discussed in light of recent civil unrest and social events and the impact it has had on healthcare/occupations. The discussion was facilitated by COTAD student leaders Edgar Neris (OTS), Michael Golding, (OTS), and Shelbie Ramalanjaona (OTS), who moderated a respectful, professional, and collegiate discussion.

Many thanks to all who participated and helped to make the event a great success. Special thanks to our student leaders in COTAD for guiding the discussion, as well as to Vikram Pagpatan MS, OTRL, ATP, Faculty Adviser for COTAD, as well as Assistant Professor and Admissions Coordinator in the Occupational Therapy Program, for supporting and encouraging these critical conversations.  Having these critical conversations will help to foster increased tolerance and understanding of diversity, both in the workplace and in society.


Faculty Spotlight

Christina Guillén, MD, FAAP & Jennifer Chao, MD, FAAP Honored with the Leonard P. Rome CATCH Visiting Professorship Award

Catch Logo


CONGRATULATIONS are in order to Christina Guillén, M.D., FAAP, Program Director of the Pediatric Residency Program and Co-Chair of the GME Resident/Wellness Committee, and to Jennifer Chao, M.D., FAAP, Clinical Assistant Professor and Fellowship Director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, both of whom were recently awarded the Leonard P. Rome CATCH Visiting Professorship Award.

The purpose of the Leonard P. Rome Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) Visiting Professorships is to promote advocacy for children and advance the field of community pediatrics. The program is implemented through a partnership between CATCH and the Community Pediatrics Training Initiative (CPTI).

guillen photo

Dr. Guillen graduated from SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University College of Medicine and completed her residency and subsequent chief residency in Pediatrics at Downstate. She then joined the faculty in the Department of Pediatrics at Downstate where she also practices as a general pediatrician.

Dr. Guillen has served as the Child Abuse Specialist for University Hospital at Brooklyn (UHB), conducts the New York State Mandated Reporter Certification Course and has published journal articles on child physical and sexual abuse.

Dr. Guillen is the Director of Community Pediatrics and is responsible for the Community Advocacy elective for residents and medical students. She works closely with the Office of Diversity, Education and Research and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. She oversees the community outreach projects within the department of Pediatrics and collaborates with various community-based organizations in New York City.

Dr. Chao Photo

Dr. Chao graduated from SUNY Upstate Medical University and completed her residency in Pediatrics at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, NY, followed by her fellowship in Pediatrics Emergency Medicine at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. She has served as faculty in the Department of Pediatrics at Downstate since 2007.

Dr. Chao currently serves as a Clinical Associate Professor in Emergency Medicine for Downstate’s College of Medicine, Associate Director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Kings County Hospital Center (KCHC) , and as the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Attending Physician for UHB and KCHC.

Dr. Chao’s research efforts have been led by the interests of Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellows. She has had many research projects published in several national journals, and she maintains a strong vested interest in advocating for re-instatement of Pediatric Trauma status for KCHC and improved resources for pediatric patients in Eastern Brooklyn/ Southern Queens.

CONGRATULATIONS to Drs. Gullien and Chao on this great honor. We very much appreciate the work you both do as role models for our fellows, residents, and medical students.


Downstate Shout Outs!

shout outs

This week I’d like to give Shout Outs to….

The Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health for receiving a grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation to improve health outcome in diverse communities.

Jaycinth V. Blackman, RN, BSN, MS/MBA, CPHQ, LSBB, Director of Quality Assurance/Performance Improvement, who was honored by the United Hospital Fund during its “Tribute to Excellence in Health Care – Recognizing Quality Improvement Champions” virtual event on July 13.

Arnold Strashun, M.D., Director of Nuclear Medicine and Professor of Radiology, for being named a Fellow by the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging during the Society’s 2020 Annual Meeting, held virtually July 11-14.

Psychiatry fellows Alexander El Sehamy, M.D. (Category: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry); Muniza Majoka, M.D. (Category: Diversity Leadership); and Samuel Jackson, M.D. (Category:Public Psychiatry) for receiving 2020-2022 Fellowships from the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.



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President's Bulletin
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