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Dr. Robert C. Nuss leaves behind a legacy of growth, leadership and respect at Jacksonville’s UF campus

Published: January 18, 2012
Robert C. Nuss, M.D. Robert C. Nuss, M.D.

There are slight variations in the wording, depending on which friend or colleague or former student of Robert C. Nuss, M.D., you talk to.

But the message they all relay of Nuss' personal philosophy is clear: If something is worth doing, it's worth doing to the highest level of excellence.

And as the second of his two highly decorated careers winds down this month, it's tough to argue that anyone embodied that creed more than Nuss himself.

Nuss, 74, retires at the end of this month after nearly 40 years on campus, the last 10 as dean of the University of Florida College of Medicine–Jacksonville and associate vice president for health affairs for UF.

Under his watch, the college expanded its primary care business, establishing more than two dozen clinics and countless other specialty offices across north Florida. Nuss made research a priority and that commitment has continued to expand, bringing in close to $20 million in funding for projects in FY 2010-11. At the same time, residency and fellowship programs are sprouting and flourishing in Jacksonville.

Gone are the days of constant headlines about the financial peril at the hospital, which cycled through a series of names and owners. Now, it's all growth, on the 10-city-block campus UF and Shands Jacksonville share and out in the community.

"What we've built under his leadership is amazing," said Guy I. Benrubi, M.D., senior associate dean of clinical affairs, who first met Nuss as a resident in 1975.

Nuss ascended to the top spot in Jacksonville after already rising to the pinnacle of his military career. He retired from the Naval Reserve in 1993 as a two-star admiral, the highest rank a reservist can reach.

With an academic health center and a significant military presence, Jacksonville ended up being the ideal career home for Nuss, though he had little inkling of that when he joined the faculty in 1972.

Less than a year after he arrived as the city's first gynecologic oncologist, Nuss interviewed for a new job back home in Pennsylvania.

He didn't leave; nor did he take any other offers or opportunities that came his way during nearly four decades.

Along the way, his two-year service military requirement also became 34.

"You might say," Nuss deadpans, "that I don't especially like change."

"I didn't come here to be Dean"

Benrubi, a close friend and colleague, estimates half of the gynecologists in Jacksonville trained under Nuss at one point.

Richard Myers, MD, was among the first residents to train under Nuss in Jacksonville, and considers Nuss a tremendous mentor to him and countless other physicians in town.

"He's a doctor's doc," said Myers, a founding partner of North Florida OB/GYN who did his residency from 1973 to 1976. "You couldn't find a better example of someone you'd want to model yourself after."

Even now, 30 years after he finished his residency, Ken Sekine, MD, says when he finds himself in a tough spot during a surgery, he draws back on his training and asks himself, "How would Dr. Nuss get out of this?"

Nuss was known as a tough teacher and one students grew close to, especially toward the end of their residencies, said Sekine, now a partner with Sekine, Rasner and Brock.

While Nuss is known more now for his role as a dean, his work seeing patients still stands out for Larry Freeman, a former administrator at Wolfson Children's Hospital who retired in 2010.

Freeman remembers a nurse more than two decades ago who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which at the time had a far lower survival rate than it does today.

"She went to Dr. Nuss expecting a death sentence," Freeman said. "He told her, 'We're going to fight this thing and we're going to win this thing.' "

She's still alive and Freeman says he can't think of her without thinking of Nuss, too.

As Nuss climbed the ladder and transitioned into the dean's office, he continued to see patients and take night calls at the hospital until 2003.

Nuss remembers taking residents on rounds and realizing he had also trained the father of one of them.

"That was it," Nuss said. "I knew I'd been doing this too long."

A private practice at a public hospital

Long before bringing in commercially insured patients was commonplace in academic medical centers, Nuss had a book of patients who came from across the region just to see him.

Until Nuss recruited Benrubi back to Jacksonville in 1981 after a fellowship, Nuss was the only gynecologic oncologist in northeast Florida. Benrubi made two and, together, they built a practice and were among the only physicians who brought private patients into what was then called University Medical Center.

"If you've got something unique to offer, you can bring lots of paying patients into this setting. Bob Nuss proved that 35 years ago," said Ronald M. Rhatigan, a UF professor of pathology and one of the few remaining physicians who arrived at UMC before Nuss.

Now, faculty members are expected to bring in private patients and Nuss works on the business end parallel to Jim Burkhart, president and CEO of Shands Jacksonville.

Burkhart, a retired Army colonel, first came on as a consultant to work through the hospital's financial issues and immediately found common ground with another former military leader in Nuss.

Nuss fought for the Jacksonville campus, elevating the heads of the Jacksonville departments from associate chairs who reported to Gainesville, to full chairs who report directly to him. The leader of the campus is now the dean, not just an associate dean. The titles are significant in showing the autonomy of the campus and are a source of pride for Nuss.

Nuss and Burkhart worked toward a common goal to build the business and raise the profile of the college and hospital—though not without some disagreement over the years.

"You always know where you stand with Bob Nuss," Burkhart said. "It's not easy to misunderstand Bob and what he needs you to do."

Burkhart said that attribute is a prime reason the two had such a successful partnership and were able to make tremendous progress together.

Nuss said he tries to hire the best people he can find and the caliber of his leadership team over the past 10 years is what is most impressive to W.A. "Mac" McGriff, the former CEO of University Medical Center who now serves on the boards for both University of Florida Jacksonville Healthcare, Inc. and Shands Jacksonville.

"He holds them to a pretty high standard and gets a lot out of them without having to say much," McGriff said. "Everything I've ever watched Bob Nuss do, he's done in a first-class manner."

UF faculty and residents in various pediatric specialties work and train at Wolfson, so the college and hospital have a handful of contractual relationships, Freeman said.

When he dealt with Nuss, Freeman said he never needed to refer to the contracts; Nuss' word was gold.

"He's the kind of guy you just want to follow," Freeman said. "He could tell me anything and I'd just say, 'Yes, sir.' "

"He'll always be Dr. Nuss"

Nuss doesn't look at much he does as extraordinary, friends and colleagues say, and he'll downplay praise when it comes his way.

When he's told that Sekine has said for years he'd want Nuss if he ever needed abdominal surgery — even if Nuss doesn't work on men — Nuss brushes it off by saying he just did his job.

And when asked about the kidney he donated to his daughter Pam in 1993, he treats it like any other thing a father does for a daughter.

"I don't think it speaks about my character," Nuss said, "It's just something that you do."

When she was a teen, his oldest daughter Pam developed juvenile diabetes that spun out of control.

She needed a kidney and pancreas transplant. The pancreas came from a cadaver. The kidney came from her father.

Every year on April 13 — "Kidney Day" — a bouquet of flowers will arrive from Pam, now 50.

It's just part of doing everything, professionally and personally, to the highest level of excellence.

"There are certain people in your education and training that will always be Dr. So-and-so. He'll always be Dr. Nuss," Sekine said. "I'm 63 years old and I still call him Dr. Nuss."

Career timeline:

1972: Appointed director of gynecologic oncology at University Medical Center.

1974: Among first class of physicians certified in the subspecialty of gynecologic oncology.

1980: Receives Robert J. Thompson Award for Excellence in Gynecological Teaching.

1984: Earned rank of admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve Medical Corps.

1993: Retires from the Naval Reserve as a two-star admiral, the highest rank for a reservist.

1997: Wins Thompson award again, becoming the first two-time recipient.

2002: Named senior associate dean of the UF College of Medicine and associate vice president for health affairs at UF Health Science Center Jacksonville.

2007: Named first dean of the regional campus, UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville.

Robert C. Nuss, M.D.

For more information, please contact:
UF Health Media Relations
904-244-3268