Young Pitcher Reached Major Leagues of Medicine in Long Cardiology Career
& Jill Hafner
Published May 2009
Robert Adolph, MD, says that as a youngster in Chicago he was torn between two professions: doctor and pitcher.
"Mom wanted me to go into medicine, and dad wanted me to play baseball,” he says, a bashful smile breaking across his face. "But I hurt my shoulder and that was the end of my baseball career.”
Luckily for his patients and students at the University of Cincinnati, this "accident” led to a 46-year-long career in academic cardiac medicine for Adolph, who is now a professor emeritus of medicine in the cardiovascular diseases division at UC.
His love for teaching and for the human side of medicine has led to the creation of the Robert J. Adolph Award for Excellence in Bedside Diagnosis, Humanism and Teaching fellowship, which will be given annually to support education efforts in cardiac medicine.
But another twist on Adolph’s professional life is that he wasn’t always sure he wanted to be a cardiologist—or a physician, for that matter.
"During my first year of medical school at the University of Illinois, I wasn’t quite certain if I was cut out for medicine,” he says. "I had an interest in anthropology and archaeology, but my older sister—my mentor—advised me to go into medicine.
"I was so bored that first year. It was pure memorization, which I hated, but the second year was much better, and I went from a mediocre student to the top of the class.”
Adolph did an internship at Cincinnati General Hospital, now University Hospital, after medical school and discovered a specialty that allowed him to work with his hands while still forming relationships with his patients.
"I sampled surgery, but I didn’t like it because I wanted that interaction; however, I still wanted to work with my hands,” he says.
He recalls that cardiac catheterization and interventional cardiology as a whole was blooming as a subspecialty, and it really intrigued him.
Adolph decided to attend the University of Illinois for residency and became acquainted with Harry Bliss, MD, a cardiologist who became his professional mentor.
"He was a really smart guy who was being adventurous with cardiac catheterization at that time,” he says, laughing. "I always said, ‘You have to be young and a little crazy to be doing these daring things.’”
At this point, Adolph realized that he liked making patient diagnoses.
"It allowed me to use my wits, senses and brain,” he says. "I learned how to make a diagnosis just by the sounds the heart made.”
And so was born Adolph’s cardiology expertise.
After he completed his residency in Chicago and a fellowship at the University of Washington, Adolph returned to UC and began to teach future doctors about diseases of the heart.
He served as a professor of medicine and pharmacology and cell biophysics in addition to serving as director of the cardiology division from 1986 to 1990.
Adolph says he never took any teaching courses but discovered on his own that learning was an emotional experience—not an intellectual one.
He would record the various murmurs of patients’ hearts and play them for students during lecture in a grand production that also involved flashing lights and booming speakers.
"I never had a student walk out of my lecture,” he says proudly. "Teaching gave me so much satisfaction.”
In addition to his outstanding teaching techniques, which earned him multiple Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching, Adolph led groundbreaking research in the areas of cardiac physiology, physical examination and nuclear cardiology.
Some of his best-known research relates to practical and cost-effective efforts to maximize information derived from careful physical examination of the heart.
Now, Adolph hopes that the fellowship named in his honor will impart these important cardiac care strategies on other young doctors.
"I really want young physicians to see that medicine begins at the bedside,” he says. "You need to build a relationship with the patient above all else.
"I hope this fellowship will go to cardiologists who aren’t just technicians—those who will take the time to learn interventional techniques for heart patients, but will also learn bedside manner, humanism and will embrace academic medicine.”
Even though Adolph has stopped teaching, he continues to keep in touch with former students.
And it doesn’t hurt that his wife of 23 years, IvaDean Lair, assistant dean of student affairs and medical registrar, is a well-known figure within the College of Medicine.
"Everyone knows and loves her,” he says, chuckling. "It’s great to stay connected through her.
"If a student was ever unsure about what they thought of me, I’d tell them that I was married to IvaDean and I was in.”
Adolph still keeps tabs on former patients, many of whom view him not only as their dedicated doctor but also their confidant.
"My patients throughout the years have been so good to me,” he says. "I suppose when you get to the point where your patients become your friends as well, you’ve done a good job.”
Adolph Award Honors ‘Legacy,’ Supports Cardiology Fellows
As a tribute to the 46-year career and legacy of Robert Adolph’s work, the cardiovascular diseases division at the UC College of Medicine has established the Robert J. Adolph Award for Excellence in Bedside Diagnosis, Humanism and Teaching.
The Adolph Award will be given annually to a fellow to support his or her education efforts in cardiovascular medicine.
Recipients of the Adolph Award will be those who demonstrate interest and aptitude in teaching students, residents and colleagues; humanism in cardiovascular care; and interest in mastering bedside diagnosis as the first step in cost-effective cardiovascular care.
The College of Medicine is seeking support from alumni, colleagues, past patients and friends to ensure that this award is endowed. A minimum goal of $50,000 needs to be secured.
"Dr. Adolph has been a constant in the medical community for many years, and he is recognized for his outstanding bedside care and diagnosis,” says Myron Gerson, MD, professor of medicine in the cardiovascular diseases division at UC.
"Throughout his life and career he has touched countless lives, both professional and personal. His commitment to excellence in cardiovascular medicine and dedication to his patients’ comprehensive care have been a model for many cardiology fellows.
"My hope is that others will join us in honoring and perpetuating his legacy of dedication and devotion by helping us endow this important award,” says Gerson.
To contribute to the fund, contact Mike Zenz at (513) 558-3355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.