Dr. Miriam Rossi touched many lives
August 9, 2018
Had it not been for a summer mentorship program that allowed high school students to explore careers in health sciences at the University of Toronto, Dr. Garfield Miller may not have become the first Black to enter the University of Toronto’ s ophthalmology residency program.
In 1994, Dr. Miriam Rossi, Dr. Kristine Whitehead, Dr. Dominick Shelton and Diana Alli – with the U of T’s Faculty of Medicine’s support – launched the program that offers a focus for Black and Aboriginal students with both an interest and aptitude for the sciences, particularly for those who otherwise would not have available mentorship opportunities.
Dr. Rossi, who played a lead role in helping to bring the program to fruition because of her position as associate dean of student affairs in the faculty of medicine, died on July 11. She was 81.
In Toronto for a day to meet with a mentor, Miller attended the viewing before flying back to Ottawa where he’s an eye specialist at the Ottawa Hospital.
“It was through the mentorship program and the connections I made there that I had my first exposure to ophthalmology,” he said. “If Dr. Rossi hadn’t fought to create the program, I may never have had those opportunities”
Miller said Rossi was the perfect role model.
“Her gender, skin colour and even her stature made her stand out from most of her colleagues,” he added. “Anyone of those characteristics could have made her question her place or potential. She, however, was stronger for it. She showed absolute confidence, she demanded fairness and she refused to be denied unjustly. She was strong, yet compassionate. She was tenacious, yet kind. She showed me that it is possible to climb to the highest levels of our profession without comprising one’s integrity.”
Dr. Jason Holmes, an emergency medicine specialist in New Jersey, graduated from the program in July 2003 as a Grade 11 student at Markham District High School.
“Dr. Rossi had a very great impact on my life,” he said. “It was obvious that she cared deeply about each and everyone of us. She made it clear that she was invested in our lives and our success. She was selfless and had a passion for education and helping young people succeed. Her legacy lives on in the lives of all the students she impacted, many of whom are scattered all over the world doing great things.”
After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in nutritional science at Iowa State University, Rossi worked as a registered professional dietician, public health nutritionist and health educator for the City of New York before pursuing medical studies at Howard University and graduating cum laude from the Mount Sinai Medical School in New York.
When her husband Renato Rossi, who is an engineering executive, was transferred to Italy in 1973, she fulfilled the requirements for an Italian medical degree and practiced in Milan for a year before he accepted a professional position in Toronto and the couple moved here.
A Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, Rossi was a pediatrician in the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC) division of adolescent medicine for more than three decades, a U of T registrar and an associate dean of student affairs and administration for 13 years.
It was during her tenure as associate dean that she co-founded the summer mentorship program that nearly 800 students have graduated from. Almost all have attained post-secondary degrees and about half have completed a medical degree or professional program in health sciences.
“Dr. Rossi opened doors for so many people over her professional career and many people will continue to benefit from her life’s work,” said Shelton who is the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre emergency department director of quality and safety. “She mentored many people, both learners and colleagues and her commitment to equity and diversity was revealed in her own professional achievements and her leadership in creating initiatives to increase representation.”
She co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Blacks in Health Sciences, the Black Health Alliance and the Black Physicians Association of Ontario and championed the emergence 10 years ago of TAIBU Community Health Care Centre which provides specialized programs and services to the Black community.
Rossi also served on the Ontario Premier Council for Health Strategy for seven years and was actively involved in medical education for young people and in community health education research.
Alli, who retired in 2012 after serving in several capacities in the U of T faculty of medicine for 38 years, said Rossi has left an indelible imprint on her life and hundreds of students, educators, staff, youth, community leaders and dignitaries.
“She was a phenomenal role model, mentor, confidant and a truly remarkable woman of our generation who led by example,” said Alli. “A champion of diversity, inclusion, social responsibility and the well-being of students and patients, her tireless contributions are unparalleled. In some of our worst economic cutbacks at the university, her mantra ensured our outreach efforts to the most vulnerable and under-represented populations was critical in our budgetary allotments even if we had to beg and borrow.”
HSC staff physician and U of T department of pediatrics professor Dr. Anna Jarvis met Rossi when she joined the hospital in 1981.
“Our relationship started when she entered the pediatric residency in Toronto and it evolved over the years,” Jarvis said in the eulogy. “I was one of her teachers and mentors, especially during the years she was chief pediatric resident and one of my fondest memories was chuckling with Mimi over her mother-in-law’s mistaken impression that all Canadian children were well behaved and they put themselves to bed.”
Jarvis said Rossi, who was passionate about education, made significant contributions as a classroom, clinic and bedside instructor.
“She was a regular guest speaker for my science class for several years in the early 2000s and students enjoyed her warm demeanor, insightful discussion on health concepts and everyday narratives on equitable distribution of medical resources,” Jarvis pointed out. “She will be sorely missed.”
Rossi and her husband donated thousands of dollars to the Black Business & Professional Association scholarship fund of which she was a trustee. The scholarships were awarded in the name of her late grandmother – Minerva Williams Senhouse – who counselled underprivileged youths in Boston for nearly four decades.
Last year, the Miriam Rossi Award for health equity in undergraduate medical education was set up to recognize her outstanding contributions. It aims to reward faculty for their commitment to diversity and health equity in undergraduate medical education.
Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York also paid tribute to her by renaming their quarterly newsletter, ‘The Rossi’.