Leo Gordon, MD, Receives Master Clinician Award

By his own admission, Leo Gordon, MD, is a man with a somewhat unrestrained sense of humor. He bubbles over with stories, and he often is the butt of his own jokes.

That gregarious personality has helped Gordon, a general surgeon and professor of Surgery, connect with patients as well as others throughout the Cedars-Sinai organization, where he has spent the last 41 years.

"He has made relationships with everybody in the hospital. Not only the surgeons and other doctors, but people from audiovisual to the cafeteria to the administration," said David Cossman, MD, a vascular surgeon who helped recruit Gordon to Cedars-Sinai. "If you walk down the hall with him, you feel like you don't exist, because everybody is saying hello to him."

But Gordon—the winner of Cedars-Sinai's second annual Master Clinician award, which was given on Nov. 2—always has been intensely serious about his work.

Cossman, who met Gordon when they both were getting their training at what's now called Tufts Medical Center in Boston in the 1970s, emphasized that point in a letter nominating his longtime friend for the award.

Ever since Gordon was a surgery intern, Cossman wrote, "He believed he was joining a sacred profession that demanded total dedication and commitment. During the subsequent 40 plus years that I practiced surgery alongside him, this attitude never withered. He never became cynical. The patient comes first. No cut corners. No compromises."

Gordon remains active assisting in surgeries, consulting with colleagues and patients, and teaching residents.

He also writes. In two books and numerous articles, Gordon often has taken a playful look at medical topics. He's crafting a volume that he's calling Yiddish for Medicine, and is close to finishing a series of three podcasts for General Surgery News, a monthly newspaper, on how body organs got their names.

Leo Gordon, MD, receives Master Clinician Award at Cedars-Sinai.

Leo Gordon, MD

Gordon's interest in medical history blossomed in the late 1990s when he served on the Cedars-Sinai committee that guided the creation of the Jewish Contributions to Medicine mural in Harvey Morse Auditorium. Giving history-based presentations remains one of his chief interests. Last year, he delivered a talk titled "The Impossible Medical School" on a clandestine medical school that operated in Warsaw's Jewish ghetto during World War II. Most recently, in April, he gave a virtual presentation titled, "House Call at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – Presidential Illnesses."

Yet Gordon tries to avoid taking himself, and his intellectual accomplishments, too seriously. "I'm not on the short list for the Nobel Prize," he said. He quickly added that when his late father called him years ago to ask how he was doing in medical school, Gordon replied: "Dad, look at it this way. If it weren't for me, there wouldn't be an upper half of the class."

Gordon grew up, and went to public schools, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where his family owned an army-navy store. "I never saw my father without a cigarette, a cocktail, a smile telling me to have a good time. And I never saw my mother without a pencil, a piece of paper and a book telling me to do my homework. There was some genetic intertwining there that I think has served me well," he said.

He excelled academically in high school, applied to three elite colleges—and was rejected by all of them. Gordon then managed to get into Iowa Wesleyan College—which he described as "a socially acceptable way of running away from home." Happily, though, that's where he met the woman who is now his wife of 47 years, Jan Gordon.

The humanities, as well as medicine and science, have long had a tug on Gordon. At Iowa Wesleyan, he studied some German, and considered a career in the foreign service. But one term at Iowa Wesleyan, he took "Masterpieces of World Literature," followed by an organic chemistry class. In the literature class, Gordon recalls, a discussion focused on the meaning of the Moby Dick character Queequeg floating in a coffin.

"The professor said, 'Well, what does this mean?' And every answer that was given by all the students was deemed to be correct, as opposed to the organic chemistry class that followed, where I think the question was, 'What is the atomic weight of lead?'

"The comfort of only one correct answer kind of sealed it for me, because it was really sort of a metaphor for the whole diagnostic process in medicine," Gordon said.

In medical school at Northwestern University, Gordon said, a successive pair of lectures again led to a quick decision, this time on going into surgery.

Next came his residency at Tufts, and then Gordon was off to Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in San Diego for a fellowship. After that, he was on the verge of taking a job back in his native New England in 1979, but an offer to work in a surgical practice for a year at Cedars-Sinai kept him in California. And, as Gordon put it, "That one-year contract turned into a 41-year adventure."

Over the years, he took on multiple roles at Cedars-Sinai, including clinical chief of general surgery and associate director of surgical education. He ran an annual series, Great Debates in Clinical Medicine, named in honor of one of his mentors, the late Leon Morgenstern, MD, the founding director of Surgery at Cedars-Sinai. (At Gordon’s suggestion, the debate series was given a “bar mitzvah” in 2016, its 13th and final year.)

Allan W. Silberman, MD, PhD, the Robert J. and Suzanne Gottlieb Chair in Surgical Oncology, cited the Great Debates series in an award nomination letter he wrote for Gordon. He noted that it drew "standing room only" audiences, and "most people were there to listen to Dr. Gordon’s pointed commentary and humor."

Gordon developed another program that also ran for years, the M+M Matrix. The program replaced a more traditional morbidity and mortality conference, a forum for reviewing surgical complications and deaths. Silberman wrote that the new approach transformed what had often been "a finger-pointing blame game, into an ongoing patient safety curriculum" that gained national attention.

Gordon's efforts have brought him previous honors that include the annual Medical Chief of Staff Award, a recognition of safe, quality patient care, and the Golden Apple Award for excellence in clinical teaching.

In everything he does, Gordon emphasizes the importance of the personal touch. He advises young doctors that "we're living in a world of voicemail, email, text messages, but you have to put a face on the effort. You have to let people know who you are, what you intend to do and what you're interested in, in a face-to-face manner."

When it comes to engaging with patients, Gordon points to lessons he learned from his mentor, Morgenstern, including what he drew from Morgenstern's 1994 article, The Art of Sitting. As Gordon explained it, "the simple act, when you make rounds, of sitting next to the bed rather than standing" can make a huge difference to patients.

Gordon's latest honor, the Master Clinician award, touched him. The award, he said, is "a sign of respect, and to some degree, admiration, from my colleagues, which really towers over any other thought I might have."