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One On 1: North General Hospital's Dr. Samuel Daniel

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of a doctor who has taken an unlikely path to being the head of a hospital, and an important part of the comeback of a neighborhood.

Dr. Samuel Daniel is rallying the troops - the new residents at the hospital he heads, North General Hospital in Harlem. His pitch? That being a good doctor won't be enough at North General, the only minority-operated not-for-profit hospital in the state.

Dr. Daniel believes the residents will have to have a cultural sensitivity to not only succeed in the hospital, but also help reinvigorate the neighborhood around the hospital and the entire Harlem community.

“[What did I see in their faces this morning?] I think there's a little fear, a little excitement," Dr. Daniel says. “When you set out to train to become a physician, it's a really heroic adventure you set yourself on.”

Samuel Daniel has been trying to do a lot since he was named president and chief executive officer of the hospital in 2001. He's worked with public officials to reduce the hospital's operating losses from $$15 million to about $$2.5 million, he's established a working relationship with Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he's helped raise millions of dollars in contributions from major foundations, including the opening last year of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention.

“This is what really is necessary when someone is suffering from a serious disease, is for someone to come into a calm, pleasant, beautiful place in the neighborhood as opposed to going downtown where they may feel sometimes out of place," Dr. Daniel says.

As the hospital has flourished, so too has the surrounding East Harlem neighborhood.

"Our hospital is responsible for all the buildings that have sprung up around here,” Dr. Daniel says. “Before there were vacant lots all around here, so we're actually building a community around the hospital. We have the very beautiful Marcus Garvey Park which once was an eyesore and a crime-ridden area, and is now an area you can sit in the middle of the night in this community and have a picnic."

There is some irony in Dr. Daniel's work as an administrator, considering that he once was a successful private practice physician who saw things from the other side.

“We felt that they were not people to be enamored because they're not interested in taking care of the patient,” he says. “We're the ones that are in the belly of the patient, taking care of the patient."

That started to change when Dr. Daniel joined the hospital in the early 1990’s, working as the medical director, then head of medicine, program director for residents, and chief of gastroenterology, his specialty.

He left a successful private practice on Central Park South and work at Roosevelt Hospital, where his colleagues cautioned him about the move uptown.

“’With all that you are doing and the success you’ve had down here, why are you going to give that up and go to Harlem?’ That was what I heard,” he says.

Samuel Daniel is not only trying to build a world class hospital in East Harlem, he's trying to overcome a physical and psychological reality: a health care disparity that's plagued the neighborhood.

"There has been a psychological feeling that we can't get anything good uptown, and we’ve got to go downtown,” he says. “For instance, [with]this diagnostic center, now people in this community know they don't have to go downtown below 96th Street to get an ambulatory x-ray on the weekend or 6:00 in the evening.”

The challenge of running a major hospital in a minority community is always there, and there are days when Dr. Daniel wonders if it can all be done.

“That sometimes makes me reflect on why I'm not just a little doctor taking care of patients rather than running this institution,” he says. “From time to time that occurs, but then I think of the greater picture and the greater message and the grater mission, and those are the things that allow me to say, ÎLet's move on.’"

This doctor enjoys a round of golf. Pretty ordinary stuff, but the rest of Samuel Daniel's story is anything but ordinary. He was born and bred on the Caribbean island of Antigua, where the reality of daily life would later serve him well.

“What makes it easy for me is the fact that I come from a country that was run by my people of my color, so I've always seen people in these kinds of leadership positions trying to do good for their community,” he says.

A Peace Corps member in Antigua inspired Daniel to come to New York to get an education. He attended Queens College, staying with relatives in the Bronx.

"My aunt was a domestic who gave me an allowance to go to school on a daily basis, to travel from the Bronx to Queens. That's help that you just can't imagine," he says.

From Queens College it was on to Columbia Medical School.

"The overwhelming majority were graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, and I was from Queens College, so there was fear,” he says. “But also I felt like I had a good education from Queens College, and I was ready to prove myself amongst that august body that they have there."

But Daniel's dreams were almost felled in his second year, when he was hospitalized with a life threatening illness.

"I remember saying to the dean of students, ÎI know I'm sick, it's a serious illness, but I cannot be left back. I've got to complete this,’” he says. “I don't know where that drive comes from, I can’t explain it, but I knew that I was going to overcome any obstacles that were put in my way - that has been my history."

Daniel's says there were other non-medical obstacles to overcome. The doctor says he was the only physician of color with an office on Central Park South, and his accomplishments could not erase some deep seeded prejudices.

"My name sometimes I guess looks Jewish, and there were times when people would come into my office, not knowing who I was, saw my sign, come into the office, and once I come out of my consultation room to greet another patient and they see who I am, when I came back to see if that patient was still waiting, that patient would be gone,” he says. “I had those moments. I smiled because they were losing the service of a good doctor.”

Dr. Daniel continues to see patients in a private practice near the hospital. Between his patients and hospital responsibilities, there is time for little else.

"That part of my life I haven't done a good job on,” he says. “The hospital is 24 hours - I take stuff home. It's a part of my life, and I'm committed to it right now. I know that I need to do a better job of bringing that down when I get home. It's more my personal life with my children and my previous marriage and things like that. Those are things I think got sacrificed because I was on this mission to achieve, and I would like to have done that differently.”

At 53, Samuel Daniel is a world away from quiet beginnings on Antigua. But with a medical facility to energize and a neighborhood to help revitalize, this is no time for reflection.

“There are times when I do pinch myself and say, ÎYou're running a hospital - how did that happen?’" he says. “Probably there was a selection process that occurred that has put me in the position I am in the moment to really help a community."

- Budd Mishkin

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