A job well done
Dr. Robert C. Nuss leaves a legacy of growth, leadership and respect at Jacksonville’s UF campus
By Matt Galnor
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, it’s tough to argue anyone embodied that creed more than Nuss himself.
Nuss, 74, retired in January after nearly 40 years on campus, the last 10 as dean of the UF 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 for projects last year. At the same time, residency and fellowship programs are flourishing.
Gone are the days of headlines about financial peril at the hospital, which cycled through a series of names and owners. Now, it’s all growth.
“What we’ve built under his leadership is amazing,” said Guy Benrubi, M.D., senior associate dean of clinical affairs, who first met Nuss 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.
Benrubi, a close friend and colleague, estimates half of the gynecologists in Jacksonville trained under Nuss at one point. Even now, 30 years after his residency, Ken Sekine, M.D., says when he finds himself in a tough spot during a surgery, he asks himself, “How would Dr. Nuss get out of this?”
While Nuss is known more now for his role as a dean, his work with patients still stands out for Larry Freeman, a former administrator at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Freeman remembers a nurse two decades ago who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which had a lower survival rate then 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. As Nuss transitioned into the dean’s office, he continued to see patients and take night calls until 2003.
Jim Burkhart, president and CEO of Shands Jacksonville, first came to the hospital as a consultant and immediately found common ground with Nuss. Nuss fought for the Jacksonville campus, elevating department heads to full chairs who reported directly to him. The leader of the campus is now the dean, not an associate dean.
Nuss doesn’t look at much he does as extraordinary, and he downplays praise.
When 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.”
Every year on April 13 — “Kidney Day” — a bouquet of flowers arrives from Pam, now 50.
“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.”
Dr. Robert Nuss’ career at a glance:
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.