Medical Society president to be feted at ESA gala on Sunday at BC High

Elizabeth Seton Academy (ESA) in Lower Mills will host its annual “Make a Difference” fundraising gala this Sunday, April 3, from 5 to 9 p.m. at Hunter Fahey Commons at BC High on Morrissey Blvd. The 2011 ESA honoree is Dr. Alice Tolbert Coombs, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

A native of the city of Compton, California, Dr. Coombs attended college and medical school at UCLA, and came east to serve a residency at Mass General Hospital. She now practices medicine as a critical care specialist and an anesthesiologist at South Shore Hospital.

ESA was founded in 2003 to provide affordable, single-gender high school education after the closure of Monsignor Ryan Memorial High, Dorchester’s last all-women Catholic high school. It opened its doors in September 2003 in classroom space formerly occupied by the former St. Gregory’s High School. The current student population is just over 100, and despite a per student cost of $13,000, the tuition is $5,650 in the current school year. The school relies upon fundraising efforts like this weekend’s gala to underwrite the costs.

Dr. Coombs visited the academy on Wednesday, March 23 and spoke to an early-morning assembly of the all-women student body. She delighted the young women with stories about her life growing up in similar urban setting, and encouraging them to stay in school and work hard in their studies, to persevere in their work despite any obstacles.

She said she grew up in an Los Angeles neighborhood with a tough reputation for street violence and random murders, and advised the students they too could overcome obstacles and “make a difference.”

Dr. Coombs said in a brief interview that she had not intended to relocate to the East Coast, but that a medical school mentor had encouraged her to come to Mass General for a residency. 
She said she had struggled to find the means for plane fare to Boston, and the plane had been grounded in Colorado, forcing her to find other ground transportation to Boston. When she arrived, she was a day late for her interview, she said, and couldn’t afford to pay for a place to stay overnight.

“I called a woman who was a friend of a friend, and I told her my story: ‘You don’t know me, but I just need a place to stay overnight,’” she recalls saying. The woman took her in to her apartment in Roxbury and she successfully completed her MGH interview the next day.

Her initial residency was in internal medicine and she subsequently completed training in anesthesiology. She is a member of the American Medical Association’s Commission to Eliminate Healthcare Disparities. She is former Vice Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine’s Patient Care Assessment Committee, a former member of the Massachusetts State Commission to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Healthcare Disparities, and a past chair of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Committee on Ethnic Diversity. She was also a member of the Massachusetts Special Commission on the Health Care Payment System, established to evaluate the health care payment system and recommend reforms that will provide incentives for cost-effective and patient-centered care.

She has served on the Medical Society’s committees on Public Health, Managed Care, Recognition Awards, and Leadership Development. In 2005, she received the Society’s Henry Ingersoll Bowditch Award of Excellence in Public Health, an annual award given to a physician who demonstrates creativity, commendable citizenship, initiative, innovation and leadership in the public health and advocacy fields.

She has developed and promoted some public health activities, including an annual anti-smoking program for South Shore youth, “Smoking-Don’t Go There,” an adaptation of a program produced by the American College of Chest Physicians. Dr. Coombs developed the program in 1999. She also help design the American Medical Association’s “Doctors Back to School Program,” which brings physicians into elementary, middle, and high schools across the country to interest young men and women, particularly in minority communities, in health care careers. 

The honorary chairpersons for Sunday’s gala are Jim Brett and his wife Patti Brett; co-chairs are Mary Joyce Morris and Patricia Finigan Bulman. For more information in advance of Sunday’s event, call the school at 617-296-1087.