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Just Dance from the Heart: Faculty Family Gives Back

According to Susan Leary, her husband, Dr. Richard Culbertson, was “a more serious person” when they moved to New Orleans 20 years ago. Then, one night while they were attending the popular event, Art for Art’s Sake, a samba band passed by. Before Susan knew it, Richard was following the band, dancing with abandonment like a native-born New Orleanian.

Susan called out, “Dick, you don’t know how to samba!”

To which Richard replied, “You just dance from your heart!”

To Susan, that reaction sums up Richard’s attitude toward New Orleans and life in general. When you live from your heart, you can do no wrong; and that is just what the couple did in October 2016, when they surprised the schools they love with a generous gift to endow two professorships: The Susan M. Leary and Richard Culbertson Professorship in Family Medicine and The Richard Culbertson Professorship in Health Policy and Systems Management. For Susan and Richard, it is about honoring the profession of teaching, and giving back from the heart to their adopted city and state.

When the couple first decided to make the endowments, Louisiana ranked number 50 in health care by United Healthcare. Although the state has creeped up to 49, few would argue there isn’t room for improvement.

Richard has served as professor and director of health policy and systems management in the LSU School of Public Health since 2012. From 2013-2015, he served as Interim Dean of the School. Richard and Susan say they received “philanthropic inspiration” from Dr. Terry Fontham, the first dean of the School of Public Health and Richard’s immediate predecessor, who gifted a similar amount to LSU for student scholarships.

“Our legacy, we hope, will recognize and attract faculty of talent and integrity to devote their careers to LSU Health New Orleans,” Richard said.

Both Richard and Susan believe if there ever was an admirable calling, it is family medicine. They are concerned by research that shows one-in-three primary care physicians are going to retire, become disabled, or die within the next seven years. With that statistic in mind and hoping to do something to improve the challenging issues facing family medicine, they endowed the Susan M. Leary and Richard Culbertson Professorship in Family Medicine.

Richard is Professor of Family Medicine at LSU School of Medicine New Orleans. In addition to his work at LSU, he has held faculty positions in family medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Indiana University, and Tulane University. He certainly understands how vital this area of medical practice is to every community, but even more so to the people of Louisiana.

Susan, who began her career as a social worker, tears up every time she thinks about the commitment of the family medicine teams she has worked with throughout her career – dedicated men and women devoted to improving the health of underserved populations, while working to educate adults about caring for their children, as well as themselves. Both Susan and Richard believe our society doesn’t value total patient care as it should.

“Doctors generally decide to specialize because that’s where the money is, but there is a real need for generalists who know more than one thing. They know how to care for children, adults, and the elderly – the whole family – yet somehow the money is in specializing,” Susan said.

Before moving to New Orleans, Susan taught family practice residents at San Francisco General Hospital—now, Zuckerberg—using a case-based approach for clinical quality. She met with the residents on a weekly basis, they reviewing cases using clinical algorithms.

The couple’s second endowment is the Richard Culbertson Professorship in Health Policy and Systems Management. As a hospital board chair and CEO, Richard wants to influence the generations that come after him in health administration.

“One of the routes to the health of the public is through more organized and rationally designed health care organizations. It isn’t only about more frugal care, it’s about providing more appropriate care,” Richard explained.

Richard, who received the Allen Copping Award for Teaching Excellence in 2015, said, “LSU has given me a magnificent opportunity to teach students who are highly motivated and idealistic. They’ve allowed me to teach in an environment with small classes where I really get to know my students. It’s with great gratitude that we’ve endowed these professorships.”

Before moving to New Orleans, Susan and Richard thought a parade was something you watched; once here, they had the revelation that you can be part of the parade. By giving to LSU Health, the couple is doing more than standing on the sidelines watching as the parade goes by – they are in the procession throwing beads with the best of them, adding their own flair and passion to the parade, and making our schools and our community all the richer.