Dr. Gina Sam is one of New York’s leading gastroenterologists, with the sterling credentials you’d expect – earning a combined degree in medicine and public health at Tufts University Medical School’s competitive four-year program.
She is also passionate about raising awareness about colon cancer and gastric cancer, and is a fierce advocate for women’s health issues, particularly fighting abuse.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Sam’s family moved to the U.S. when she was age nine, and she attended New York City public schools, and did her undergraduate studies at NYU, majoring in chemistry.
The reason she was so intent on combining public health studies with medicine is because of her immigrant background; she wanted to aid underserved populations, especially in the Caribbean. She specialized in public health and community health, completing her MD/MPH program plus a year of research in five years.
“It was a very intense program, but I think it really differentiated me and made me realize the impact of being a physician, but also being somebody who can make a difference in communities,” Dr. Sam says.A residency at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and a fellowship at NYU followed, and then she joined Stony Brook University, building its gastrointestinal motility center. Next came a stint as director of Mount Sinai Hospital’s motility center, and teaching at its medical school.
Most recently, she opened her own private practice in midtown Manhattan.
Making a Difference in Public Health
While in medical school, Dr. Sam did an internship at the Boston Department of Public Health where she worked on the campaign to ban smo king in restaurants. “I had this desire to do public health in addition to being a physician because I wanted to have a larger impact on the population, in addition to patients,” she says.
Dr. Sam did a minor in psychology, which she considers a vital part of her gastroenterology practice. “Many of my GI patients suffer from IBS and there’s a huge connection between the brain and the gut, so my background in psychology and this specialty really helps.”
A Pioneer in Combining Wellness & Medical Expertise
At her recently opened private practice in Manhattan, Dr. Sam merges her medical expertise with various hand-picked partners offering wellness and personal services for an integrated whole-body service. Think personal trainers, acupuncturists, massage therapists and beauty and style consultants.
She is an expert in a specialized niche called “gastrointestinal motility,” which involves dysfunctions of the intestinal muscles.
“In this niche in motility, much of the brain and gut is related,” she says. “Your GI tract is actually all lined with neurotransmitters like serotonin receptors. So if you just had a death in the family, your stomach is going to feel it. So I tell my patients, ‘I’m not treating your GI tract, I’m treating you as a person.’ It’s an institute of wellness.”
She has hired a nurse practitioner specializing in psychology. Since many of the patients she sees are also anxious or depressed, she’ll be offering cognitive behavioral therapy, “basically combining the brain and gut connection which is so important in these illnesses.”
A “Mechanic” Gastroenterologist
In laymen’s terms, Dr. Sam offers the analogy of an auto mechanic. “They look at the car and say OK, there’s no scratches on the Ferrari, no bumps on the bumper. What I do is more like the mechanic gastroenterologist in that I open up the car and I test the engine, the function of the GI tract.”
“Very few people have the skills as well as the ability to do this niche because it involves specialized technology,” she explains. “And these include diseases that are unusual, very rare.” She also treats more common conditions like reflux and IBS, and screens patients for colon cancer.
Art Therapy Study
Dr. Sam loves art, and creates her own pieces in her spare time, and plans a study of her patients who are anxious, depressed or victims of abuse to see if their symptoms improve with group art therapy. “This is basically combining my love for art and also the fact that expressing yourself or just distracting your mind and being creative can help with some symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
She is one of very few physicians offering Stretta, a treatment for people suffering from excessive acid reflux. The procedure is a balloon placed into the esophagus, which uses heat to reduce reflux. “It’s a better option for patients because it’s not invasive – it’s not a surgery – and requires less healing time and is safer,” she says. It takes about 45 minutes.
A First-Generation College Graduate in Louboutins & Extended Family of Patients
Dr. Sam takes the time to listen to her patients, many of whom have seen multiple gastroenterologists before coming to her. “So they’re like, my doctor is different and she actually talks to me. She actually looks me in the eye. She actually remembers my kid’s wedding. It’s like they’re at their friend’s house, that’s how I try to practice.”
She wears Louboutins and Chanel, but never forgets who she is or where she came from. “I tell my patients, If you were my mom and dad I would do this. And they’re like…my family, you know, that’s how I feel about my patients, regardless of economic status.”
Caribbean Public Health Foundation in Her Sister’s Memory
Dr. Sam does a lot of outreach work with medical students in the Caribbean, and she is starting her own foundation, setting up a gastroenterology mental health clinic on the island of St. Lucia, promoting health awareness and performing procedures like screening colonoscopies.
This project was, in part, spurred by personal tragedy. Dr. Sam’s sister was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, in 2001. Her sister, an accountant, was three months pregnant at the time. “You never get over a trauma like that,” she says.
Foundation Building to Offer Medical Care & Community Art Spaces
She has planned a pair of buildings that will resemble the Twin Towers – on a much smaller scale, perhaps nine stories tall. There will be condos for doctors’ offices, some shops and a restaurant, plus an emergency room for the local population, and a GI suite with hospital beds. In the Rodney Bay area, in the north of island, which is where many of the tourists go, there’s really no travel hospital, Dr. Sam notes.
“What I envision is almost like a travel hospital and whatever profits will go to my organization. One floor will be my sister’s foundation and that’ll be where I’m educating, I’m giving back to the community by doing lectures or events, or supplying medical supplies to certain populations, like the elderly.”
The idea blossomed when she was doing some public health work on the island and witnessed an accident when a tourist fell off a Segway and hit her head, dislocated her hip, and suffered other injuries. Dr. Sam aided the victim, but the ambulance took 90 minutes to arrive. “I realized the need for an emergency room or a mini hospital that can take care of the tourists as well as the people who live in the north of the island.”
She also hopes to dedicate some space for art displays and musical performances, since such venues are lacking in the community.
She has the support of the local government, and has secured the land and business partners, and expects the buildings to be completed by 2023.
Private Practice Imminent in St. Lucia
More immediately, Dr. Sam is opening an office in the Rodney Bay area in late 2018, and will split her time between St. Lucia and her practice in New York. She’ll have trained staff down there to provide primary care and handle emergencies, and she will also be able to consult with patients via telemedicine.
She will duplicate the services available at her wellness center in New York.
One area very close to her heart is fighting abuse – in the workplace, in the home, child abuse, and she will be addressing this in her foundation.
She will offer lectures about abuse, and how doctors can learn to better deal with patients who have been victims. “Oftentimes doctors don’t understand,” Dr. Sam says. “I’ve had many cases where you listen to the patient’s story and I’ll uncover some type of childhood abuse or sexual abuse or rape, or verbal abuse, or a spouse is abusing them. It takes like a different type of approach.”