They’re easy to miss, buried on page three of his curriculum vitae.
Under the heading “Community Services,” after the listings for three visiting lectures and an ADHD support group, are these two entries: “Virginia State Senator 2008-2014” and “Virginia Lt. Governor 2014-present.”
The Hon. Ralph Northam, MD, Virginia’s new governor, needs to update his CV.
“He has not claimed his own fame,” says Matthew Frank, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and a partner with Gov. Northam in their pediatric medical practice. “He’s remarkably humble.”
Gov. Ralph Northam, MD
“His background as a physician gives him a great grounding. He has a calm demeanor, and people underestimate him because he doesn’t come in and suck all the oxygen out of the room. But I can guarantee you that in a crisis, that’s the kind of person you want in charge.”
“We at EVMS are delighted and proud that Gov. Northam is a distinguished graduate of EVMS. The medical community will miss him on our faculty, and he will be missed by the patients and families under his care over the years. Having a physician with his knowledge, insight and expertise leading Virginia will provide many opportunities important to the health of Virginia and the patients we serve.”
“His ethics and morals are so much a part of his life that they are more of his guiding principles than party politics. I’m hoping he’ll foster a reduction in partisan politics. He comes into the governorship having been recognized by his peers as a straight shooter and someone who can be trusted.”
“I think he’ll be an excellent listener. He wants so much to pull people together. He’s been open-minded and very patient. That’s the physician coming out in him, not the politician.”
“He’s extremely bright and a superb listener. You can talk to him about anything. His honesty and integrity are above reproach. When you look at how much public service comes out of EVMS, Ralph is the perfect example of an EVMS student.”
“As a student, Ralph rotated through my neurology service,” Dr. Frank remembers. “Hopefully, I triggered his interest in child neurology.”
Back then, Gov. Northam shared an apartment with fellow medical student John “Rob” Marsh, MD (MD ’83), the highly decorated military physician portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down. Dr. Marsh, once named national Country Doctor of the Year, now splits his practice between two rural communities in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
“Ralph hasn’t changed the way he operates over 40 years,” Dr. Marsh says. “He’s not going to change now that he’s in the governor’s mansion.”
But politics — let alone living in that particular residence — wasn’t part of his plan.
After graduating from EVMS, Gov. Northam served for eight years as a U.S. Army physician, completing his residency in Texas before treating soldiers injured in Desert Storm. When he returned to Hampton Roads, he co-founded a pediatric neurology practice and joined EVMS as Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.
Dr. Marsh never hesitated to refer a sick child to his former roommate, even when it was one of his own. “My daughter had a significant neurological injury when she was three months old,” he says. “Ralph made the diagnosis and developed a treatment plan.”
He also remembers another family he sent to his friend. “I had a child out here with an unusual seizure disorder, and the family was very poor. UVA couldn’t diagnose it, so I called Ralph. He said if they drove down there, he would see them. He even helped them out with gas money. He called a colleague at Johns Hopkins and convinced him to see the child, and they finally got a diagnosis. He will always do what’s right for the patient.”
Nancy Stern tells similar stories. As CEO of Eastern Shore Rural Health System, she has known Gov. Northam for nearly two decades. “For years,” Ms. Stern says, “Ralph came over here once a month to see our patients because he knew it was a such a challenge for these families to get across the bay.”
In 2007, she was surprised to learn of his run for state senate. “I kept asking him, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ And he said, ‘I think I can make positive change.’”
Surprise was Pam Northam’s reaction, too, when her husband proposed entering politics. “Ralph had been complaining to one of his partners about what was happening with healthcare,” she says, “and the partner finally asked, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’”
Ms. Northam remembers going for a long walk with a good friend. “I had to really think about it to get an understanding of where Ralph was coming from.”
Her husband won his state senate seat by a wide margin and was re-elected easily in 2011. In 2013, he ran for lieutenant governor and again won handily. Shifting his focus from caring for patients to caring for citizens was a natural transition, Ms. Northam says.
“It doesn't matter who you are,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what religion you are or your political background, Ralph treats everyone the same. I’ve often said that people mistake his kindness for weakness. To be kind and have so much compassion for people are what makes him strong. His medical training is a large part of that.”
It prepared him well for the world of politics, too, she says. “Working 24/7, the sleepless nights, the travel, handling crises on the run, working as a team — all of that was instilled in Ralph by medical school and the military. And it gave him a thick skin.”
As an Army officer, Gov. Northam saw first-hand the sacrifices soldiers made, Dr. Marsh says. “In Desert Storm, Ralph functioned as an adult neurologist, and he saw the veteran aspect of military service from the bad side.”
Ms. Northam points to her husband’s combination of medical and military service for another reason. “We’ve been given a very special gift of understanding how fleeting life can be,” Ms. Northam says. “Dealing with life and death on a daily basis gives you a whole different perspective.”
In 2016, Gov. Northam took a leave of absence from teaching and practicing medicine to campaign for governor. With his win, his leave continues.
But that hasn’t changed Nancy Stern’s view of him.
“Whenever I picture Ralph,” she says, “I see him in his white coat making children with challenges smile.”
Gov. Northam's Timeline
Born on Virginia’s Eastern Shore; raised on a farm in Onancock
Graduated with distinction from Virginia Military Institute
Earned medical degree from EVMS; began serving as an Army officer
Married Pamela Thomas, whom he met in San Antonio during his residency
Completed three-year pediatrics residency at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas
Completed one-year chief residency in child neurology and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital
Completed three-year child neurology fellowship at Walter Reed Medical Center and three years as a teaching fellow at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland
Completed two years of treating wounded soldiers in Operation Desert Storm and rose to the rank of major
Joined EVMS as Assistant Professor of Pediatrics; joined staff at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital; co-founded pediatric neurology practice with four partner physicians
Elected Virginia state senator
Re-elected Virginia state senator
Elected lieutenant governor of Virginia
Completed 19 years as volunteer medical director of Edmarc Hospice for Children
Elected governor of Virginia
Gov. Ralph Northam, MD
Ten days after the election, EVMS sat down with Virginia’s new governor (who asked us to “please, call me Ralph”) to talk about how his background as a physician will shape the way he leads the commonwealth. What follows are excerpts from that interview.
On his background and influences
On governing and leadership
On EVMS and his Hampton Roads connections