A Basic Human Right

Roger Bulger, M.D., Res. ’62, Chief Res. ’65, Fel. ’66

The woman in the hallway — she was the key. A young Harvard medical student named Roger Bulger was on the floor at Boston City Hospital, and he noticed her.

“She was alone in the hallway,” Bulger recalls. “Physicians passed by and checked on her, but none spoke with or comforted her.” She died that night, and her death made an impression on Bulger; he was troubled, in part, by his own reaction to her passing. So much so that he wrote a paper about her — and the larger topic of death and dying — eventually published in the Harvard Alumni Review.

Bulger then came to the UW School of Medicine to pursue further training in internal medicine and laboratory microbiology. His residency took him to UW Medical Center, Harborview Medical Center and the VA. His time at these hospitals taught him a great deal. “I learned about the world, and I came to believe that effective medical care is a basic human right,” Bulger says.

In the meantime, Bulger’s paper had come to the attention of John R. Hogness, M.D., the head of the internal medicine residency program at UW Medicine and later the dean of the School. Hogness wanted to make UW Medical Center a world-class teaching hospital, one that made a point of prioritizing patients’ needs, and he offered Bulger a job as assistant dean. That patient-centered ethos resonated with Bulger, and he took the job. “It was important to me, that message of always putting the human side of things first,” he says.

Eventually, Bulger and his wife, Ruth Bulger, Ph.D. ’62 (biological structure), moved east to take on positions at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, respectively. But the strong working relationship between Hogness and Bulger had not yet run its course. When Hogness became the first head of the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., he called Bulger.

Bulger accepted the new job of first executive officer of the institute, serving for four years, from 1972 to 1976. “I became his No. 2 person,” Bulger says. “I learned so much about patient care and how to sustain it. We have to work hard to keep our values in place and to learn how to be equitable.”

These days, Bulger is still concerned with equity; in fact, he’s helping develop a new nonprofit, the American Council on Health Equity and Disparities. He and his colleagues want it to serve as a resource for healthcare professionals who need to stay up to date on issues. “In the political world and in our culture,” he explains, “it’s hard to see through it all.”

As he reflects on a long career, one spent believing in doing the right thing, Bulger returns to that night at Boston City Hospital.

“It all started with that woman in Boston, but my story is the story of the UW School of Medicine, really, and I’m just lucky to have gotten to be there,” he says.

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