"He held my hand," Usatine recalled, "and said, 'Richard, the best thing you could do would be to become a physician and help people.' I think that had a lasting effect on me."
Usatine took his grandfather's words to heart, earning his medical degree in 1982. Today he serves as assistant dean of student affairs and associate professor of family medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Last month, Usatine became only the second recipient of the Humanism in Medical Education award, presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges to honor a medical school faculty physician for being a caring and compassionate mentor to medical students, practicing patient-centered care and teaching ethics, empathy and service by example.
During his residency at UCLA in the 1980s, Usatine worked at the Venice Family Clinic. He went on to become the clinic's first full-time physician and helped it evolve into America's largest free clinic.
After being approached by a group of medical students who wanted to help the homeless, Usatine in 1990 co-founded the UCLA/Salvation Army Family Outreach Clinic. He also serves as medical director of the Union Rescue Mission Clinic in downtown Los Angeles.
And to protect the health of youth, Usatine founded and serves as adviser to UCLA DOC/STATS (Doctors Ought to Care/Students Teaching AIDS to Students). Through this community-outreach program, medical students visit local schools to teach and discuss the health effects of smoking and AIDS prevention.
His greatest challenge, he said, is his constant frustration at a lack of health-care resources for the needy. Just that morning at the Union Rescue Mission Clinic, the physician treated a homeless man in his mid-40s who suffered from a terrible case of psoriasis. The patient was in dire need of medicine that costs about $100 per tube. Usatine referred him to a county clinic to get the needed medicine, but all he received was an appointment to see a dermatologist - in five months.
"The quality of care I'm giving him is compromised," Usatine lamented, "not because I don't care or don't know what to prescribe, but because no one in this country will pay for the medicine he needs."
On the positive side is the joy he experiences teaching at the School of Medicine.
"I particularly love our students' enthusiasm to learn," he said. "I love their idealism. And I enjoy trying to be a role model, in the hope that they will choose to do things in medicine that really help the community."
With that in mind, it's clear why winning the Humanism in Medical Education award, after being nominated by his students, means so much to Usatine. The award encompasses his devotion to community service and to training physicians.
"It's about as special as it gets," he said.
Richard Usatine is now Vice Chair for Education at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. - (Updated 1/07)