Learning Our Worth From a Valued Mentor


‘He was somebody I trusted and I think I was right in doing so.’

Gene-Ann Polk, MD, didn’t go into medicine for the money.

Still, she might have sold herself short if not for a mentor who encouraged her to negotiate a better salary.

It was 1978 and Polk had just accepted the position of Director of Ambulatory Services at Harlem Hospital. Polk’s mentor was Eric Kahn, MD, who had been the director of pediatrics at the hospital. Polk served as his interim replacement for two years after he retired in 1975.

When she stepped into her new role she was able to hammer out a deal for a good salary and perks. “I guess I had learned from Dr. Kahn how to negotiate,” she recalled.

Years earlier, when Polk first went full-time at the hospital “I wasn’t really sure what I was buying into, and I had to take his lead and he was good.”

Kahn proposed a salary that Polk thought was generous. As an intern, she had made do on $50 a week.

“For years I had been working for nothing or for very little and it turned out to be a good salary he offered me. And then when it came to some of the side packages, you know, investment things, and I didn’t know, he helped me make decisions on that. He was somebody I trusted and I think I was right in doing so.”

When she took over from Kahn as acting director of pediatrics, the seasoned and savvy administrator gave her advice on the office politics involved in leadership.

“Don’t give away anything, because a new director coming in has to know what they’re getting. So don’t give away any positions, any salaries, any space, anything.”

So when the push for cuts came Polk was prepared. “I said, ‘I can’t cut because you’ll never get a new director if you cut anything right now.’ So that’s how I was able to maintain the department for him and that’s one of the things I remembered as I was running my department.”

During the course of a long and fruitful career, Polk turned down a position at a Park Avenue practice in order to serve at Harlem Hospital. She worked, variously, in pediatrics and administration and was trusted and respected in the community. She died in 2015 at 88.

Knowing her worth and learning to stand up against demands for concessions empowered her to become a force for positive change.

“Don’t cut. [Don’t give] anything away.”

Alicia Lazzaro