Stephen Winter, BSIE 1972

Emily Scott
11/10/2015

With a patient in Monrovia, Liberia (2003).
With a patient in Monrovia, Liberia (2003).
Stephen Winter did not originally intend to pursue a career in global health.

Instead, he happened upon his work in international medicine and public service while he was a medical student at Cornell University Medical College and learned of an opportunity to go to Cambodia and provide care at a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Cambodia.

“I jumped at the opportunity, not out of an interest in public service, but as an opportunity to travel and experience an adventure in an exotic part of the world,” Winter said.

His time in Cambodia was a life-changing experience for him and led to his lifetime involvement in international medicine. His career has led him all over the world, to provide humanitarian care in countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Iraq, and many more, and to New York City on 9/11 to set up a triage and medical evacuation station near ground zero.

Prior to his exceptional career that has spanned continents, Winter began his education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earning his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering.

“I have so many fond memories of my time at the University of Illinois that is difficult to select just a few,” Winter said. “Certainly the thing that stands out above all others was a set of random encounters that allowed me to meet a beautiful young woman as a freshman who eventually became my wife [Eva Chan]. Nothing else quite matches that one.”  

Winter earned his IE degree in 1972 and went on to earn his master’s in system analysis from Stanford University. He went to medical school at University of Michigan Medical College and Cornell University Medical College and trained at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center for Internal Medicine. He then continued to Yale University for a fellowship in pulmonary medicine.

On Sept. 11, 2011, Winter was working in an intensive care unit in Connecticut when he heard that the first World Trade Center building had been struck. Soon after, he received a phone call from colleagues at AmeriCares, an organization that provides disaster relief and humanitarian medical aid, asking if he would be willing to be airlifted to New York City to set up a triage and evacuation center at the Wall Street helipad, just east of the site of the World Trade Center. He agreed to go. Before noon that day, he was on a helicopter headed to the city.

“I have had many experiences coming into the sites of complex emergencies in places like Rwanda and Darfur, often in post conflict or active conflict zones, but nothing has ever had such a powerful impact for me as flying into New York by helicopter looking at the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center buildings from above and standing in front of the ruins with a virtual snowfall of concrete dust fluttering around me in the aftermath of the collapse,” Winter said. “We [were] filled with such a powerful sense of sadness at the terrible loss and a stomach-wrenching understanding of how much our world had just changed that day.”

He set up a clinic with his colleagues and was escorted into the site of the collapsed buildings. They expected mass casualties, but found that the injuries to those involved in the rescue effort were primarily smoke-related. Winter and his team spent several hours working there before boarding a helicopter to head home.

“When we flew back to Connecticut that night the helicopter was absolutely silent. None of us could speak, but each simply sat alone with our own thoughts,” Winter said. “That day is still so vividly etched into my memory.

“As to whether I ever thought my career would lead into situations such as these, I do not think I could ever have imagined anything like the World Trade Center attack before it happened but I have spent much of my professional life preparing for and being involved in situations such as these.”  

Currently, Winter is the Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut, and is a clinical professor of medicine at Yale University.

He recently traveled to Zimbabwe, where he accompanied a team of medical students and medical residents during their global health rotation at the main University Hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe. There, Winter supervised trainees, assisted in leading rounds on the medical floors and in the intensive care unit, and gave daily lectures to young Zimbabwean doctors to support their educational development.

Winter has also recently been involved with an organization called Amazon Promise, working as a member of teams sent out by the organization that provide health care in remote jungle villages in the northern Amazon basin.

Field Hospital, Rwanda (1994).
Field Hospital, Rwanda (1994).

In coordination with the Western Connecticut Health Network, Winter is also the medical director of the global health program at Norwalk Hospital. In this position, he is working to organize educational opportunities for medical students and residents in training. He accompanies students and residents to the program’s training sites in Africa, Russia and Southeast Asia and serves as an educator for the teams.

“My primary goals at this time are to develop a well structured global health program at home that provides a strong educational basis in global health and tropical medicine for students and medical residents to prepare them for international health experiences, to develop our network of international partners that support our global health electives and to develop capacity building programs with our international partners,” he said.

Winter said his motivations for his work have evolved since he first went to Cambodia as a medical student, when he took on an opportunity to see the world.

“The work has been a powerful force in my life with impact on everything from the way that I practice medicine at home to the way my wife and I have raised our children,” he said.

His career has led him across the globe, but Winter said he can come back and credit his industrial engineering education at Illinois for teaching him how to think like an engineer.

“As an engineer I learned to be quite comfortable with technology and computer systems and how to approach and solve complicated problems. It has become quite clear to me that the best preparation for medicine is engineering,” he said. “Engineers know how to think analytically and approach problems in a structured solution oriented fashion. This is just what I do every day as a doctor.”

Winter encourages students looking to have a similar career to his to first pursue advanced training, and then find opportunities to become involved in international health and development.

“From there, it simply involves . . . finding work that gives you the freedom to devote some of your time and energy outside of the practice of medicine at home and to be willing to make sacrifices in time and income that go with following your dreams,” he said. “I would certainly recommend my life and career to anyone looking for intense personal satisfaction, constantly interesting work and a sense of meaning in everything that you do.”

Jungle village in northern Amazon, Peru.
Jungle village in northern Amazon, Peru.