Nov. 2, 2020
At 76, Augustine Lewis is pursuing a degree in French — and proving that age is just a number
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Augustine Lewis is not a man to slow down, personally or professionally. His goal of doing mission work in West Africa led the active 76-year-old retired family practitioner to return to Virginia Commonwealth University to get a degree in French.
“I enjoy stimulating my brain,” said Lewis, who received his medical degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1969 and polished his French during a clerkship in Geneva, Switzerland. “It’s been 50 years since I used French and picking it up again isn’t easy.”
While working toward his degree, Lewis has been helping professor Jérémie Zoueu, Ph.D., with a scientific presentation for the National Institutes of Health. Zoueu is a faculty member of the Institut National Polytechnique Félix Houphouët-Boigny who works in Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire.
“Dr. Lewis has a great ability. Having both medical and French competencies has been very useful,” Zoueu said.
Lewis’ knowledge of French also came in handy when he participated in the Humanitarian Outreach Medical Brigada Relief Effort where first-year VCU medical students travel to areas such as the Dominican Republic to provide medical care.
“I traveled with students for 25 years. I used my French in Haiti with other physicians,” Lewis said. “I was the intermediary interpreter for the students between the patients speaking Creole and the Haitian physicians speaking French.”
A medical lineage
Lewis comes from a long line of physicians that includes his great-grandfather, grandfather, father and uncle. “I saw how much being a doctor meant to them,” he said.
His great-great-great uncle was the first relative to graduate from the Hampden-Sydney College Medical Department, which became the Medical College of Virginia in 1854. And his grandfather was in the first class of MCV in 1912. Lewis also enrolled at MCV and earned his medical degree a year after the college merged with Richmond Professional Institute to form VCU.
“That is a distinction that not many families can claim,” he said. “It was in the stars for me. It was apparent to me how much it meant to father and grandfather, particularly my grandfather.”
Lewis grew up in King William County, Virginia, where his father and grandfather had their offices in Aylett. Lewis now lives in the house where his grandfather started his practice in King and Queen, Virginia.
When he was young, he had no intention of going to medical school. He made that decision when he was studying pre-med at University of Virginia.
“I thought maybe this was meant to be,” he said. “It was the right choice for me. I have absolutely loved my career."
After earning his medical degree, he completed residency training at the University of Colorado in Denver. His intention was to come back to Virginia “and open my dad’s office in Aylett,” he said.
Lewis, who retired in 2010, was in private practice for seven years before adding a partner and later becoming part of Bon Secours. He also spent 25 years teaching VCU medical students in an introductory clinical medicine course. “I also had third-year students at my office for a month at a time for their community rotations,” he said.
Lewis is beloved in his community and a rock star to his patients, a distinction that humbles him. “It takes hours for me to get home because I run into so many people I know well,” he said, adding he is still seeing patients in the free clinic in Aylett.
“There is nothing that means more to me than those patients. I love my patients.”
Since 2010, Lewis has been teaching a VCU-affiliated residency program at St. Francis Family Medicine on a part-time basis. “The great thing about medicine is that you are always learning new things. With teaching residents, you have to stay a step ahead,” he said.
He also continues to do medical missions on a regular basis.
“I’ve been doing that for 30 some years,” he said. “All of the missions are in Central America, Haiti and Dominican Republic. I just got back in March from Dominican Republic.”
Lewis loves the French language and enjoys being in classes “even if it’s hard work,” he said.
One of his inspirations for getting a French degree was his friend Richard Priebe, Ph.D., a retired professor in the VCU Department of English who was an African literature specialist. Priebe died after being struck by a vehicle while jogging in 2017.
“Peter Kirkpatrick of the French Department got up and spoke at the memorial service. He was talking about how Richard went back and got a degree in French. That got my mind going. I thought maybe I could do it too,” Lewis said. “Also, I came to VCU School of Medicine after three years at UVA so I never got my undergraduate degree.”
Because of his age and experience, Lewis brings a different perspective to his French classes, said Patricia Cummins, Ph.D., a professor of French in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“Having Gus [Lewis] in the classroom makes a difference when we talk about health, looking at why people do certain things and attitudes toward health care,” Cummins said. “His international experience also matters. He’s a good model for the other students.”
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