Alumni Profile: Peter Bolo’85

The Optimist

Julia Hickey

Peter Bolo. Photo by Jenny Gorman .

It was during a second-year lecture by psychoanalyst Eric Marcus, MD, about primary process thinking—the language of dreams—that Peter Bolo’85 realized psychiatry could be for him.

“Wow, I am sitting here in medical school in this lecture that could be in art history,” he says. “Or philosophy.”

Imagining the nonlinear bursts and symbolic structures of the unconscious mind brought the young student relief from the objective world of medical school and made him think about his love for modern art: “It doesn’t follow the normal rules of time and perception that we think of in our secondary process, logical world. It’s something that you need to relax with and let your mind wander a bit,” he says.

No wonder that, to this day, his favorite artist remains Marcel Duchamp, the irreverent father of conceptual art who intentionally obscured his authorship by employing alter egos: There was the identity “R. Mutt,” who submitted a urinal titled “Fountain” to a nonjuried art show in 1917 (it was rejected). His feminine nom de plume “Rrose Selavy” was variously interpreted as: Eros, c’est la vie (“Passion, that’s life”), or arroser la vie (“to make a toast to life”), or la vie en rose (literally, “life in pink,” or to see the world through rose-colored lenses).

A 1985 photo shows Peter Bolo receiving the gold medal given to a graduating student in recognition of interest in and devotion to the school and its alumni association. His son, Kyle Bolo’19, received the same award in May 2019.

As for the artistically inclined Dr. Bolo, himself quite dapper with a shock of gray hair to match his tweed suit, one could imagine him having pursued another career, perhaps as a Broadway performer. Although he is the first to admit feeling the lure of a creative path, he chose medicine for the security it provided. 

“I’m practical,” he says. 

Besides, who is to say that Dr. Bolo isn’t living la vie en rose?


A Dramatic Beginning

At age 4, Peter Bolo fell down concrete steps face-first into his backyard while carrying a glass of water. He was hysterical, as he tells it, and his mother rushed him to the nurse who lived next door in their Detroit suburb. “I didn’t even know what a nurse was,” says Dr. Bolo, but she stopped the bleeding from a gash the length of his index finger and calmed his nerves. The experience left a strong impression, and as the third of four children in a family in the auto business, he decided, “In addition to the fact that I wanted to do something different than everyone in my family, that if people asked me, ‘What do you want to be, little boy, when you grow up?’ that I would say I wanted to be a doctor.” Soon he was glued to the television set for house calls of “Marcus Welby, MD” and Dr. Gannon on “Medical Center.”

Fifty years later, Dr. Bolo is chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Overlook Medical Center and resiliency advocate of Atlantic Health System in Summit, New Jersey, where the “no-man’s land” that greeted him when he arrived in 1999 has flourished under his direction into a 24-bed voluntary inpatient unit with extensive outpatient programs and luminous skylights. Among his greatest accomplishments: “using humor to make frightened people comfortable.”

During psychiatry rotations at VP&S, he found the symptoms of delusion, hallucination, and mania that others found horrifying to be fascinating. Then-resident Lisa Mellman (now senior associate dean for student affairs) taught him the mental status exam, the psychological equivalent of a physical exam. 

“I loved the fact that you yourself were your examination tool, as opposed to a stethoscope and a whole bunch of lab values and radiographic findings. And that dovetailed with my interest in acting.” With the Bard Hall Players, he played both the sexually adventurous “Woof,” anthropologist Margaret Mead in the hippie rock musical “Hair,” and lovesick Lysander in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” 

Empathy is essential to both acting and doctoring, Dr. Bolo says. “Getting into character and becoming another person requires an ability to imagine and experience emotions that another is having, and that acting skill translates into being able to perceive and briefly feel what patients and families are experiencing and better understand their worries and reactions. Empathy and compassion go hand in hand here.”

Besides, he never got too comfortable with the sight of blood. While other students vied for time dissecting a cadaver, Dr. Bolo competed to dissect the least. On the first day, he cut just “one little piece of the arm,” and then “took a step back.”


From the Superficial to the Deep

Bringing joy to medical contexts is not only Dr. Bolo’s specialty, but a pastime. While at VP&S in 1983, he proposed to his wife, Dr. Laila Almeida, during her grueling internal medicine residency at NY-Presbyterian Hospital, where she spent every other night on call. “I was an intern feeling sorry for myself because it was my birthday,” said Dr. Almeida, who now has a private dermatology practice in New Jersey. 

Dr. Bolo convinced her to take a dinner break and duck into the tiny Nourishment Station off the cardiac intensive care unit. “I didn’t want to wait after I got the ring so I decided to just meet her on her own territory since she was never home and I thought it would be kind of fun and witty,” he said. He proposed to her between the sink and an ice machine.

As undergraduate students at the University of Michigan, the pair had met across wooden study carrels in the library when he was just 17, “which is a really good place to meet very stable, hard-working, successful people,” Dr. Bolo says with a smile. She was two years ahead of him in her studies. 

As a dermatologist and psychiatrist couple, “I always tease people that we go from the superficial to the deep. Plus, there is so much psychiatry in dermatology and for that matter all fields of medicine,” he says. 

Although Dr. Bolo would have preferred to stay at Columbia, says Dr. Almeida, they settled in New Jersey, “a place that was easier for me to work and be a working mom.”

Laila Almeida and Peter Bolo in 1978

The two have traveled around the world together and want to see more, including more visits to the place Dr. Almeida’s family is from, Goa, India. They recently hiked Machu Picchu with their children and toured Japan in October with classmate Peter Branden’85 and his wife, Pennie.

Dr. Almeida volunteers at Columbia once a month to supervise residents, which gave her a chance to visit one of their three children, Kyle Bolo, until he graduated in May 2019. He is now a resident in ophthalmology at USC.

“Dad always says that medicine is still a very good field and that the human connection aspect is unparalleled,” says Kyle, who was just as involved in student life as his father was. In May 2019, Kyle received the gold medal given to a graduating student in recognition of interest in and devotion to the school and its alumni association, the same award that his father received in 1985.


Two Commitments

Dr. Bolo says his primary commitment is to have fun every day at work. “I couldn’t see myself in the stereotypical psychiatric office with a Persian carpet, two Eames chairs, and one patient. That’s too sedentary and I’m too gregarious for that, so I decided to work in hospitals on interdisciplinary teams.”

He has been known to bring a hockey stick to a smartboard presentation (“the boardroom never had a pointer!” he says) and to spice up a lecture about physician resiliency by serenading the hospital C-suite and department chairs with Miley Cyrus pop songs “Party in the USA,” “Wrecking Ball,” and “Malibu.” (Yes, all three, and his favorite is “Malibu.”)

The Bolo family, clockwise from top left: Henry, Kyle, Isabel, Peter Bolo, and Laila Almeida

The area of workforce burnout and resilience is a new playground for Dr. Bolo, who describes the executive aspects of health care as fascinating rather than frustrating and the incentives of the Affordable Care Act to keep people well as “a personal call to arms.” Dr. Bolo fights to remove barriers to accessing mental health care and cites situations in which his team works hard to demonstrate medical necessity to the managed care companies who act as gatekeepers to psychiatric coverage, especially for the marginalized or elderly in his program or for Alzheimer’s patients with behavioral disturbances.

He also has developed intensive outpatient programs to treat adult psychiatric and addiction illness so that patients who graduate from inpatient services can remain in the fold. And in a separate project, Dr. Bolo advocates for increased goals-of-care conversations throughout the medical center, with more patients documenting their choices about what care they want and do not want. This has driven down use of ICU by those in the dying process.

He has built a staff and culture of people who truly want to help others. “You hire people and let them know: ‘These are our values,’” he says.

To promote a culture of compassion and collaboration, Dr. Bolo tends to the emotional needs of the hospital’s many caregivers, which include not only physicians but also nurses, case managers, social workers, crisis clinicians, and concierges. He opens the hospital’s bimonthly Schwartz Center Rounds with a mindful meditation exercise and healthy food. During these multidisciplinary sessions, staff have a supportive space to share their vulnerable first-person experiences of working with patients and families.

He is thrilled about a palpable reduction in stigma against mental illness in the past decade and credits the millennial generation and high-profile celebrities who speak openly about their experiences.

“The brain is the most complicated, interesting organ, in my opinion. It shouldn’t just be viewed only as a black box onto which we project our bias and historical myths about mental illness. The brain is an organ just as the heart is, and you can have brain failure just like you can have heart failure,” he says.

Dr. Bolo inherited his mother’s unflagging sense of optimism, he says, which is helpful in a clinic where the patients arrive very sick, often having failed other treatments. “I am super into hope and my main thing is to try to instill hope in everybody that I speak with. It’s about solidifying that therapeutic relationship, which is the currency of the healing.” He involves patients, whenever possible, in making a plan of action together and shaking on it.

Dr. Bolo’s second commitment takes into account each patient’s unique layers and identity—as well as his own. “I have found it invaluable in successfully connecting with and impacting patients to always identify something I truly appreciate about them, whether I choose to let them know or keep it to myself.”