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School of Medicine discoveries

26
2018

Trio of alumni receive state honors for dedication to underserved

Three doctors who trained on the MCV Campus received state honors this fall for their dedication to the underserved and helping to create a world where people live healthier, happier lives.

Randy Merrick, M'85, named a 2018 Unsung Hero by the Virginia Health Care Foundation

Randy Merrick, M’85, named a 2018 Unsung Hero by the Virginia Health Care Foundation

Randy Merrick, M’85, was honored as a 2018 Unsung Hero by the Virginia Health Care Foundation, a public-private partnership dedicated to increasing access to primary health care for uninsured Virginians and those in underserved areas.

In 2006, Merrick cofounded the Orange County Free Clinic, which has gone on to serve nearly 1,000 patients. In addition to managing his private practice, Merrick volunteers at the free clinic as board president and medical director. He visits the clinic daily, treats patients every Tuesday evening (plus fills in for other doctors as needed) and makes house calls to patients without transportation.

As a preceptor for the School of Medicine, Merrick welcomes six to seven students per year to his practice for individual four-week rotations. He makes sure their time with him includes regular visits to the free clinic.

“Always quietly helping others, Dr. Merrick’s kindnesses abound,” VHCF says of Merrick in a video played at the awards ceremony. “He even paid for the Holiday Inn to house local homeless shelter residents when the shelter had to be fumigated for bedbugs. Known for his genuine character and compassion, it’s no wonder that this unsung hero is beloved by all.”

Virginia Family Physician of the Year

Housestaff alumnus Mitchell B. Miller, M.D., named Virginia Family Physician of the Year by the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians

Housestaff alumnus Mitchell B. Miller, M.D., named Virginia Family Physician of the Year by the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians

Mitchell B. Miller, M.D., H’82, who has practiced family medicine in Virginia Beach for more than 36 years, recently was named Virginia Family Physician of the Year by the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians.

While this is the first time Miller has received the Virginia Family Physician of the Year award, the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians in 2006 named him Volunteer of the Year for his work in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

“My volunteer activities have been very important to me,” Miller says. “I recently returned from the Remote Area Medical event in Wise, Virginia, where we served the indigent patients from the Appalachian region.”

Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, H’82, senior associate dean of admissions in the medical school, recruited Miller to volunteer for RAM. The two trained together as family medicine residents on the MCV Campus in the early 1980s.

Like Merrick, Miller has served as a preceptor to VCU medical students during their family medicine rotation. He says he accepted the Virginia Family Physician of the Year on behalf of all family physicians in Virginia.

“It acknowledged the dedication that my colleagues show on a daily basis to taking care of the citizens of Virginia despite the many barriers to doing so — from regulations and insurance companies to financial and others — they place the well-being of their patients above all else,” Miller says. “So this award was really a celebration of the difference that family physicians can and do make.”

Salute to Service

Rebecca Sinclair, M'98, received a 2018 Salute to Service Award from the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation

Rebecca Sinclair, M’98, received a 2018 Salute to Service Award from the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation.

Internist Rebecca O. Sinclair, M’98, received the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation’s 2018 Salute to Service Award for Outstanding Service to the Uninsured and Underserved.

The foundation created a video highlighting her life’s work with the Prince William Area Free Clinic, where she served as medical director. Sinclair’s commitment resulted in the development of the county’s only free medical and dental program that provides comprehensive medical care to Prince William County’s low-income, uninsured residents.

Through her work and leadership, the clinic expanded from episodic care, housed in the health department, to a health center offering medical services by appointment 41 hours a week — affording county residents a true medical home.

“This woman is passionate, energetic, persistent, creative and appears tireless,” says Carol S. Shapiro, M.D., M.B.A., who has known Sinclair since she began her work with the clinic. “She truly cares about our community, the working poor and indigent. Words like ‘can’t’ or ‘impossible’ are not in her vocabulary.”

The MSV Foundation created the annual Salute to Service Awards in 2004 to recognize outstanding efforts of physicians, residents and medical students who are dedicated to creating and nurturing a caring health promotion and disease prevention environment by providing service on behalf of patients everywhere.

26
2018

Lessons learned from Dr. Oz internship: M4 Michelle Baer aims to use communication to help patients lead healthier lives

Fourth-year medical student Michelle Baer spent a one-month internship on The Dr. Oz Show in October 2018. "I was really interested in finding out how he shares his information so that I can one day incorporate that into my own practice."

Fourth-year medical student Michelle Baer spent a one-month internship on The Dr. Oz Show in October 2018. “I was really interested in finding out how he shares his information so that I can one day incorporate that into my own practice.”

Fourth-year medical student Michelle Baer understands the hunger people have for trustworthy information on fitness and health.

She craves it herself.

A part-time fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Baer is always looking for ways to help people lead healthier lives. So it was a no-brainer, she said, when she had the opportunity to intern with the Dr. Oz TV show for four weeks this fall.

“It was a great experience,” she says. “I was really interested in finding out how he shares his information so that I can one day incorporate that into my own practice. We have all this knowledge as health care providers, but how do we best relay it all in a 10- to 15-minute appointment?”

Baer helped research and shape content for the show, fact-checking information and researching data. She worked closely with producers to help write the scripts.

“Michelle impressed me with her enthusiasm,” says Michael Crupain, M.D., medical unit chief of staff for the Dr. Oz Show. “She jumped right in there and was a valuable member of the team.”

The show employs two to three interns a month. These medical students are in their third or fourth years of school. Some stay one month, like Baer, while others are on set for a full year.

The show delves into a variety of topics, including food safety, nutrition, health trends, skin care, fitness and new products on the market. Baer helped research the benefits of apple cider vinegar and coconut oil, among other things.

“What was great was I also got to work on things for Dr. Oz’s other platforms, like his website and Instagram page,” she says.

During her one-month internship on The Dr. Oz Show, fourth-year Michelle Baer helped research and shape content for the show and worked closely with producers to help write the scripts.

During her one-month internship on The Dr. Oz Show, fourth-year Michelle Baer helped research and shape content for the show and worked closely with producers to help write the scripts.

Mostly, she worked behind the scenes, but had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Oz several times.

“He is very personable,” she says. “My first day he walked up to me and gave me a bottle of honey he had made. You can tell he is passionate about what he does. He really cares.”

Growing up in and around New York City, Baer knew early on she wanted to pursue a career in health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in human biology, health and society from Cornell University and a master’s from Columbia University in human nutrition and metabolic biology.

During her first semester of medical school, Baer worked at the World Health Organization helping to develop a costing tool that details the long-term advantages of preventive care. She has been a certified yoga instructor since 2014, and in 2016 joined Boho Studios in Richmond as a health coach and fitness instructor.

“It seems there are health bloggers popping up out there every two minutes,” Baer says. “But you don’t know what their qualifications are. It’s difficult to find reliable information. I want to be a source people can trust.”

Baer is enrolled in fmSTAT, the medical school’s Family Medicine Scholar Training and Admission Track that’s designed to develop and nurture students interested in family medicine careers. After medical school, she hopes integrate preventive medicine, holistic care and patient advocacy into her own practice.

“As people are becoming more invested in their own health, they are asking more questions,” she says. “We need to be able to provide the information they want, hone it down and make it succinct and understandable. If we don’t, they will never make the changes they need to make to lead healthier lives. I feel that’s what being a doctor is all about.”

By Janet Showalter

26
2018

VCU trauma director Aboutanos leads planning for statewide trauma system

Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam recently reappointed VCU Trauma Center Medical Director Michel Aboutanos, M.D., H'00, M.P.H., to the state's EMS Advisory Board. Here, Aboutanos is pictured at the Shining Knight Gala, an annual event honoring first-responders, nurses, doctors and others who save trauma patients' lives.

Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam recently reappointed VCU Trauma Center Medical Director Michel Aboutanos, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., to the state’s EMS Advisory Board. Here, Aboutanos is pictured at the Shining Knight Gala, an annual event honoring first-responders, nurses, doctors and others who save trauma patients’ lives.

When coordinated trauma care succeeds, it’s like a symphony, says VCU Trauma Center Medical Director Michel Aboutanos, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S.

It takes every member of the care team coming together — perfecting their skills and hitting their notes — to save lives.

“We need everyone working together for that patient who’s facing impossible injuries to survive,” says Aboutanos, a 2000 housestaff alumnus.

A symphony also needs the right conductor. And what Aboutanos has helped create at VCU, he’s been asked to expand to a statewide level.

Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam recently tapped Aboutanos for a second three-year term on the state’s EMS Advisory Board, where he will continue to lead the Trauma System Oversight and Management Committee. The reappointment gives him the chance to oversee implementation of the plan for a statewide trauma system that the committee developed during his first term.

“Our ultimate purpose is to make sure the injured patient receives appropriate care across the commonwealth,” says Aboutanos, who notes that currently protocols for treating injured patients may differ across the state’s five Level 1 trauma centers. “Second, we have not collectively looked at our top trauma problems and how we’re going to tackle them under one coordinated effort.”

A Level 1 trauma center designation recognizes hospitals across the nation that deliver the highest quality care within and beyond hospital walls through teaching and research, as well as injury and violence prevention programs.

“VCU Medical Center was the first trauma center designated in Virginia,” Aboutanos says. “We have 30 years of experience so it’s extremely important that we continue to show that commitment and leadership to the commonwealth.”

Gary Brown, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, says that’s one of the many reasons Aboutanos is most qualified to chair the committee.

“Dr. Aboutanos was the only clear, objective and logical pathway to navigate the commonwealth’s complex facets and components of trauma care and mold it into an integrated vision and trauma system plan for all Virginians,” says Brown, whose office manages the EMS Advisory Board.

Brown saw the success of VCU’s trauma center when Aboutanos invited him to the Shining Knight Gala. The annual VCU Health event honors all members of the trauma team from emergency medicine first-responders to doctors, nurses and others who save trauma patients’ lives and put them on the road to recovery. The event raises funds for VCU Trauma Center’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program.

“Trauma care must be structured around the patient’s needs and delivering optimal outcomes along a continuum of care,” Brown says “The Shining Knight Gala represented and demonstrated every aspect and component that defines a comprehensive, coordinated, efficient and effective Level 1 trauma care program.”

Similarly, as chair of the EMS Advisory Board’s Trauma System Oversight and Management Committee, Aboutanos created a task force comprised of all the players and stakeholders who influence a patient’s care from before the point of injury to pre-hospital and hospital care to rehabilitation and reentry into the community.

About the Fletcher Ammons Professorship in Surgery

Endowed professorships and chairs represent the highest academic honor a university can bestow on a faculty member. They aim to help universities recruit and retain the brightest teachers, researchers and clinicians, enriching the academic and clinical environment for students and patients alike.

An endowed professorship or chair also serves as a lasting tribute to the donor who established it. Mary H. Ammons, wife of Col. Fletcher E. Ammons, M’26, established the professorship in surgery that bears his name after her husband’s death in 1978.

Col. Ammons served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, retiring in 1946 with the rank of Colonel. His last duty station was as hospital commander at Langley Air Force Base.

The task force’s seven sub-groups met more than 100 times over three years, first reviewing recommendations from the American College of Surgeons and then determining how to incorporate those recommendations into a statewide trauma system plan.

“We always say it’s not the plan that matters, it’s the planning that matters more,” Aboutanos says. “People who haven’t worked together collectively are now at the same table and learning from one another.”

For Aboutanos, giving the appropriate time and effort to the committee would not be possible without the support of VCU leadership and his Fletcher Emory Ammons Professorship in Surgery.

“This professorship financially supports and protects time on my schedule,” he says. “With it, I can provide this level of service to the commonwealth. It’s what an institution of our caliber should be doing, and I am incredibly thankful that I hold an endowed position. I wish I could have every member of my division in endowed positions so that we could do the work we have to do.”

In October 2018, Gov. Northam approved the proposed trauma system plan. Now the task force will reconvene to begin implementation — including seeking funding from the General Assembly for a sustainable trauma fund that would support the Virginia trauma system plan, including a robust data system to gather trauma data across the state, identify the top causes of mortality and tackle those issues.

Then, the symphony can begin.

By Polly Roberts

07
2018

Delivering milk and delivering babies

A Centenarian Remembers

Entering the Richmond, Va., home that Charles L. Williams, M’48, H’49Charles L. Williams, M’48, H’49, shares with his daughter, Betty James, you immediately notice Williams’ infectious smile and the twinkle in his eye. He is sitting in a padded recliner with a walker nearby, the only noticeable concessions to his age.

At 102 – and believed to be the School of Medicine’s oldest living alumnus – Williams, rather remarkably, only takes medication for chronic back pain.

Asked to what he attributes his long life, Williams chuckles. “Picking the right ancestors!” he replies.

To put his century-spanning life into perspective, the Medical College of Virginia was a mere 78 years old when Williams was born on March 15, 1916, in South Richmond.

Though interested in medicine, Williams didn’t have the means to attend college. But industrious to a fault, he spent several years following high school as a driver for Cochrane Transportation and then Virginia Dairy.

Soon after marrying his wife, Doris, in 1940, Williams felt ready to take the plunge into academe. Earning his undergraduate degree at University of Richmond in three years, he entered MCV in the fall of ’44. Most of his classes were in McGuire Hall or the Egyptian Building.

“Medical school was rough,” he recalls. “Everything was very challenging.” At 28, not only was he older than most students, but he had a young family to support. Betty was born during his second year at MCV, and Marvin T. Williams, M’74, H’77, made his appearance just as his dad was about to graduate.

If you know a School of Medicine alumnus or alumna who is older than 102, please let us know! Send your stories to MedAlum@vcu.edu.Working to make ends meet, Williams held several jobs during medical school, including working as slide projectionist for Richmond Academy of Medicine lectures and as business editor and editor-in-chief of the X-Ray yearbook.

He has vivid memories of being an intern when the only emergency room in town was at MCV’s West Hospital, which had opened just a few years earlier in 1941. Interns were expected to report to work daily and to be on call every other night. The position was unpaid, the only perk being that families could join the interns for lunch at the hospital on Sundays.

On occasion, Williams says, “If I was in the ER, sewing somebody up, I had to drop everything” to take outside calls. Not infrequently he would hop on an ambulance to be rushed to the scene of an accident. Because the polio epidemic was still in full swing – and the vaccine had not yet been invented – he remembers the hospital’s incubators and iron lungs as well as the heartbreak of performing spinal taps on children.

During his nearly 40 years of family practice, Williams didn’t see dramatic changes in his chosen profession. It allowed him the luxury of spending more time doing what he loved: taking care of patients. Retiring in 1988 meant he missed the enormous changes that would be effected, for example, by the advent of computers and upheavals in the insurance industry.

Charles Williams, M’48

Charles Williams, M’48, holds a portrait of himself taken for the 1948 X-Ray yearbook.

Williams delivered about 1,000 babies during his career, many whom he continued to treat as they grew into adults and many whom his son kept as patients until his own retirement in 2015.

“I saw the tremendous respect people had for him and the enjoyment he received from his work,” says Marvin Williams, who worked alongside his father for 11 years preceding the senior Williams’ retirement.

In 2008, Charles Williams lost his wife of nearly 70 years. But he has stayed active, with a legacy that now includes four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, all of whom love gathering at their river house near Urbanna, Va. It’s a good life for a centenarian who took his life’s work seriously but enjoyed it immensely … whether delivering milk or delivering babies.

05
2018

Passion pays off: Sanyal to receive premier award in field of liver disease

The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases will honor Arun Sanyal, M.D., with the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award.

The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases will honor Arun Sanyal, M.D., who holds the Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology Research, with the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award, recognized as the premier award in the field of liver disease.

In November 2018, Arun Sanyal, M.D., will accept the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. The award signifies 30 years of research including 17 continuous years of National Institutes of Health funding, the development of therapeutics reducing liver disease across the globe, and countless international leadership roles and awards.

“This is the premier award in the field of liver disease and Dr. Sanyal is most deserving,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “His work is the definition of translational medicine. Through his extraordinary commitment to research, teaching and patient care, and to always finding a better way, he has improved the standard of care for liver disease around the world.”

A housestaff alumnus who’s now a professor in the VCU Department of Internal Medicine and education core director in the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research, Sanyal embodies a passion for liver disease that has taken him to the top of his field. It’s a much different place than he envisioned in 1987, when he came to the MCV Campus as a gastroenterology fellow.

“I had no interest in liver disease and I was actually terrified by it because all the patients were dying when I was in training,” Sanyal says.

Then-chair of VCU’s Division of Gastroenterology Z. Reno Vlahcevic, M.D., who had recruited Sanyal, wasted no time in calling the young trainee into his office. “He knew it troubled me tremendously that what was being taught as the best care possible still resulted in the majority of people dying,” Sanyal says. “I thought that was completely unacceptable. He believed that would prove a strong motivator, so he told me, ‘I think you should do liver disease.’

“And off I went.”

Finding a better way
Today, Sanyal holds the Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology Research that honors his mentor who died in 2000. “At a personal level, it’s extremely poignant and meaningful. I hope I can do him proud.”

Practically, the professorship gives Sanyal the freedom to get early-stage, unfunded projects off the ground with the goal of doing what Vlahcevic knew he wanted — and needed — to do: find a better way to treat liver disease.

“We have developed new paradigms for drug development that are now being used across all the field of liver disease. None of that would have been possible without having an endowed professorship that protects your time for that kind of research,” Sanyal says. “It allows more time for educating young physicians and for developing new ideas and concepts that have a footprint beyond the university to a national and even international level.”

Sanyal has had a hand in three high-profile advances that have improved liver disease treatment since his training days. First, along with a former radiology colleague, he helped establish the foundation for a procedure known as TIPS that places a stent in the abdomen and has helped lower the mortality rate associated with internal bleeding in cirrhosis patients from 30 percent to 15 percent.

Second, he discovered a link between nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance that translated to new treatment and practice guidelines. Finally, Sanyal is in the midst of a study to reverse kidney shutdown in cirrhosis patients that could reduce mortality for this otherwise fatal condition without liver transplantation.

Over the next five years, Sanyal will lead a $14 million national project to find an alternative to using biopsies to test for fatty liver disease. Today, many patients will refuse the invasive procedure, allowing an undiagnosed disease to fester until the only remaining treatment option is a liver transplant.

“By developing simple, non-invasive tools that every physician can use at the bedside, we hope that we will be able to expand access to care for the millions of people who have this condition so we can identify those who need more aggressive attention,” Sanyal says.

“A living textbook”
Sanyal credits his family, teachers, colleagues and patients who have helped him advance the liver disease field.

“Patients are my best teachers,” Sanyal says. “You don’t need a podcast. Every time I walk into a clinic, I’m reading a living textbook.”

It’s a textbook he says he continues to learn from every day.

“The work,” he says, “is never finished.”

By Polly Roberts

05
2018

Clinical rotation takes M4 Kathryn Gouthro to Yellowstone: “You never know what’s going to walk through that door”

A clinical rotation took the Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro to Yellowstone National Park.

A clinical rotation took the Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro to Yellowstone National Park – where they remind visitors that all of the park is bear habitat!

Growing up inside Yellowstone National Park, fourth-year medical student Kathryn Gouthro never had far to travel to see her family doctor.

Three clinics were strategically located throughout the park, but only one was staffed with a full-time doctor. That’s where Gouthro went to be treated for colds, strep throat and other childhood aliments.

“That sparked my interest in family medicine,” says Gouthro, whose father managed Yellowstone’s hotels and restaurants. “The doctor there was not only someone who took care of the people, but he was part of the community. I respected that.”

More than 20 years later, Gouthro was back at Yellowstone completing a month-long clinical rotation. She lived and worked at two of the clinics alongside registered nurses and a physician’s assistant.

“It was a really awesome experience figuring out what to do with the resources available,” she says.

The clinics have X-ray and EKG machines, but no ultrasounds or CT scans. Gouthro could not take a basic metabolic panel, instead sending blood work to an outside lab. With limited resources, she relied on thorough physical exams. She took extra time to get to know her patients, their health habits, lifestyles and family history.

The Class of 2019's Kathryn Gouthro, catching a cutthroat trout on Yellowstone Lake as a child.

The Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro, catching a cutthroat trout on Yellowstone Lake as a child.

She also consulted with her supervising physician and medical director at Yellowstone, Luanne Freer, M’88. But since Freer was off site, Gouthro uploaded patients’ files to a secure server and the two discussed treatment options by phone.

“This is such a great experience for students because they can hone their skills,” Freer says. “It opens their eyes to the fact that you don’t always have to order expensive and extraneous tests. We sometimes can get a little complacent relying on tests instead of really listening.”

Freer, who is based outside Seattle, is the associate medical director at Medcor, a large company that holds the contract for medical services in Yellowstone. Since 2005, when Medcor began overseeing the medical rotation elective at Yellowstone, more than 100 physician assistants, nurse practitioners and medical students have completed the program. Gouthro’s rotation marked the last time the elective will be open to medial students.

“Rural medicine challenges you,” says Gouthro, president of the Class of 2019. “You never know what is going to walk through that door.”

Patients are primarily park visitors or employees who live in the park. Gouthro treated everything from ear infections and high-altitude illness to bug bites, cuts, bruises and broken bones. On one occasion she called in a helicopter to transport a stroke patient to the hospital.

“Most of the patients were bummed because they are on vacation and find themselves at the clinic,” Gouthro says. “They are just looking for help and are so grateful that you are there. It felt wonderful to make a difference.”

The Class of 2019's Kathryn Gouthro at Yellowstone's Old Faithful Clinic.

The Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Clinic.

Gouthro, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, learned about the Yellowstone rotation while volunteering at the clinic one summer. She met Freer about that same time when the two raced on the same relay team. When Gouthro applied to medical school, Freer was happy to write her a reference letter.

“She has this way of connecting with people,” says Freer, who founded the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic, the highest-altitude emergency room in the world, in 2003. “She is special.”

A member of the Army Reserves, Gouthro is enrolled in fmSTAT – the medical school’s Family Medicine Scholar Training and Admission Track that’s designed to nurture and develop students interested in family medicine careers.

After she completes a seven-year commitment with the Army after school, she says, “I would love to be a rural family doctor. When you are it – when you are the only person available – you have the opportunity to really become a resource for the people there. You become part of the community, which is really a special thing.”

By Janet Showalter

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Updated: 04/29/2016