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Sharing the gift of sight is an ‘incredible experience’ for the Class of 80’s Sara Jones-Gomberg

Ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, with elderly patient and daughter

Ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, looks on as an elderly mother sees her daughter for the first time in many years after receiving free cataract surgery.

The joy cannot be contained when an elderly mother, previously blinded by cataracts, sees her adult daughter for the first time in many years. Mother and daughter smile, then weep. There isn’t a dry eye in this makeshift operating room in the Philippines as mom marvels at how much her little girl has grown.

“She still thought of her as a young person, unchanged,” says ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, who performed the free cataract surgery in March 2014 to restore the mother’s vision. “It was an incredible experience.”

But it’s one that almost didn’t happen.

The mother had arrived at the clinic scared and unsure of the procedure. She was hot and hadn’t eaten much. Like many of the patients, she had come a long way much earlier in the day to be evaluated for the surgery. Her daughter was worried that if her mother didn’t have the surgery that day, she wouldn’t go through with it — and she desperately wanted her mother to see again.

Jones-Gomberg was concerned, too, that the mother — understandably on edge after the long, hot wait — would be too restless for surgery in a setting without standard anesthesia. So they decided to wait one more day.

“We got her dinner and a place to stay the night,” Jones-Gomberg says, “and her daughter reviewed with her mom what to expect. She was the first patient in the morning to have surgery. She was rested and like a changed person. The surgery just went beautifully.”

So beautifully that the patient said she wanted to have the other eye operated on later that same day. No more fear. “We all felt like a happy family but this was our last day of surgery with many more patients waiting for a turn,” Jones-Gomberg says. “We promised to come back to perform the second eye surgery.”

It’s experiences like these that keep Jones-Gomberg going back to the Philippines, where she has traveled seven times since 2005, performing as many as 15 surgeries a day with a team of two to three doctors, including a local physician. She’s also treated patients in Bangladesh, India, Laos, Mexico, Peru and Tibet.

“In some of these countries, they simply accept that nothing can be done to restore their vision. But when suddenly it is, it’s like night and day — from sitting in the corner of their home and growing useless to suddenly becoming a contributing member of the family,” Jones-Gomberg says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better profession than giving back vision. You do something to help people but you receive such a good feeling for yourself. In some ways, it’s a little bit selfish. I’m so fortunate to have had my education at MCV and become a physician. A number of things came together and now I have a gift. To not share it would be such a shame.”

Back in her California home, Jones-Gomberg shares the gift of sight with patients at Kaiser Permanente in the Antelope Valley as a partner emeritus and at the High Desert Regional Medical Center of Los Angeles County. She previously spent 27 years as a partner physician in Panorama City and Santa Clarita Kaiser Permanente but moved to provide care to an underserved population that previously had to travel as far as 60 miles for ophthalmological services.

Caring for the less fortunate, and treating her patients as friends, is a running theme of Jones-Gomberg’s career.

“It’s something inside of me that I wouldn’t be able to change,” she says. “I talk to patients about their family, their concerns, their social life. I do think part of the responsibility as a caregiver is to look at the whole person, not just the eye.

“My sense of patient care began in my years at MCV and the way the students cared for one another. I do think our class was a special class. We didn’t rely on competitiveness. We actually worked together.”

Jones-Gomberg arrived on the MCV Campus at age 28, after earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics. She even spent a few years teaching math prior to medical school. Yet influential people in her life, including her family physician, encouraged her to become a doctor, noting the increasing presence of math in medicine.

She’s especially grateful to Miles Hench, Ph.D., former dean of admissions in the medical school, and oncologist Susan Mellette, M.D., who were instrumental in her path to becoming the caring physician she is today.

It was during her fourth-year rotation when she realized ophthalmology encompassed everything she loved about medicine: physics, mathematics, surgery and patient interaction.

“Every day I’m so thankful that I was given this experience,” Jones-Gomberg says. “In some ways, I was probably a gamble on MCV’s part. I hope I’ve shown it was well worth the gamble. MCV gave me the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”

By Polly Roberts


M2 Yasaman Ataei celebrates Independence Day by becoming a U.S. citizen

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., with the Class of 2020’s Yasaman Ataei

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., with the Class of 2020’s Yasaman Ataei who became a U.S. citizen on July 4.

On July 4th, the Class of 2020’s Yasaman Ataei had a new reason to celebrate.

Along with others from 50 countries around the world, the rising second-year medical student took the oath of allegiance and became a U.S. citizen.

Ataei and her family immigrated from Iran in 2010. “There are great things that come with living in the United States, more personal freedom, freedom of speech,” Ataei told the local NBC affiliate.

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., who is of Irish descent and is also a U.S. citizen himself was on hand for the ceremony held at the Virginia Historical Society.

“What a beautiful way to celebrate America’s birthday by welcoming Yasaman and 78 others from across the world as they join this great nation,” Buckley said. “We are fortunate that Yasaman will be training with us.”

You can watch Ataei’s interview with WWBT NBC12.

By Erin Lucero


Former Dean Dr. Jerry Strauss receives international honor

Jerome F. Strauss, M.D., Ph.D., accepted the 2017 Arnaldo Bruno Prize for Gynaecology.Jerome F. Strauss, M.D., Ph.D., accepted the 2017 Arnaldo Bruno Prize for Gynaecology, one of the highest international honors conferred by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

In Rome on June 15, Jerome F. Strauss, M.D., Ph.D., was awarded the 2017 Arnaldo Bruno Prize for Gynaecology. The award is one of the highest international honors conferred by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and was presented at its closing ceremony of the academic year.

The oldest scientific academy worldwide, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei was founded in 1603 and counts Galileo among its earliest members. Since 1992, the academy has served as the scientific consultant to the president of the Italian Republic. Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, was in attendance at the June 15 ceremony, and Strauss had the opportunity to meet him beforehand.

“In science, you don’t expect to be honored with awards and prizes,” Strauss says. “But to be recognized by a scientific academy with the stature and longevity of the Accademia is undeniably exhilarating. I’ll remember this day and especially the setting – the Accademia building is beautiful, filled with art and, of course, history.”

Similar to the National Academy of Science in the U.S., the Italian academy promotes and disseminates scientific knowledge, conducts research and publishes reports and opinions that guide public authorities. It also awards prizes for literature, music, physics and mathematics among other disciplines, and in that way has a larger scope, much like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Arnaldo Bruno Prize was created in 2001 in memory of the Italian gynecologist, Arnaldo Bruno. Past winners are distinguished investigators and clinicians from around the world.

A professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Strauss has authored more than 300 original scientific articles and holds 12 issued U.S. patents for discoveries and therapeutics. He is senior editor of Yen and Jaffe’s “Reproductive Endocrinology,” the major textbook in the field of reproductive medicine. He was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine (now called the National Academy of Medicine) of the National Academies of Science at age 47, and chaired two committees that issued reports on contraceptive development and the state of ovarian cancer research. Strauss also served as a member of the Discovery Expert Group for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and chaired the Board of Scientific Counselors of the NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“Our congratulations to Dr. Strauss on this remarkable recognition,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., Dean of Medicine. “We are fortunate that Dr. Strauss is leading such a stellar funded research program in developmental biology and endocrinology at VCU.”

By Erin Lucero


M4 Nehal Naik helps develop devices to manage tuberculosis, improve patient care

The Class of 2018’s Nehal Naik spent a year in Peru with the NIH’s Fogarty Global Health  program. Here he’s pictured in a TB isolation room with a TB aerosol filter.

The Class of 2018’s Nehal Naik spent a year in Peru with the NIH’s Fogarty Global Health
program. Here he’s pictured in a TB isolation room with a TB aerosol filter.

Nehal Naik, M’18, was out of his comfort zone during his year in Lima, Peru, as a research fellow with the National Institutes of Health Fogarty Global Health program.

He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

“It was great,” he says. “We really delved into the social aspects of health and social science research, which I wasn’t used to.”

Naik teamed with three other fellows to create novel devices that improve tuberculosis clinical management and prognostication. They identified biomarkers for the disease, which will help physicians track how a patient is doing.

“I feel a lot of health issues in the world are forgotten because so many patients in poorer areas don’t have the same access to health care,” says Naik, who returned to Richmond in April. “As a result, the plight of patients in low and middle income countries can be overlooked by the general public and even health care providers. There are so many things in the U.S. that we take for granted. I want to help increase access to care for everyone.”

For the last year, he focused his research in Lima, where he helped create a sensor that measures the frequency of a patient’s cough over a four-hour period. In a study with a group of 60 patients from two hospitals in the city, the sensor recorded coughing data and Naik conducted interviews to get a better understanding of each patient’s personal life – such as access to nutritious food and the stigmas they face because of the disease.

Using the data, the team will analyze how many times a patient coughed, if he or she improved with treatment and if it correlates to existing laboratory diagnostics.

Naik’s group also helped develop a filter that measures tuberculosis particles in the air when a patient coughs that has the potential to determine in future studies the risk posed to doctors when they treat patients.

“We worked with a great team of doctors,” says Naik, who in April presented the results of his filter study at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. “Collaboration is the only way to get things accomplished. It’s great to see how medical students and physicians are driven to change their community.”

While in Peru, the Class of 2018’s Nehal Naik helped set up the Peruvian chapter of the Panamerican Trauma Society. Here he’s participating in a disaster simulation with PTS students.

While in Peru, the Class of 2018’s Nehal Naik helped set up the Peruvian chapter of the Panamerican Trauma Society. Here he’s participating in a disaster simulation with PTS students.

While in Peru, Naik continued his role as the chair of the student subcommittee of the Panamerican Trauma Society. Based on the MCV Campus, the society promotes the development of international collaborations among health professionals in trauma and critical care. Naik helped set up the Peruvian chapter, which now has more than 120 members in three local universities. He also is working with VCU Health’s Division of Acute Care Surgery to develop a collaboration with Peruvian surgeons to assess access and quality of surgical care.

“Nehal is a fantastic student, and more importantly a great human being,” says Joel Moll, M.D., Naik’s advisor and the residency program director for the Department of Emergency Medicine. “He will likely start residency more accomplished than many faculty in his niche. But meeting him, none of this is obvious. He is warm, kind and very down-to-earth.”

Naik plans to pursue his residency in emergency medicine because it not only encompasses all his clinical skills and interests, but because of a growing need for the specialty around the world as poorer countries urbanize. He witnessed this need as an M1 researcher in Ecuador in 2014. Naik was at the city of Cuenca’s 911 center when a call came in from the scene of a serious car accident. Because of a lack of communication, the hospital was unprepared for the severity of the patient’s injuries, and the patient died.

Since then, Naik helped Cuenca’s hospitals implement a communications protocol similar to the one at VCU Health.

“I’ve seen people who have access to good health care and those who don’t,” he says. “Inherently, it’s saddening. But it makes me want to give them the tools to improve that inequality. That’s where I want to make a difference.”

The Global Health Program for Fellows and Scholars
• Provides supportive mentorship, research opportunities and a collaborative research environment for early stage investigators to enhance their global health research expertise and their careers.
• Generates a new and young cadre of global health researchers, educators and professionals who will be prepared to address the new challenges in global health.
• Provides fellows with outstanding, interdisciplinary education and training in innovative global health research to promote health equity for populations around the world.

Learn more about the Global Health Program for Fellows and Scholars >>

By Janet Showalter


Reflections on Pinares as HOMBRE team heads back to Honduras

Medical students travel to Honduras, as part of HOMBRE.

Medical students travel to Pinares, Honduras, as part of the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigagda Relief Effort.

This June a team of more than a dozen health sciences students head to Pinares, Honduras, as part of the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigada Relief Effort, where alongside faculty they will provide medical services and health care education to the country’s underserved and rural populations.

Nine medical students will travel with this year’s team, led by faculty members Michael Filak, M.D., and Sandra Tandeciarz, M.D., who have a combined decade of HOMBRE experience between them.

“We are ever grateful to our School of Medicine faculty for their volunteerism, as well as mentorship, as exemplified here in this global outreach with our dedicated medical students,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., Dean of Medicine.

Team members also include Kate DiPasquale Seelig, M’12, an HOMBRE alumna now returning for the second time as faculty. As a student, Seelig received an Aesculapian Scholarship, made possible through the medical school’s Annual Fund. Even a partial scholarship relieves the burden of debt today’s medical students face and can make it easier for recipients to choose to travel and gain global health experience.

In Honduras, team members will work in health care clinics or on public health projects geared toward improving villagers’ quality of life. On the trip, held June 13-24, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience working alongside nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy students.

After HOMBRE’s summer 2016 trip to Honduras, nonprofit partner Shoulder to Shoulder provided a glimpse into the landscape and people of Honduras, as well as the work of the HOMBRE team. Read on for highlights from the Shoulder to Shoulder blog as this year’s team embarks on a new journey.

As the crow flies

HOMBRE team members provide medical services and education.

HOMBRE team members provide medical services and education to Honduras’ underserved and rural populations.

“As the crow flies …” is a great expression, probably a little bit overused in the U.S. We don’t hear the expression here in Honduras very much. Primarily, I guess, because we don’t have too many crows. We do have vultures, “zopilotes” we call them, and they fly across the mountains with great ease. Perhaps that’s more the reason why the expression doesn’t get used that often here. It is just a little too depressing to think on how quickly a zopilote crosses from one mountain peak to the other, a matter of a minute or two, and then to think that the same trip takes up to an hour or two in a four-wheel drive pickup. It’s just a little bit too humbling to think that nature is that far ahead of human ingenuity. Here, the terrain and the elements of the natural world continue to present tremendous challenges to human dominance. Perhaps not so much in the U.S. Here, we prefer to not remind ourselves how much easier it is to be a crow or a zopilote.

The Frontera is a really small place, less than 700 square kilometers, smaller than El Paso, Texas. But, there are no straight lines and nothing is ever level. One goes north to arrive at a destination to the south, or up in order to go down. This counterintuitive travel is yet worsened by roads that would not merit the designation of a road in the U.S. Steep volcanic mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, but living within them is hardly practical.

San Marcos de La Sierra is the first municipality that one encounters in the Frontera, driving south from La Esperanza. The road here is still at a high elevation and one doesn’t really see any evidence that people live here. Virginia Commonwealth University and Fairfax Family Practices have been coming to this area three times a year for many years. They were just here once again. We dropped them off at the school and clinic in Pinares and we came back about a week or so later to pick them up. If we didn’t know what they do while they are there, we might assume they just hang out and admire the tremendous vistas they are privileged to view. But we do know better.

During HOMBRE, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience.

During HOMBRE, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience working alongside nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy students.

Hiding behind those mountains, across ravines and beyond the treacherous slopes, are about 9,000 residents. Few of them make their way to the health clinic. This is not surprising. They are poor, simple people. They have all they can do to maintain a small home and, if they are fortunate, a small plot of land on which to farm. They travel to a river for water. They collect wood for a fire to cook humble meals. They battle daily with a harsh, unforgiving environment so that they can stay ahead of a mortality curve. They remain unseen, forgotten, abandoned, invisible if you will, except for the zopilote vultures that circle their heads. If anyone is going to know these people, if anyone is going to care for them, treat their illnesses, recognize their dignity, then it demands going to them. They can’t come to us.

We sometimes look naively upon a just response to inequity and poverty. It would be easy to sit outside the school at Pinares where VCU/Fairfax houses their service team and admire the beauty of majestic mountains. It takes insight, compassion and even sacrifice to gain the view of a zopilote that flies beyond the mountains with ease. For the doctors, students, translators and volunteers, they brave the rough terrain to make their way to unseen, ignored people who live in poverty. They climb into the beds of pickup trucks, squished in among the bins of medical supplies, and bump along to destinations where most anyone would not dare to go. They stare down the cliffs as they go. They stop when they can go no further with a car because the road has fallen down the mountain. They sling their supplies over their shoulders and into backpacks. Then they walk. Perhaps even as they trek along, they wonder about this odd journey: going south to arrive to the north, and up in order to get down. Then they finally arrive in a little village, a place mostly unknown. Maybe they look up and see a zopilote circling their heads. Perhaps they indulge themselves with a knowing smile.

This is how we discover people. We make our way along treacherous journeys. Once again, VCU/Fairfax has made their journey to reach a poor, forgotten, invisible people. The people they have met are happy and grateful for the encounter. For this journey, to have arrived to where the crow flies, everyone has been enriched.


For the Class of 2020’s Jay Pham, persistence and resilience earn a second chance

The pride overflows from the Class of 2020’s Jay Pham as he talks about life on the MCV Campus as a first-year medical student.

“It’s been blissful to finally be here,” says Pham, his smile growing wider. “Pure happiness. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”

At 34, he says he’s finally where he’s supposed to be.

The Class of 2020’s Jay Pham and family

The Class of 2020’s Jay Pham and his wife with four of their five children, ages 5, 10, 11 and 14. Not pictured: their newest addition, a 1-year-old boy.

Five years ago, Pham found himself in a much different spot. He was running his family’s business in Seattle, Washington, having dropped out of college years earlier when he became a young father. He was making ends meet for his family but longed for a sense of fulfillment.

“I saw my children, who were so young and just beginning their lives, as a biological miracle,” Pham says. “The process of life is fascinating. They came out pretty perfectly yet so many things could have gone wrong. I wanted to understand this amazingness.”

So in 2012 the then-father of three went back to the University of Washington, where he had been one political science class shy of graduating, to finish his bachelor’s degree and earn his prerequisites. “This time I knew I had it in me. It was four hours round trip to school. I studied on the bus. I studied while brushing my teeth. It’s amazing what time you can find,” he laughs.

Jay Pham (right) and his father in 2012 before Pham started his post-baccalaureate studies at VCU.

Jay Pham (right) and his father in 2012 before Pham started his post-baccalaureate studies at VCU. “He is truly the one man who understands me completely. Perhaps also my greatest supporter.”

A Vietnamese immigrant who moved to the U.S with his parents and three siblings at age 10, Pham’s parents had always dreamed of him becoming a doctor. “Most immigrant families feel the need to be successful. You have to finish school. Be somebody.”

For much of his life, Pham followed this track. A bright high school student, he took community college classes his junior and senior years, earning his associate’s degree at the same time he graduated from high school. But he resisted his parents’ push toward medical school and ultimately abandoned his undergraduate studies. Eventually he found himself far from the life he’d envisioned.

It wasn’t until someone told him, “You made a mistake, but I believe you can recover from it,” that Pham began to reflect on what he could give back to society. “When you don’t have anything, you appreciate your body and your health. In Vietnam, it was how you could get work in the fields. My family was poor — we were on welfare when we came to the United States — but we had our health.

“I want to be the ‘keeper of health’ for the underserved and the poor,” Pham says. “That’s what I was. Now I want to pay it forward to the next generation.”

But while his career path was now clear to Pham, he had more work to do before being accepted into medical school. On the advice of senior associate dean of admissions Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, he completed VCU’s post-baccalaureate graduate certificate program.

“When I was emailing medical schools, Dr. Whitehurst-Cook was the only one who emailed me back personally and said ‘here are some of the things you could do,’” Pham says. “Other schools sent an auto response but this school, this person, found time to respond. It’s like the kind of doctor I want to be. VCU felt like the right school.”

The Class of 58’s James Darden (left) mentors Jay Pham at CrossOver Clinic

The Class of 58’s James Darden (left) mentors Jay Pham at CrossOver Clinic, Virginia’s largest free clinic where Pham volunteered prior to medical school and continues to give his time.

After earning his certificate and a 4.0 GPA, Pham spent 2016 volunteering at CrossOver Ministry in Richmond under the mentorship of James Darden, M’58. Seeing the patients at CrossOver, Virginia’s largest free clinic serving more than 6,000 individuals, reinforced his desire to become a doctor and work with the underserved.

Whitehurst-Cook says Pham’s persistence and hard work showed he would be successful at VCU and as a physician.

“We saw a real passion in Jay for helping others,” she says. “He is a great role model. He’s learned a lot from his life’s journey and can share it with other students and help others develop cultural sensitivity, not just to his heritage, but to his path to medical school. Resilience is so important.”

Since arriving on campus, Pham’s path has been made a little easier as a recipient of the Lillian H. and Steward R. Moore Scholarship, which partially funds his tuition. “I’m very proud to be worthy of a scholarship and appreciate any amount that I don’t have to borrow. It’s tremendous.”

Providing meaningful scholarship support for students with financial need is the goal of the medical school’s 1838 Campaign. Full and half-tuition scholarships are most urgently needed. They are one of the medical school’s best resources for recruiting and rewarding deserving students like Pham.

The now married father of five is a leader in his class — other students affectionately call him “Pappy”— and in his family, where he and his children often study side-by-side. “It’s easy to tell them to study when they’re always seeing me study,” he laughs. “We are students together.”

It’s not the path to medical school Pham may have chosen, but he’s shared the ups and downs of his journey with his children, ages 1 to 14. He tells them while it’s OK to make mistakes, sometimes there is a better way.

“Do things right the first time,” he says. “Fixing it is hard.”

But as Pham eyes his second of year of medical school, he knows better than most that it’s possible.

By Polly Roberts