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August 2015 Archives


How a career in emergency medicine introduced the Class of 2007’s Laura Diegelmann to helicopters and kangaroos

Laura Diegelmann sitting in a plane

Early in her career, emergency medicine physician Laura Diegelmann, M’07, spent a year in Australia with the Royal Flying Doctors.

Laura Diegelmann, M’07, was mesmerized by the stories her father used to share around the dinner table.

She was a teenager then, but remembers vividly the detailed accounts of life and death he gave while volunteering with the local rescue squad. She knew then that what she was hearing would shape the rest of her life.

“I think it was the excitement that drew me in,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

When she turned 16, Diegelmann signed up as a volunteer EMT with the rescue squad near her Richmond-area home. Her father, Robert Diegelmann, Ph.D. — a longtime faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology – was often the driver, and the two headed out on calls together.

“It was amazing,” she said. “That sealed the deal for me.”

Her experience as an EMT confirmed her desire to work in emergency medicine. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from VCU in 2002, she worked for a year on the MCV Campus as a tech in the emergency room. She entered medical school the following year.

During her third year, she completed an internal medicine rotation in Alaska. While there, her supervising physician introduced her to the crew of Guardian Flight. Diegelmann flew a few times with them to remote areas of the state providing emergency care to those in need. The adventure exposed her to a whole new world.

Laura Diegelmann sitting in a plane

While in Cape Town, South Africa, to teach ultrasound to emergency medicine residents, Diegelmann also had the chance to share the technology with local school children.

“It combined all the ambulance stuff I love – and then you get to throw an airplane into the mix,” she said. “Who could ask for more?”

Diegelmann completed her emergency medicine residency at the University of Maryland, then packed her bags for Australia, where she spent a year with the Royal Flying Doctors.

“Living somewhere I’d never been before was exciting in itself,” she said. “But then I’m putting on a flight suit and rappelling out of helicopters to treat patients. Wow!”

Many of her missions involved transferring patients from small clinics in the Outback to larger hospitals. She also responded to traumas at farms or to other medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke. Many times, the places she flew to were so remote that she didn’t see a house for miles. She and her team often landed next to open fields.

“Sometimes we would have to circle around to scare the kangaroos from the airstrip,” she said.

While she loved the adventure, one year away from her parents and four siblings was enough. She returned to the states and completed a fellowship in emergency medicine ultrasound at the University of Maryland.

Laura Diegelmann with a leopard

In her travels overseas, Diegelmann has visited gorillas in Rwanda and this leopard in South Africa.>

In 2013, the travel bug hit again. This time, she ventured to Cape Town, South Africa, to teach emergency ultrasound at a local hospital. She also was involved with an ongoing study that continues to examine whether the early intervention of ultrasound in severely septic patients makes a difference in treatment plans.

“I really formed an attachment to South Africa,” Diegelmann said. “You really feel appreciated there. Patients there can travel all day just to see a doctor. They are there because they truly need help — they truly need you. It makes me realize why I became a doctor in the first place. To help people.”

After South Africa, Diegelmann headed to Rwanda and has been back a second time teaching emergency ultrasound at the main hospital there. She leaves at the end of August for Liberia, where she will spend a month teaching emergency ultrasound to the residents at JFK Hospital.

All the while she remains on faculty and as an emergency room physician at the University of Maryland.

“I really start to miss home when I am gone,” Diegelmann said. “Every time I go, I say this will be my last one. But it’s hard to walk away from. It’s so rewarding. I’m not only expanding my own knowledge and experience, but I know I’m making a difference. I think that’s why most of us go into medicine in the first place. We want to do our part.”

By Janet Showalter


National EMS award named for Emergency Medicine Chair Joe Ornato

Photo of the national EMS awardA national EMS award has been named for Emergency Medicine Chair Joe Ornato, M.D.

The respect Joe Ornato, M.D., has enjoyed over his 40-year career has now taken tangible form.

He was honored this summer at the Pinnacle EMS Leadership Conference in Jacksonville, Fla., with the announcement that a national award recognizing leadership in the emergency medical services field would carry his name.

Triple board certified in Internal medicine, cardiology and emergency medicine, Ornato is professor and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine. He is also medical director of the Richmond Ambulance Authority, Richmond Fire & EMS and Henrico County Division of Fire.

Reporting on the award, the Journal of Emergency Medical Services described him as the “undisputed leader in EMS and ED use of coordinated team resuscitation practices” from induced hypothermia to uninterrupted, continuous-compression CPR and rapid cath lab delivery/intervention.

Edward M. Racht, M.D., H’87, is the first recipient of the Joseph P. Ornato, M.D., Award for Clinical Leadership in EMS.

Ed Racht and Rob Lawrence with event organizersEd Racht, H’87 (right), and Rob Lawrence (second from left), chief operating officer of Richmond Ambulance Authority, with event organizers.

“Ed was one of my first trainees,” said Ornato. “I had nothing to do with his selection but was delighted when the selection committee chose him to receive the award.”

After completing his residency with Ornato in 1987, Racht joined the faculty of the medical school and served as associate chief of the medicine section of Emergency Medical Services. During his eight-year tenure on the MCV Campus, he was appointed by two Governors of Virginia to three successive terms on the Virginia State EMS Advisory Board.

Racht is now the chief medical officer of American Medical Response, the largest EMS provider in the nation, and in 2008 he was named a “Hero of Emergency Medicine” by the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Ornato earned his medical degree at the Boston University School of Medicine and completed an internal medicine residency at Mount Sinai Hospital and a fellowship in cardiology at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center. A member of the Institute of Medicine, Ornato is past chairman of the American Heart Association’s National Emergency Cardiovascular Care Committee and also chaired the national steering committee on the NIH Public Access Defibrillation Trial.


Class of 1979’s Rebecca Bigoney returns to campus to talk medical ethics with incoming first-year students

Rebecca Bigoney, M79

Rebecca Bigoney, M’79

When students first arrive at medical school, they expect to dive right into the hard science that will form the basis of their medical knowledge. This year, Rebecca Bigoney, M’79, got the chance to show incoming first-year students another side of medicine that is equally important, yet often overlooked by students early in their medical education. This fall she returned to the MCV Campus to talk about medical ethics and the puzzling dilemmas the members of the Class of 2019 will assuredly encounter at some point in their careers.

Bigoney has confronted a wide variety situations involving medical ethics over the course of her career, which includes 18 years in private practice and a term as vice president of medical affairs at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Va., where she now works as chief medical officer.

She shared some of her experiences with students as a guest speaker for the “Patient, Physician, and Society” curriculum. Her talk illustrated the complex situations that doctors can encounter at what Bigoney called “the intersection of ethics, liability, policy and reality.”

She told the stories of a patient who declined kidney surgery because a travelling preacher told her she had been cured, factory workers exposed to dangerous heavy metals with no protections from their company and a wife who tried to interfere with her husband’s treatment because of the race of his doctor.

These types of situations, Bigoney explained, require doctors to weigh medical, ethical and procedural decisions to arrive at acceptable, though often imperfect, conclusions.

For many of the assembled students these were new situations and questions they hadn’t previously considered. Students asked frequent questions throughout Bigoney’s presentation, wanting to clarify the decisions she’d made to resolve certain situations. At a student’s prompting, she walked the class through her logic in a hypothetical mass casualty situation — which patients would receive priority, how limited hospital resources might be divided up and how legal liability factors into such decisions.

Bigoney made sure to remind the students that “the ethical problems you face most likely will not be catastrophic or dramatic like the ones I’ve described, but you’ll encounter ethical challenges every day.”

Mark Ryan, M’00, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine, was also on hand to help facilitate the presentation. He praised Bigoney for showing students that “being a good doctor is more than knowing biochemistry or physiology — it is about learning to work with people, and the often complicated and difficult situations in which they find themselves.”

Even after the presentation was over, students lined up to ask her questions one-on-one. Although they may be years from having their own patients and making ethical decisions on their own, the Class of 2019 showed Bigoney that they intend to fully explore these complex questions so that they too can make the right ethical decisions when the time comes.

By Jack Carmichael


Medical student Lex Tee one of 30 nationwide to be selected for AAFP leadership program

Alexandra “Lex” Tee

The Class of 2018’s Alexandra “Lex” Tee

The Class of 2018’s Alexandra “Lex” Tee is part of the inaugural class of the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation’s Family Medicine Leads Emerging Leader Institute. She was one of 30 students selected for the program, which is designed to give leadership opportunities to family medicine-minded medical students and residents who demonstrate leadership potential.

As an M2, Tee is still exploring what the different fields of medicine have to offer and is eager for any experience or mentorship she can get along the way. “I decided to apply because I would get to attend AAFP’s national conference and work with a mentor and a project of my choice. I always enjoy learning from physicians and older students and residents, and this opportunity seemed like the perfect environment for growing and learning.”

The Institute offers three tracks that participants can choose from: Policy and Public Health Leadership, Personal and Practice Leadership and Philanthropic and Mission-Driven Leadership.

Tee is pursuing personal and practice leadership and hopes she will learn how to handle increased levels of responsibility as she continues her education and career. Both the national conference in Kansas City, Mo., and the institute offer exceptional opportunities for her to network and continue learning about the field.

“I think it will be helpful for me because I am so early in my medical training and this track emphasizes remaining effective and focused as I transition to greater levels of responsibility, autonomy, power and expectations. I hope the program will foster my commitment to lifelong learning and teach me more about growing and excelling in the practice of family medicine.”

Group photo of inaugural class of the AAFP’s Emerging Leader Institute

As part of the inaugural class of the AAFP’s Emerging Leader Institute, the Class of 2018’s Alexandra “Lex” Tee traveled to Kansas City, Mo., to develop her leadership skills and learn more about family medicine. (She’s on the far left, middle row)

As she looks for mentors who can counsel her through choosing a specialty and applying to residency, she is quick to acknowledge the people who have guided her thus far. Lex completed her undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied public health. Her favorite professor also worked as a physician, and he encouraged her to pursue medicine, so she began shadowing physicians in the San Francisco community.

The more she learned about family medicine, the more she liked it.

“My interest in family medicine grew because the physicians that I shadowed worked in schools and in areas of the community that they cared deeply about, and they were willing to give me some valuable mentorship.” Now on the MCV Campus, she’s part of the fmSTAT program that nurtures students in their pursuit of a family medicine career. Tee lists the relationship she has developed with her fmSTAT mentor, Phil Sherrod, M’74, H’77, as one of the highlights of medical school.

By Jack Carmichael

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Updated: 04/29/2016