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December 2017 Archives


Art class gives medical students new tools for wellness, empathy and fighting burnout

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey.

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey. The popular 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening. Scroll below for more pictures from the painting workshop.

A room of medical students sit nervously in front of their assignment. As they wait for instructions, they inspect the tools they will use, eyeing other students, seeing how they hold the instruments. For more than half the class, it’s the first time they’ve ever performed this kind of work.

It’s unlike any other class they have taken. “There is no quiz. There is no test,” says Steve Sawyer, Ph.D., a retired professor and former vice chair in the VCU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, as he welcomes students to the class. Then he adds with a knowing look:

“You don’t have to compete with each other.”

The students’ laughter fills the room. They’re not standing at the side of a cadaver waiting their turn to dissect or preparing for their first suture. They’re sitting at an easel contemplating a blank canvas. Their tools are brushes and a palette filled with the colors to paint the Richmond city skyline. For the next two hours, they’re artists.

The mood is light as the students get to work on their paintings, filling the canvas with skies of blue, purple and orange. They’re led by an instructor from Art for the Journey, a Richmond nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to groups as a way to inspire healing and peace. For M3 Ashley Craddock, it’s just the change of pace she needed.

“I’m loving it so far,” says Craddock as she paints the skyline and James River. “I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to not be thinking about medicine. Eighty percent of my day is medicine.”

That’s the beauty of art, says Melissa Bradner, M.D., M.S.H.A., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health who put together the series of third-year wellness workshops that include the Art for the Journey class. The wellness workshops are the result of a collaboration between Project HEART and the medical school’s Physician, Patient and Society course.

A holistic approach

Both Project HEART and the Physician, Patient and Society course span all four years of medical school and speak to the medical school’s commitment to educate students on the importance of learning how to interact and empathize with patients, and how to take care of themselves, as they prepare to enter a profession known for its high burnout rate.

The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that “bringing the humanities and arts into medical education is one way to help students form deeper connections with patients, maintain joy in medicine, and develop empathy and resiliency.”

The PPS course encompasses the humanistic, ethical and legal responsibility of physicians to their patients and society. Topics covered include career and professional development, the physician-patient relationship, integrative/complementary medicine, palliative care, spirituality, health disparities, physician bias and cultural competency, and the practical application of ethics and law to the practice of medicine.

Through Project HEART, an initiative to remind students to health with empathy, acceptance, respect and integrity, incoming students are assigned to small groups that meet at least eight times during their first year, and then throughout their medical school career — all under the mentorship of faculty or staff members who provide guidance, assistance and support.

“Physicians and medical students spend their whole life getting A’s and it’s how you define yourself,” says Bradner, adding that the only criteria for the art workshop is that you participate. “You connect with yourself on a completely different level.”

The wellness workshops also include classes in mindfulness training, food and mood, and exercise in medicine.

“It helps to go someplace else for a little while,” says Mary Blumberg, M.D., an internist and pathologist who has painted for 20 years. Along with Sawyer, she spoke to the class about her experiences finding art as a place of well-being. “Painting is a forgiving place. In reality, it can be whatever you want it to be. What matters is what you want. Green sky and pink water? Go for it.”

Turns out, students were hungry for the right-brain experience. The 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening.

A lasting impact
The Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao, who is pursuing a dual M.D./M.H.A., completed the Art for the Journey class in 2016. An experiential learner, she says she appreciated the opportunity to learn by doing.

“It was a great experience to do something different and have the opportunity to recharge after a long string of months on the wards,” Chiao says. “You were able to experience well-being and self-care concepts and were more likely to realize the value of these things to our ability to continue caring for our patients.”

At the start of each class, Cynthia Paullin, Art for the Journey’s assistant executive director, details the organization’s work in the community with dementia patients and incarcerated women. Chiao was so inspired by the stories that she contacted Paullin to volunteer with the dementia patients. She has volunteered at two sessions where she was paired with an elder with early onset dementia.

“As a volunteer, I am an assistant to my elder partner’s creative space and provide support of her artistic efforts,” Chiao says. “We do not make any decisions for our partners. We just provide them the space, time and opportunity to be creative.”

Chiao says she has been a dancer most of her life and knows she is a happier person when she makes time for it, a lesson she learned as she studied for the national medical licensing exam. “To me, I cannot take care of my future patients the way they deserve to be taken care of if I do not make sure that I am healthy and happy in my own life. Provider resiliency is critical in our ability to provide high quality and safe care to the patients that we serve.”

That’s why Bradner’s goal is to expand the art initiative so every medical student can participate.

“Addressing physician burnout is important, especially for these students who were biochemistry majors,” she says. “They’ve had science their whole lives and not necessarily an education that includes art or music. Art is a tremendous outlet to use your brain differently and decompress. For me, art is a way to connect with a different part of myself that is really important to happiness.”

Story by Polly Roberts; photos by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.


M2 Dongjin Suh shares research findings at a pair of medical meetings, snags best presentation honors

Dongjin Suh, M’20

A summer research project opened the door for Dongjin Suh, M’20, to present his findings at a pair of medical meetings, including the Korean American Medical Association’s 43rd annual scientific convention. “There are no small findings in research,” he says. “You are always contributing to the creation of new knowledge. That’s very valuable to me.”

Standing in front of a large group of medical students, residents, fellows and surgeons at the Virginia Vascular Society Meeting, Dongjin Suh admits he was a tad nervous.

Nothing a first-place award couldn’t cure.

“It was a great learning experience for me because I had never given an oral presentation before,” says Suh, M’20. “To win best presentation was a bit of a surprise and very rewarding. It made me feel pretty great.”

During his presentation, Suh detailed his research project that examined how atherectomy, an endovascular procedure that uses a catheter to remove plaque from blood vessels, is presented in online video content. Specifically, he wanted to know if videos on YouTube reflect the increasing trend of atherectomy procedures being performed in outpatient settings.

From 2011-14, the number of Medicare beneficiaries undergoing an atherectomy procedure increased 60 percent. Most of that increase, Suh says, is due to the fact that more cases are being performed in an outpatient setting. The shift comes as physicians attempt to keep medical costs down.

“I wanted to see how this dramatic trend is captured online, since many patients will do research on their own before having the procedure,” Suh says. “What I found was despite the outpatient trend, that information is not being depicted on online videos.”

After presenting his findings at the Virginia Vascular Society meeting in September, Suh began looking for more ways to showcase his work. A month later, he made a poster presentation at the 43rd Annual Scientific Convention of the Korean American Medical Association in Washington, D.C.

“This was definitely a different experience,” he says. “My speech had to be more detailed because not many of those attending were familiar with atherectomy. Both experiences were invaluable to me because I got to focus my work and exchange ideas with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

He credits much of his success to a chance meeting with Michael Amendola, M’02, H’07, F’09, associate professor of surgery who advises the Vascular Surgery Interest Group at VCU.

“I attended one of his lunch lectures in 2016 and was immediately interested in vascular surgery,” Suh says. “That summer, I remained on campus and reached out to him about contributing to a research project.”

The two brainstormed together to formulate the atherectomy project, and Amendola continues to mentor him.

“He is well on his way to great things,” Amendola says. “He is dedicated and works incredibly hard. He is definitely a thinker and a doer.”

Suh, who was born in South Korea, has been interested in research since college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, Irvine in 2013 and worked at the UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders studying Alzheimer’s disease. The longer he stayed, the more he realized he craved variety.

“In the lab, I was looking for different proteins and different genes, but I was doing the same procedures,” he says. “It got repetitive. I volunteered at a hospital and knew I wanted to interact more with people and help them with their different needs. That’s what drew me to medicine.”

He has not yet settled on a specialty, but plans to continue conducting research in

whatever field he chooses.

“There are no small findings in research,” he says. “You are always contributing to the creation of new knowledge. That’s very valuable to me.”

By Janet Showalter


VCU team heads to Puerto Rico

The medical school's Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy's Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The medical school’s Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy’s Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. They’ll lead a VCU team to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja.

Students and faculty alike usually want to kick back and relax once the fall semester ends. But an interprofessional team from VCU instead will pack up donated supplies and use their skills in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The VCU team includes Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, assistant professor of family medicine and medical director, I²CRP program; Emily Peron, Pharm.D., M.S., assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy; School of Medicine students Gabriel Martinez Alvarez and Frank Soto del Valle; School of Pharmacy student Camilla De Jesus Pinero; and Carla Shaffer, Ph.D., L.C.P., a clinical psychologist. They’ll fly to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja, just west of San Juan.

Hurricane Maria, the tenth-most intense hurricane recorded, made landfall on Sept. 20, causing a humanitarian crisis and devastating damage.

Ryan was introduced to the clinic in October when he participated in a medical service trip with colleagues from other universities. “I got to meet some organizations I feel will be good partners and that are providing community-oriented care. What we don’t want to do is go down there and set up our own thing disconnected from other efforts.”

He believes that the VCU team will be able to staff the clinic while some of its regular staff does community outreach, or the team will be able to do the outreach themselves to relieve weary workers. Puerto Rico has a reciprocal agreement so that licensed clinicians can practice there as long as they are registered with government officials.

Ryan believes that the group will serve a vital purpose. “Having been there and seeing the need in chronic disease, the need in managing ongoing health issues for patients who suffered such trauma, and supporting our colleagues who’ve been doing this double-shift for two months … it feels important to be there.”

Because Puerto Rico’s infrastructure – especially telecommunications – was destroyed, Ryan found that one of the biggest challenges this fall was basic communication: who would be where, when. Because the VCU team will stay in one location all week, Ryan expects things to be easier.

Two students on the team have family on the island. They’ll be interested to see firsthand how their loved ones are faring. Those local connections also provide benefits to the team. They’ll have the chance to get offsite, as they’ll be staying in the home of one team member and using a car loaned by the family of another. That allows them flexibility and eases the budget somewhat. It will also allow the team to evaluate other potential partners for future service trips.

By Lisa Crutchfield


Genetics Chair Paul Fisher elected a 2017 fellow of National Academy of Inventors

Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D.

Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D.

Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D., is among 155 renowned academic inventors elected in December to the National Academy of Inventors. Election is the highest professional accolade bestowed to those who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.

Fisher is professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics and director of the VCU Institute of Molecular Medicine. He holds the Thelma Newmeyer Corman Chair in Cancer Research at the VCU Massey Cancer Center.

“Congratulations to Dr. Fisher on this outstanding honor,” said Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “NAI Fellows include Nobel Laureates as well as scientific leaders from research universities, the federal governmental and non-profit research institutes. Together their ingenuity and discoveries are responsible for advances that will shape the future of biomedical research and human health.”

NAI Fellows have generated more than 9,400 licensed technologies and companies and created more than 1.3 million jobs, with over $137 billion in revenue generated based on their discoveries.

Fisher is an inventor on 55 issued U.S. patents and author or co-author on approximately 600 peer-reviewed publications and reviews. Chosen as a Virginia Outstanding Scientist in 2014, he has founded four companies. He and 2017’s other Fellows are named inventors on nearly 6,000 issued U.S. patents, bringing the collective patents held by all 912 NAI Fellows to more than 32,000 issued U.S. patents.

Fisher’s research is focused in the areas of cancer gene discovery, novel approaches for gene identification/cloning, strategies for imaging primary cancers and metastases, discovery of small molecule inhibitors of cancer invasion and metastasis and creation of unique immunotherapeutic cancer terminator viruses.

On April 5, 2018, the 2017 NAI Fellows will be inducted as part of the Seventh Annual NAI Conference in Washington, D.C. In honor of their outstanding accomplishments, Fellows will be presented with a special trophy, medal and rosette pin.

The National Academy of Inventors is a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to recognize and encourage inventors with patents issued from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.

Learn more about the 2017 NAI Fellows or to see a complete list of NAI Fellows.


Paramedic training program receives national honors at the Pentagon

Kenneth Williams (center), VCU’s paramedic program director, was on hand for a ceremony at the Pentagon where the program’s training partnership with Fort Lee was honored with the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award.

Kenneth Williams (center), VCU’s paramedic program director, was on hand for a ceremony at the Pentagon where the program’s training partnership with Fort Lee was honored with the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award. Photo by Darrell Hudson.

VCU’s paramedic training partnership with Fort Lee in Prince George County has received national attention, receiving the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award.

In a ceremony at the Pentagon, Hon. Ryan McCarthy, Under Secretary of the Army, cited the partnership as an example of a program that not only benefits military personnel, but also the surrounding community. McCarthy served as host of the Dec. 4 ceremony, along with Hon. Jordan Gillis, acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment, and Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, assistant chief of staff for installation management.

The annual awards recognize organizations that help improve Army readiness and develop strong community relationships. Ten VCU representatives attended the ceremony.

“It was a great day,” said Kenneth Williams, VCU’s paramedic program director. “We were the only educational organization recognized, and there were about 300 that applied for the honor.” A high point of the day’s event, he said, was being in the Hall of Heroes, where Medal of Honor recipients are recognized.

Meeting or exceeding national standards
VCU’s partnership with Fort Lee was created to help Army personnel attain national standards for emergency response teams. Fort Lee medics, as well as first responders from the community, attend the year-long course, which brings them in compliance with new national standards for emergency management service providers. In addition, the program develops Fort Lee into a field preceptor training site for VCU students interested in emergency care.

Currently, more than 20 Fort Lee emergency medical technicians and community members are enrolled in the paramedic training program, which includes classroom work held on the Fort Lee base in Colonial Heights, field training and rotations in various departments at VCU Medical Center.

The Pentagon recognition helps draw attention to VCU’s program, Wiliams said, and ensures that the care provided by first responders will be strong not just on the base but also in surrounding communities. Those trained as military paramedics will one day join civilians trained by VCU in programs held across the state.

VCU’s paramedic training program, part of the School of Medicine, has certified more than 1,000 students since 1980. It’s offered through the Center for Trauma and Critical Care education in the Department of Surgery.

At the ceremony, Williams said, Army personnel stressed their commitment to continuing the partnership which currently brings military emergency responders up to paramedic level. “They’re hoping we can run a full paramedic course, and not just a bridge course,” he noted. “There are plenty of opportunities for us to work together.”

Future plans for program
Back at VCU, Williams is working with School of Medicine administration to develop the program to offer a bachelor’s degree in paramedic medicine, which would make it one of a handful in the country. “A bachelor’s program is important to many because it’s a promotion ladder in the field,” Williams explained. “People who want to get off the fire truck or work their way up the ranks to be in charge of an engine company or EMS are usually required to have a degree. If you want to be battalion chief, they look for a degree. We can play a role in that.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

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Updated: 04/29/2016