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February 2019 Archives


‘Opening the door for students like me’

The Class of 2020's Shevani Sahai

The Class of 2020’s Shevani Sahai, assistant district representative for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Pediatric Trainees

While our understanding of what it means to be a doctor has shifted over the centuries, nearly all have placed on doctors the unique responsibility of self-regulation: of ensuring that the medical tradition lives up to the high standards that have always shaped its evolution.

Such a mission requires leaders. And within VCU’s School of Medicine, more and more students are answering that call.

Susan DiGiovanni, M’84, H’87, F’89, senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs, notes that increasing numbers of SOM students are looking beyond their local classrooms toward leadership roles in the broader community.

“Today we see more and more students who are interested in health care policy, interested in the national level, interested in what’s going on internationally,” she says. “Physicians should definitely have access to leadership skills, and we do encourage our students to take on these roles as students so they can develop them in an environment where they can be mentored.”

DiGiovanni says leadership positions can be a valuable part of medical training. “I get to work on making lasting impressions on the way we practice medicine,” says Shevani Sahai, an M3 student at VCU’s Inova Fairfax campus who serves as an assistant district representative for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Pediatric Trainees.

For Emily Lee, an M2 who was recently elected to the American College of Physicians Council of Student Members, the leadership opportunity offers a chance to help shape other students’ perspectives and experience of medicine.

“ACP has a lot of resources for students,” she says. “The challenge is how to reach those students.”

Given the rigors of the medical curriculum, taking on a leadership role as a student requires a deep-seated passion for medicine. That’s certainly the case for both Sahai and Lee.

Sahai made the decision to attend medical school in high school, when she was accepted by VCU’s Guaranteed Admission Program in medicine.

“At 17, I basically knew I was going to be a doctor,” she says. And when it came to choosing pediatrics as her specialty, “It’s basically been written on my forehead.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics quickly proved influential in her training. “I felt like I had found my people,” says Sahai of her introduction to the academy. Sahai jumped at the opportunity to become involved in the AAP’s Section on Pediatric Trainees and was appointed to the role of medical student delegate last year, a position in which she acted as a liaison between the AAP and VCU’s School of Medicine.

From there, she moved up to her current role of assistant district representative, connecting students at all medical schools in Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia with the Academy; next year, she will be promoted to district representative.

The Class of 2021's Emily Lee

The Class of 2021’s Emily Lee, who sits on the American College of Physicians Council of Student members

Lee was attracted to ACP’s role in the advocacy and reform of various policies, and the resources it offered. As a new medical student, she reflects, “I wanted to gain a broader perspective of medicine through better understanding the current policies at stake and how they can impact our careers and our patients in the future.”

The San Francisco native came to VCU via Wellesley College in the greater Boston area, where she developed an interest in medicine through laboratory research in pediatric hematology and oncology.

“I enjoyed not only learning about the science in a laboratory setting but actually understanding how the treatments can be applied to people and hopefully improve their lives,” she recalls.

On the MCV Campus, her interest in the ACP was encouraged through her membership in the Internal Medicine Student Interest group and faculty sponsor Steven Bishop, M.D., H’13.

VCU M.D.-Ph.D. student Chelsea Cockburn, who is serving as chair of ACP’s 13-member Council of Student Members, also helped spark Lee’s involvement in the group. While Lee is just getting started in her new leadership role, Sahai is already forging ahead with brainstorming what she describes as “innovative ways to change the way that we practice pediatrics.

“It’s so easy to think that as a medical student, I can’t cause people to change the way they practice medicine,” she said. But that, she points out, isn’t true. As an example, she cites one project by the AAP Section on Pediatric Trainees that works with police departments to provide free gun locks to families who have indicated to a doctor that they own guns.

Both Sahai and Lee hope to use their leadership roles to get more students involved in the profession, whether by taking advantage of opportunities to publish and engage in broader dialogues within the medical community or by harnessing the talents and time of students on particular issues at the national level.
At the end of the day, Sahai says, it’s all about “opening the door for more students like me.”

By Sarah Vogelsong


Alumnus turns making coffee into life-saving surgeries

The Class of 2015's Larry Istrail founded Pheo Coffee, where freshly ground coffee beans delivered to your door can directly fund someone's health care.

The Class of 2015’s Larry Istrail founded Pheo Coffee, where freshly ground coffee beans delivered to your door can directly fund someone’s health care. As author and cardiologist Eric Topol said on Twitter, “When coffee is good for other people’s health.”

The Class of 2015’s Larry Istrail has never lacked for curiosity. So during medical school when he discovered his attending also made a hobby out of roasting coffee beans, Istrail did what he often does: ask plenty of questions.

Pawan Suri, M.D., happily shared the process he had learned from a former colleague known for his sublime coffee. Two things stuck with Istrail: freshly roasted coffee is unparalleled in taste and doctors really, really love their coffee.

Now a hospitalist at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia, Istrail combined his passion for coffee and medicine to tackle another goal: funding medical care in developing countries. In 2018, he launched Pheo Coffee with the mission of using one of the most consumed beverages in the world to raise money for those who lack access to basic medical care due to cost.

Even as Istrail continues to pay off student loan debt, he has chosen to donate a portion of Pheo Coffee’s proceeds to Watsi, a nonprofit that uses 100 percent of its donations to crowd-fund medical and surgical treatments around the world.

The endeavor has earned Istrail praise in the Washington Post, The Washingtonian and Daily Coffee News, among others.

“We’re all physicians and artists,” says Suri, associate professor and emergency medicine-internal medicine residency program director. “We’re interested in humanity. That’s what inspires physicians to grow coffee, write or paint. I’ve always encouraged stimulating the right brain and it looks like Larry is one of those people who got a spark by it.”

Istrail shared with us more about that spark, Pheo Coffee and how his time on the MCV Campus influenced both.

First, tell us about the name. How did you come up with Pheo Coffee?
It started as a silly idea. I was on endocrine consults and we were seeing a patient with a pheochromocytoma. It is a rare condition in which your body releases far more adrenaline than is necessary, so it was memorable on its own. A ‘Pheo’ is a shorthand name of this condition and I remember walking out of the room thinking, “she looked like she had too many cups of coffee!” I mentioned it to my medical friends and they all loved the name.

How did your time in medical school play a role in Pheo Coffee’s creation?
My experience at VCU played a large part in the development of the business. I thought back to my time at VCU as a med student, when I was lucky enough to have Dr. Pawan Suri as my attending for a week. He was probably the most interesting, kind and inspiring attending I’ve ever had. So knowledgeable about so many topics, one of which is roasting coffee. He is the person who got me into the idea of buying unroasted coffee beans and roasting them yourself. I experimented with it briefly in medical school, but couldn’t get the taste right. But this new experience with the patient with Pheo inspired me to look into it again. I ordered more raw coffee beans and started roasting them in an iron skillet, and that is how Pheo Coffee started. Fortunately I have since outsourced the roasting to a local, professional roaster and the coffee is exponentially more delicious.

What are your fondest memories from medical school?
My favorite memories at VCU all revolved around the incredible classmates I had. Every day I was inspired by their work ethic and genuine, good-hearted nature. We were all in a four-year battle together to come out the other end as doctors, a time that was incredibly difficult but ultimately so rewarding. Most of the best friends I’ve made in my life came from VCU, and I’m really thankful for that.

Why is it important to you to make time for this business when you are already a busy physician helping others on a daily basis?
I LOVE start-ups. I also love medicine, but they stimulate different parts of your brain. Medicine is about hard work, analytical thinking and drawing from a vast knowledge base to treat one individual or a small group of individuals. At the same time, I really yearn for a more creative outlet toward achieving long-term goals. Start-ups offer the opportunity to be creative and develop things other people would want to use, with the hopes of helping a much larger group of people. The idea of starting a company with a medical angle is really the best of both worlds for me.

What inspired you to donate part of your profits to fund surgeries in developing countries?
I wanted to start a for-profit company that can help people in a tangible way. Ultimately, I believe creating a sustainable health care fund by tapping into the 400 million cups of coffee consumed per day in the U.S. is an innovative, elegant solution to helping the roughly one billion people around the world who lack basic funds to pay for life-saving surgeries.

Each order comes with a card introducing buyers to the person their coffee purchase has helped. What are some of the success stories of surgeries funded through Pheo Coffee?
All kinds of people from a 3-year-old from Tanzania in need of an orthopaedic surgery to a tooth extraction in Malawi to an Ugangan high schooler in need of a hernia repair. Probably the most memorable, though, was a teenager from Burma who was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital cardiac disease that can only be repaired with surgery. It is a classic cardiac disease we learn about in medical school, and I was surprised to see she had made it to her teenage years without a surgical repair. When I learned that she had gotten her cardiac surgery, in part due to Pheo Coffee sales, I was pretty emotional. Seeing a photo of her after the surgery with a huge smile on her face is all the motivation I need to keep going with this unorthodox endeavor.

By Polly Roberts

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