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The Class of 88’s Greg Hundley joins Pauley Heart Center as inaugural director

Greg Hundley, M'88 (left), Pauley Heart Center inaugural director, with former cardiology chair George Vetrovec, M.D., H'74, F'76 (center), and current cardiology chair Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D.

Greg Hundley, M’88 (left), Pauley Heart Center inaugural director, with former cardiology chair George Vetrovec, M.D., H’74, F’76 (center), and current cardiology chair Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D.

In the early 1980s, a bright-eyed William & Mary undergraduate took the bus from Williamsburg, Va., to Richmond on a whim. He was thinking of becoming a doctor and wanted to get a feel for the MCV Campus. He wandered the floors of Sanger Hall and happened upon the office of then-cardiology professor Hermes A. Kontos, M.D., H’62, PhD’67 (PHIS).

“Hi, I’m Greg Hundley.”

He explained his interest in medicine and asked if he could work for Kontos that summer. Kontos, as he had done for many students before, said he had a perfect project for the aspiring physician.

It marked the start of a years-long mentorship that continued during Hundley’s undergraduate and medical school years as he worked in the lab with Kontos, who would go on to become dean of the medical school and later vice president for health sciences and CEO of VCU Health System.

“It was a blessing because when I started medical school, other students were trying to get into a lab and I was thrilled to already be working with one of the most famous people here,” laughs Hundley, M’88. “It was just happenstance.”

What wasn’t happenstance was his return to his alma mater in July 2018 as the inaugural director of the VCU Pauley Heart Center. Now a longtime leader in the field of cardiovascular imaging, Hundley was the first in the world to use magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that MRI stress testing can identify those at risk of heart attack. He’s also recognized for studying the impact of chemotherapy and radiation therapy on heart health, advancing treatment options for patients in need of cardiovascular and oncology care.

“He is going to do wonderful things for the Pauley Heart Center,” says former cardiology chair George Vetrovec, M.D., H’74, F’76. “Having his specialized and internationally recognized expertise related to cardiology imaging will significantly improve our research opportunities and recruitment of trainees. It really moves the Pauley Heart Center forward and is going to have an impact for Massey Cancer Center as well. It’s a win-win.”

The two men have known each other for years – “In fact, I tried to recruit him here a couple of times,” Vetrovec says — and share a common mentor in Kontos. Hundley’s appointment became even sweeter when he was named the first holder of the George Vetrovec Chair in September.

“It’s very special to have the chair and then for the first scholar to be a leader like Dr. Hundley, who I know and respect,” Vetrovec says. “There couldn’t be a better match.”

The significance isn’t lost on Hundley, who cites the work of professor emeritus David Richardson, M.D., H’55, as well as Kontos and Vetrovec, as a legacy he will work hard to further in his new role. “Those men are giants in their own right in the field of cardiovascular medicine.”

Hundley’s arrival marks the opening of a new Cardiovascular Imaging Suite made possible by an investment from the Pauley Family Foundation. The cornerstone of the suite is a Magnetom Vida 3 Tesla (3T) MRI system that increases accuracy of diagnosis, reduces image distortion and enhances opportunities to develop personalized treatment plans.

Hundley compares it to high-definition television. “You can appreciate anatomy, where everything is, what the structure is, what the function is. When those processes are broken we can understand the exact cause of the heart not working properly, producing two great outcomes. First, doctors get to clearly see what the problem is, and second, patients also have that clear understanding so both can work together to come up with a solution to prevent cardiovascular complication.”

The 3T MRI takes nine seconds to produce 15, high-def images. It’s a long way from the days when Hundley would wait nine minutes for one image and then stay up all night to code its results.

Exploring the ways patients can benefit from high-def imaging is what inspires Hundley’s research. In the past 20 years, he’s participated in research funded by more than $71 million in National Institutes of Health grants.

As he brings his next-level technology expertise and research to the MCV Campus, Hundley also hopes to hold on to the values instilled in him by mentors like Kontos.

“He really encouraged me to shoot and aim high,” Hundley says. “I want to do for everybody else what he and others who came before have done for me.”

Vetrovec has no doubt Hundley will rise to the challenge.

“I’m sure he’ll do it and then some.”

By Polly Roberts


Surgeon and inventor: Class of 2012’s Max Sirkin brings military medicine closer to home

Max Sirkin, M’12, and Col. Jason Hiles have invented the SHRAIL, a new system that helps improve care for soldiers injured in the field.

Max Sirkin, M’12, and Col. Jason Hiles have invented the SHRAIL, a new system that helps improve care for soldiers injured in the field.

There are many qualities that make a good surgeon. According to surgeons themselves, one of those qualities is an innate desire to understand how something works and find ways to make it work better.

Surgeons, of course, apply that talent to the human body. But there are a few who seek additional outlets for that inner drive. That was the case for Max Sirkin, M’12, who has found a second calling as an inventor.

“Doing surgery is a dream job, but I had always wanted to do more,” Sirkin says. “I wanted to be an inventor, but all my ideas had been taken and research wasn’t for me.”

As he worked his way up to the rank of major in the U.S. Army, Sirkin began to speak with physicians and surgeons who had served overseas, sometimes in far-flung parts of the world. In those areas, taking care of soldiers can present challenges, they said. Sometimes, those challenges can be life-threatening.

Sirkin, who is also now an attending general surgeon at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, learned that the mobile medical equipment doctors rely on in more austere areas of operation can be very difficult to assemble and move. Sometimes, certain pieces of equipment are not compatible with other equipment or materials. When minutes and seconds count, equipment that is easy to use can make all the difference.

Therein lay Sirkin’s big idea.

Max Sirkin, M’12 (left) and Col. Jason Hiles demonstrate the SHRAIL.

Max Sirkin, M’12 (left) and Col. Jason Hiles demonstrate the SHRAIL.

“I had never deployed, but doctors who had saw a real problem,” Sirkin says. “There was a problem when surgeons were setting up in remote geographies, and it was a problem I thought I could fix.”

Sirkin and his inventing partner, Col. Jason Hiles, developed the SHRAIL (short for the Sirkin-Hiles Rail System), a system that affixes to a standard stretcher – or litter in Army parlance. A variety of devices, monitors and products can be easily attached to and removed from the rails, so that they are accessible even while the patient is on the move.

“We thought why don’t we start with the rails on the side of every OR table, which are all created with set dimensions?” Sirkin recalls. “We found a way to make a rail that attached to the litter and can snap into place. We designed it so an 18-year-old in a stressful situation could put it together.”

The design, which Sirkin and Hiles first conceived in 2014, allows for far more freedom and mobility than previous options.

“Other options are big and expensive and you have to use specific devices that match a specific system,” Sirkin says. “It can take people who really know what they are doing to set it up, and even then the patient often still needs to get from the point of injury to the mobile medical station.”

One of Sirkin’s mentors, who saw the SHRAIL when it was still its “back of the napkin” stage, says Sirkin has long had a drive to invent.

A soldier tests the SHRAIL in near Fort Bliss, Texas.

A soldier tests the SHRAIL in near Fort Bliss, Texas.

“He has always struck me as someone dedicated to surgery,” says Col. David Cox, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon and deputy corps chief for the Army Medical Corps. “This was the result of his curiosity. One thing surgeons like to do is fix problems. With the SHRAIL, Max saw a problem that needed solving, and he solved it.”

The SHRAIL was featured in May at the Smithsonian Institution’s Military Invention Day. More importantly, it has been deployed to an undisclosed location, where it was successfully used.

Sirkin said the SHRAIL could serve other purposes that are not necessarily military in nature, such as search-and-rescue or disaster relief operations.

“Everyone who has been in an austere environment and had to do a medical intervention understands,” Sirkin says. “You can set up an operating room with what you can carry in your backpack. That puts the doctor and the soldier one step closer to being back at home, where doctors have everything they need to help a patient, and that means more lives saved. The goal is to get people closer to home.”

By Scott Harris


Biostatistics alumna turns award into chance to honor mentor

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD'03 (BIOS), used her own teaching award to establish a scholarship to honor her mentor

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD’03 (BIOS), used her own teaching award to establish a scholarship to honor her mentor, associate professor Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS).

“Stop. Think. Tell the story.”

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD’03 (BIOS), proudly displays these words in her office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. An associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics, she draws inspiration every day from the advice given her by her mentor, Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS), more than 15 years ago.

“He was very clear in his approach in the classroom,” Cofield says. “He always believed in telling the story – in showing students why the data matters in the real world.”

Her students approve. Cofield was awarded the 2018 UAB President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching for the School of Public Health at UAB in April. The award recognizes faculty members who have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments in teaching.

“One of the reasons that I have this honor is because of Dr. Best,” Cofield says. “He taught me so much. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”

To honor the influence he had on her life, Cofield is using her teaching award as an opportunity to establish a scholarship in Best’s name. The Dr. Al M. Best Biostatistics Teaching Award will support a biostatistics student interested in teaching. The annual award will provide about $1,500 toward books, tuition and travel for conferences. Some of those funds were raised when Cofield auctioned off the parking spot she won as part of the President’s award.

“On the face of it, it’s astonishing that a biostatistics professor would receive a teaching award because of the reputation biostatistics has as dry and boring,” says Best, VCU’s director of Faculty Research Development in the School of Dentistry and affiliate professor in the medical school’s Department of Biostatistics. “That Stacey would pull this off, however, is not. She connects with students in real ways.”

Cofield, who grew up in Minnesota, graduated from Washington and Lee in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and mathematics. She enrolled in VCU’s certificate program in statistics, then moved into the master’s program. Before she completed it, she went all in by transferring into the doctorate program in biostatistics.

Associate professor Al M. Best, PhD'84 (BIOS)

Associate professor Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS)

“I liked him immediately,” she says. “Instead of just teaching statistics, which can be very unexciting, he applied it to everyday life. We were in the classroom solving problems.”

She served as Best’s teaching assistant for three years and watched in amazement as he helped shape students.

“I remember watching these students go from resenting the fact that they had to be there to engaging in the problem at hand,” Cofield says. “It changed my trajectory.”

Instead of pursuing a career as a research biostatistician in sports medicine as she had planned, she joined the UAB faculty. She also has been involved in numerous research projects, focusing on combination therapies for multiple sclerosis and clinical trials for rheumatoid arthritis. She is currently involved in a study examining whether people taking certain medications are more prone to developing shingles after receiving the shingles vaccine.

“I absolutely love what I do,” Cofield says. “Whether it’s working in research or with my students, I enjoy helping people define what it is they need to know and using biostatistics to help them reach their goals.”

By Janet Showalter


Curtis Sessler, F’85: Career-long work with nursing colleagues leads to national honors

Whenever a co-worker asks Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85, how he’s doing, Sessler’s response is simple and telling: “I’m living the dream.”

Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85

According to nursing leaders, Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85, was ahead of his time in fostering an environment where physicians, nurses and other members of the care team work together.

Sessler, the Orhan Muren Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine in the VCU Department of Internal Medicine, has earned a national reputation for helping patients in the ICU, conducting groundbreaking research and working with several organizations to improve care delivery.

Sessler credits much of his success to mentors – including his professorship namesake, Orhan Muren, M.D. – and colleagues, particularly in nursing. His longstanding commitment to teamwork, and the achievements it helped produce, recently led him to receive the Pioneering Spirit Award from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

“It is pretty unusual for a physician to receive an award from a nursing association,” says Sessler, who also serves as the medical director of critical care and the medical respiratory intensive care unit with VCU Health. “Over three decades of ICU patient care, I’ve had the pleasure of working hand in hand with ICU nurses. That has been a big part of my career. The accomplishment is the positive impact we’ve had on patient outcomes and healthcare professional well-being.”

According to AACN leaders, Sessler was ahead of his time in health care delivery, fostering an environment in which physicians, nurses and other members of the care team work together more readily than they had in the past.

“Curt Sessler personifies AACN’s healthy work environment standard of true collaboration,” says AACN Chief Clinical Officer Connie Barden, M.S.N., R.N. “Long before teamwork and collaboration were the norm, Curt worked with colleagues from many disciplines to conduct research on the best approaches to care for critically ill patients.”

Each member of the care team fills an indispensible role. Early in his career, Sessler learned to respect each role and, in turn, build a more complete picture of each patient and his or her needs.

“Nurses spend hours and hours with patients and their families—that’s unique on the team,” Sessler says. “It’s important to bring different skill sets, and that voices are heard from all members of the team.”

Although the ICU is his primary workplace, Sessler’s influence is widely felt, and in many cases nurses served as key partners.

In research, Sessler undertook a number of investigations with counterparts in the VCU School of Nursing, specifically AACN leaders Cindy Munro, Ph.D., R.N., now dean of the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies, and Mary Jo Grap, Ph.D., R.N., who retired in 2015 after a stellar research career. Perhaps their most important breakthrough was the Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale or RASS, a tool that measures agitation and level of responsiveness in hospitalized patients.

“We had a tremendous research partnership, tackling important causes of infections as well as how best to provide comfort and sedation in the ICU,” Sessler says. “The RASS is probably the most used scale of its kind in the world now.”

Sessler also has served in leadership roles for influential health care organizations. This includes serving as president of the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) and working with the Critical Care Societies Collaborative (CCSC), which links AACN, CHEST, the American Thoracic Society and the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

“The work with CCSC has been especially satisfying as it emphasizes the importance of collaboration at a national level,” Sessler said.

Sessler’s imprint on critical care is clear, and his commitment to collaboration is a big driver of that success—and his latest accolade.

“The thing that I hold close is a strong belief in the power of a team,” Sessler says. “If everyone is pulling together in the same direction, we can get a lot done.”

By Scott Harris


From flakka to opioids: PharmTox alumna’s front-row seat to nation’s drug epidemic

When Teri Stockham, PhD’87 (PHTX), left the MCV Campus, she worked as a forensic toxicologist for Richmond and New York City before becoming one of the nation’s youngest chief toxicologists in Broward County, Florida, in 1991.

Teri Stockham, PhD'87 (PHTX)

Teri Stockham, PhD’87 (PHTX), returned to VCU to speak with students about the ever-changing landscape of novel psychoactive substances and the challenges they present to law enforcement, the medical community and forensic toxicologists.

The move put her at the heart of the nation’s drug epidemic. “Broward County was the epicenter of the Flakka epidemic and was the pill mill capital of the country when the opioid epidemic first started,” says Stockham, who for the last 20 years has owned a forensic toxicology consulting business now based in Parkland, Florida.

During her tenure in Broward County, Stockham has seen the rise of synthetic drugs like flakka, a potent street drug whose high starts as fleeting euphoria but rapidly evolves into paranoia, rage and delirium. This recent round of synthetic drugs — chemical compounds illegally made to mimic the effect of known drugs but with a different chemical profile that evades detection and regulation — got their start in the early 2000s with synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as spice.

“Everything I learned about cannabinoids, I learned from Dr. Billy Martin on the MCV Campus,” says Stockham, referring to the former chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology who had an international reputation in the field.

Synthetic production and its resulting variations changed the game. “It becomes quite the nightmare in the laboratory,” Stockham says. “Standard tests don’t pick up the chemicals. Once we do figure it out, regulate it and create tests to identify it, drug dealers just switch up the chemicals.”

Then it’s back to the lab to create another battery of tests and the cycle begins again. In a spring lecture to forensic toxicology students in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, Stockham spoke of “the shell game of addictive drugs.”

The popularity of synthetic drugs also took off in part because of the Internet, where online dealers could sell drugs from foreign countries where chemicals weren’t as tightly regulated as the U.S.

Yet the good news is that legislation does work. Stockham credits physician-monitoring programs in part with cracking down on illegal pill mills. In addition, the Chinese government banned 140 chemicals after meeting with Broward County officials in 2015.

But it’s a race between the drugs on the streets and what’s known to law enforcement, the medical community and forensic toxicologists. “We’re always a couple of years behind,” Stockham says.

The reasons vary, she continues. The new drugs aren’t yet in institutional databases; no analytical standards are available; and development and validation of the drug tests are time-consuming. “There’s no standard way of testing for synthetics at this point and no field tests.”

That’s why Stockham encouraged the students to enter the forensic toxicology field, spark new ideas and make a difference. She is doing her part to ensure the best and brightest students stay on the forensic toxicology path. In 2017, she endowed a scholarship to support graduate students in the Department of Forensic Science.

“I made it through 10 years of education through scholarships and working – no loans or family assistance,” Stockham says. “I feel blessed to be in this position at this time in my life and wanted to give back.”

Stockham carries fond memories of her time on the MCV Campus, where she says she immediately felt at home. In the 1980s, forensic science programs were still housed in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

Downtown Richmond’s charm, from the historic buildings to the museums, along with friendly faculty, made Stockham’s decision an easy one. She accepted her admissions offer the same day as her first campus visit — and canceled a scheduled interview with another university.

“I knew when I walked on campus that this was it.”

By Polly Roberts


Nathan Lewis, M’09: Quietly shaping tomorrow’s emergency physicians

Assistant professor and clerkship director Nathan Lewis, M’09, H’12

Assistant professor and clerkship director Nathan Lewis, M’09, H’12

As clerkship director at VCU’s Department of Emergency Medicine, Nathan Lewis, M’09, H’12, works to foster an atmosphere where everyone — including Lewis — can be themselves. That is easier said than done, as many medical students do not naturally feel comfortable acknowledging they do not have every answer.

At the same time, that acknowledgment can be a critical first step toward asking questions and learning. With his signature humility, Lewis says the ability to put students at ease is his key gift as an educator.

“Myself along with other folks are trying to promote an environment where it’s a safe place for students to really challenge themselves,” Lewis says. “This gives them more experience and more confidence in what they are doing.”

If you ask why he is such a key part of introducing students to the specialty, he will tell you it is actually a group effort. Talk to his colleagues, though, and you find people who are eager to shine a light on Lewis’ singular talent for guiding medical students through the complex world of emergency medicine.

That talent is what earned Lewis — an assistant professor and director of the department’s clerkship for fourth-year medical students — recognition as Clerkship Director of the Year from the Clerkship Directors in Emergency Medicine, an academy of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine.

“It’s quite an honor for something you see as your day-to-day job,” Lewis says. “I have terrific peers who supported me for the nomination. We wouldn’t be able to do the things we do without great support from the administration and the department. We put a focus on learning.”

Medical education is undoubtedly a team sport, but it’s one in which Lewis plays a valuable role, as colleagues are quick to point out.

“Nathan is incredibly dedicated,” says Joel Moll, M.D., an associate professor and director of the department’s residency program. “He’s meticulous and he’s a good advocate for education. He goes above and beyond but he’s kind of quiet about it.”

Proof of his success may be partially reflected in the growing number of VCU medical students who are going on to pursue residencies in emergency medicine. Emergency medicine is one of the most popular specialties at the School of Medicine and the nation as a whole. In the past five years since Lewis became clerkship director, emergency medicine has hovered in or around the top five most popular specialties. In 2018, 21 VCU medical students matched into emergency medicine residencies, making it the third-most popular specialty choice at the School of Medicine.

Even when other responsibilities hold the potential to shift his focus away from education, Lewis’ peers said he simply does not allow it to happen.

“We had someone leave for another job, and Dr. Lewis was running the coordination side as well as the education side, but the students never noticed,” Moll says. “He made sure things got done and he was willing to take on a lot. He’s going to do what is necessary to make a good experience for students.”

Lewis’ contributions to emergency medicine and medical education reach beyond the clerkship he directs. He also co-hosts EM Stud, a podcast for medical students around the country considering careers in emergency medicine.

“The podcast reaches a lot of students and it has a lot of visibility,” Moll says.

First and foremost, though, Lewis remains dedicated to the clerkship he directs — and the colleagues who help him make it happen. And if he ever needs someone to help him brag, well, they have his back for that too.

“He takes a personal approach to it and students really come to trust him,” Moll says. “He has helped countless students learn more about medicine. He’s an unsung hero, and now he’s getting recognition.”

By Scott Harris

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Updated: 04/29/2016