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Why, yes, it is rocket surgery

The Class of 1979's Richard Williams (third from left), former chief health and medical officer for NASA, returned to the MCV Campus.

The Class of 1979’s Richard Williams (third from left), former chief health and medical officer for NASA, returned to the MCV Campus at the invitation of the newly formed Aerospace Medicine Student Interest Group.

Space travel grabbed the public’s attention in the 1960s, and it seemed every little boy wanted to be a NASA astronaut. But Richard S. Williams had a different dream. He aimed to be a pilot.

But though being diagnosed with below-standard eyesight for military pilots kept him from training when he was young, Williams eventually held an even rarer title: “There’s only one NASA chief health and medical officer in the world.” He was just the second person to hold the position, beginning in 2002 and bridging the end of the space shuttle program and the start of the International Space Station era.

A 1979 VCU School of Medicine alumnus, Williams recently returned to Richmond to speak to medical students in the newly formed Aerospace Medicine Student Interest Group about what it’s like to work in the aerospace field, including some of the unusual physical effects of space flight on the body. Astronauts have higher exposure to radiation than any other occupation, he said, and risks include cancer, cataracts, and acute radiation sickness.

During his time as chief health and medical officer, NASA optometry experts noticed increased farsightedness with optic nerve swelling that occurs only after returning from space. Known as Spaceflight Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome, or SANS, “It can possibly progress to blindness if not treated,” Williams says, and it affects male astronauts more often than female. “We think this is associated with high intracranial pressure, but the true cause has not yet been determined.”

Williams also was there when the Columbia Shuttle broke up during re-entry in February 2003, a “devastating tragedy,” he says.

“As a group, they understood the risk,” Williams says of the seven lost astronauts. And the other qualified astronauts on the ground — then, about 130 people — “They grieved, they understood.”

Williams, who grew up around the world as part of an Air Force family, graduated from the College of William & Mary. As an Explorer Scout in the early 1970s in Hampton, Virginia, he visited the MCV Campus’ Sanger Hall and recalls being fascinated by the anatomy lab and facilities. Then he saw the movie “M*A*S*H” about wartime surgeons and their hijinks, and he decided he wanted to be a physician.

Entering medical school in 1975 was a “very humbling experience for me,” Williams says. “I went from fairly accomplished to fairly mediocre.” But as he got his footing as a medical student, his experience improved. That drew him back to VCU, when he returned to get a master’s degree in public health in 1996. “The faculty here was just outstanding.”

Medical student Nilan Vaghjiani, who started the aerospace medicine interest group, grew up in California’s Antelope Valley, where Boeing, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and the Edwards Air Force Base have manufacturing plants and test facilities. He was thrilled when Williams was available to talk to him and his classmates about his experiences, and hopes that they’ll be able to schedule an astronaut to speak to the group sometime in the future.

“The feedback was great,” Vaghjiani says. “Some students really didn’t know that aerospace medicine was a field.” Now, though, he and a few other students are looking into a rotation in Houston that specializes in spaceflight medicine.

After finishing medical school 40 years ago, Williams completed a general surgery residency, working 120 hours per week. He served as a general surgeon and a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force, commanding a field hospital during the first Gulf War in 1990.

“That toughened me up,” says Williams of his war experience. “It prepared me to succeed everywhere I went.”

It also led to some unexpected opportunities. He spent time on network morning shows discussing the medical care of soldiers, and received fan mail and even a marriage proposal.

He joined NASA on detail from the U.S. Air Force as the director of the Office of Health Affairs, and was selected as NASA’s chief health and medical officer when he retired four years later.

After 15 years of studying and treating astronauts’ medical issues and advocating for health care for retired astronauts, Williams retired in 2017. He remains active as a senior aviation medical examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration and as director of the Three Rivers Health District for the Virginia Department of Health, a return to his interest in public health.

Working in eastern Virginia not far from the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Williams oversees health care for at-risk populations in the Three Rivers district. His staff of health care workers, he says, “reminds me a lot of NASA — very selfless.”

By Kate Andrews


Vascular surgeon Chip Sternbergh, H’95, shares pioneering approaches at H. M. Lee Lecture

Vascular surgeon Chip Sternbergh, H'95, returned to the MCV Campus to present the Department of Surgery's annual H. M. Lee Memorial Lecture.

Vascular surgeon Chip Sternbergh, H’95, returned to the MCV Campus to present the Department of Surger’s annual H. M. Lee Memorial Lecture.

Being a successful physician requires a commitment to lifelong learning. That’s the firm conviction of vascular surgeon and housestaff alumnus W. Charles “Chip” Sternbergh III, M.D., H’95, who returned to the MCV Campus March 28 to present the Department of Surgery’s annual H. M. Lee Memorial Lecture.

Sternbergh believes continuing education is essential in all medical specialties, and particularly vascular surgery. “At least two-thirds of what I do now I never did in my training,” he says. “If I didn’t keep up my education, I’d be a dinosaur.”

Instead, he is professor and chief of vascular and endovascular surgery at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. The invitation to guest lecture enabled him to contribute his own expertise to the education of tomorrow’s vascular surgeons in memory of Lee, under whom he trained for seven years during his general surgery residency.

“He was a master teacher, technician and surgeon — someone you’d like to emulate,” Sternbergh says. “And he really cared about the people he was helping to train.”

After Hyung Mo “H. M.” Lee’s death in 2013, his family, friends and colleagues made gifts in his memory to create the memorial lecture that bears his name. The focus of the annual lecture alternates between the Divisions of Transplant Surgery and Vascular Surgery.

Sternbergh credits his “superb” MCV Campus training with giving him the comfort and confidence to make sound clinical decisions while operating on critically ill patients.

Decision-making when treating vascular patients is rarely black and white, Sternbergh says, adding “Judgment plays a huge role.” About 80 percent of his patients don’t receive surgical intervention and, instead, are treated medically. His favorite pearl of wisdom for aspiring vascular surgeons? “You may make your living by operating, but you’ll make your reputation by not operating.”

Sternbergh is nationally recognized as an expert on vascular disease and is the author of more than 100 scientific publications and book chapters on the subject. He wrote the leading textbook on the endovascular treatment of abdominal and thoracic aortic aneurysms and is regarded as a pioneer in minimally invasive intervention for hepatic artery stenosis during liver transplantation, his topic for the H. M. Lee lecture.

Mark Levy, M.D., chair of the Division of Vascular Surgery, lauded Sternbergh’s lecture and how it engaged his audience. “I don’t know when I last saw so many questions at the end of Grand Rounds.”

The minimally invasive interventions to treat stenosis that Sternbergh spoke about in the lecture can be unforgiving and difficult, experts agree. Nevertheless, Sternbergh’s experience with the procedures has enabled him to develop a reliably safe algorithm so he can now remedy such stenosis with relatively low risk.

In 1996, Sternbergh joined Ochsner, home to the busiest liver transplant program in the country and where he has performed 150 interventions for hepatic artery stenosis — the largest amount at a single center in the world.

Vascular surgeon Clayton Brinster, M.D., has worked with Sternbergh at Ochsner since 2015 and calls him “one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.” In addition to helping Brinster refine his technical operating skills and leadership abilities, Sternbergh has provided him with “advice and countenance without judgment,” which can be challenging in a high-stress field, Brinster says. “He’s been a real asset to my personal development as a surgeon.”

By Beth Shamaiengar


Mentors pay it forward

The Department of Internal Medicine celebrates the awarding of the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award.

The Department of Internal Medicine celebrates the awarding of the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award. L-R: Marc Thames, M’70; inaugural recipient Antonio Abbate, M.D., H’07; Hermes Kontos, M.D., H’62, PhD’67; and Todd Gehr, F’87, interim internal medicine chair.

“It was critical to my career development.” That’s how Marc D. Thames, M’70, describes the mentorship of Hermes A. Kontos, M.D., H’62, PhD’67 (PHIS), and its impact on his life and career. Thames calls his medical school years a magical time and says, “Dr. Kontos was the most impactful part of the magic. I always felt like I could talk to him about anything.”

Thames began working in Kontos’ cardiac research lab after completing his first year of medical school and the two quickly established a bond that continues today.

“I realized right away how lucky I was to have Hermes Kontos as a mentor. He never said ‘I don’t have the time.’ He shared my excitement for the science that served as the basis for the work we did together, and was always available to come to the lab when help was needed with the technical aspects of the experiments we performed.”

Kontos was just beginning his 41-year tenure on the MCV Campus when he and Thames first started to work together. He would go on to become medical school dean and later vice president for health sciences and CEO of VCU Health System. He always saw mentoring as part of his role.

“To establish a younger generation of academic physicians, you have to get them interested in science early on,” Kontos says. “Be there for them when they come to you with a problem or need career advice. It doesn’t take much time to suggest what you think is best for them.”

But it can be the critical difference in the career development of a young physician. What Thames received from Kontos inspired him in his own work with students, residents and fellows throughout his career at Temple University, Case Western Reserve University, VCU (based at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center) and University of Iowa. Today his academic career and mentoring continue at Emory University in the School of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology.

“It became very clear to me that mentoring is such a critical part of career development for young people,” Thames says. “I’ve worked to pay it forward by being a good listener and trying to help young people to pursue a direction that excites them and makes them want to work hard.”

In honor of mentoring relationships and their power to change lives, and as a way for him to express his gratitude to the institution that was so critical to his own career development, Thames made a generous gift to the School of Medicine to establish the Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award. Housed in the Department of Internal Medicine, the award celebrates faculty who have had a significant impact on the lives of medical students, residents, fellows and junior faculty through exceptional mentorship or professional guidance. It also serves as annual recognition of the mentoring relationship between Thames and Kontos.

“Without his mentorship, my career would have taken a completely different path. He opened my mind to the possibilities of what could be done, and got me excited about an area that ultimately became the focus of my research career,” says Thames, referring to his research on the autonomic nervous system and how it regulates the heart and circulation.

Who was your mentor?
Do you have a memory of a favorite mentor from your time on the MCV Campus? Email us at MedAlum@vcu.edu and share your story.

Housestaff alumnus Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., the James C. Roberts, Esq. Professor in Cardiology, received the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award on Feb. 8, 2019.

Kenneth A. Ellenbogen, M.D., Martha M. and Harold W. Kimmerling Professor of Cardiology, wrote one of Abbate’s multiple nomination letters. In his letter, Ellenbogen cited the outstanding guidance of his own mentor — Marc Thames.

In the 1980s, Kontos had recruited Thames back to Richmond, Virginia, to serve as professor of medicine and chief of the cardiology section at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Then Thames recruited Ellenbogen from Duke University to lead the development of cardiac electrophysiology at the VA.

Now chair of VCU Health’s cardiology division, Ellenbogen wrote, “Dr. Thames created an enthusiasm for research and work that was contagious and an environment that was always inspiring and exciting … I have never been more stimulated to ask questions in my life. Marc taught me that the questions were what was important and the techniques and technology were just tools. He taught and inspired so many young cardiologists, many of whom went on to very successful careers in academic medicine.”

Ellenbogen says Abbate has created the same type of palpable enthusiasm and excitement among today’s junior faculty. “He is a gifted and highly productive clinician scientists who gives selflessly of his time and effort to support trainees and faculty in cardiology. It’s very fitting that he is the first recipient of this special award.”

Thanks to the Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award, the cycle of mentorship will be celebrated for many years to come.

By Polly Roberts


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


The Class of 83’s Wayne Reichman continues his work in Haiti with a trio of fellow alumni

Michael Boss, M'06, H'08; Wayne Reichman, M'83, F'89; Paul McNeill, H'88, F'90; and Kenneth Collins, H'88, connect over their affection for their alma mater and a commitment to the citizens of Haiti.

Michael Boss, M’06, H’08; Wayne Reichman, M’83, F’89; Paul McNeill, H’88, F’90; and Kenneth Collins, H’88, connect over their affection for their alma mater and a commitment to the citizens of Haiti.

In 2013, Wayne Reichman, M’83, F’89, began transitioning from his role as a Baltimore vascular surgeon to the medical director for a free surgical clinic in Jacmel, Haiti.

His commitment to the Jim Wilmot Surgery Center, owned and operated by nonprofit Community Coalition for Haiti, inspired a trio of VCU School of Medicine alumni to join him in providing free surgical care to the country devastated by a 2010 earthquake. While each alumnus took a different path to Haiti, it was their ties to their alma mater that opened doors to an opportunity to help the less fortunate.

Anesthesiologist Michael Boss, M’06, H’08, first heard about Reichman’s work in an article in the medical school’s alumni magazine, 12th & Marshall. Later, the two physicians found themselves operating together at University of Maryland Medical Center, and Reichman invited Boss to join him on an October 2015 trip to Haiti.

Boss has been back twice a year ever since.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for MCV and the people I worked with in residency and in medical school,” Boss says. “It was my first introduction to an underserved population. I had great attending physicians like Bob Kravetz, M.D., who opened a free clinic in Fredericksburg where I got to spend a little time.”

Michael Boss, M'06, H'08, trains a Haitian CRNA student to perform regional blocks under ultrasound guidance.

Michael Boss, M’06, H’08, trains a Haitian CRNA student to perform regional blocks under ultrasound guidance.

However, Haiti was his first experience traveling internationally to treat the underserved. “My first trip was pretty eye-opening to see the poverty and condition of the country. It was heartbreaking at times … Now, it’s more of a second home and the people there are like family.

“I’m excited to continue this work indefinitely,” Boss says, “and to have this attachment to MCV is such a special thing.”

Paul McNeill, H’88, F’90, and Reichman trained together as fellows on the MCV Campus and kept in touch at vascular surgery conferences over the years. In 2016, McNeill started coming to Haiti with Reichman once a year. It was McNeill who led Reichman to his fourth MCV Campus connection: urologist Kenneth Collins, H’88, who made his first trip to Haiti in 2017.

“It makes my life easier being able to rely on folks that I know will have the right skillset and personalities,” Reichman says. “They are all super and work well with the rest of the team.”

The four physicians traveled to Haiti together for the first time in fall 2017, solidifying their friendship as they connected after 14-hour days of operating by sitting on the rooftop of their guest house and reminiscing about their time on the MCV Campus.

“We shared some hilarious stories,” Reichman says. “It was quite a laugh.”

Details of those stories, however, are on strict “lockdown,” Boss laughs. “Old stories from residency, funny things that happened. Things functioned differently 20, 30 years ago, so it was fun to hear everybody’s take.”

The new Community Coalition for Haiti clinic opened in November 2018.

The new Community Coalition for Haiti clinic opened in November 2018 and allows for new services including cataract surgery, upper endoscopy, and general surgical and gynecological laparoscopic procedures.

In November, Boss and Reichman attended the grand opening for a new facility two years in the making. Spearheaded by Reichman, it’s twice the size of the previous facility and allows for new services including cataract surgery, upper endoscopy, and general surgical and gynecological laparoscopic procedures.

The new hospital also includes a larger recovery room, a small intensive care unit, six additional inpatient beds, three large operating rooms, more physical therapy space, primary care and wound clinics, a pharmacy and administrative offices. Two smaller, nearby buildings will house educational and community development programs.

In 2017, the Haitian government awarded the clinic full accreditation as a foreign health care provider, meaning it is now one of only a handful of foreign providers that can purchase medicine in the country and organize regional preventive care programs such as mobile cancer screenings and school-based health screenings.

Reichman says the surgical facility has expanded from 75 cases annually in 2015 to more than 300 in 2018. That’s not including the 20,000 patients who come through the clinic’s primary care unit each year and the 8,000 patients who receive physical therapy.

“My role now is to ensure that the surgical center is adequately staffed with recruiting and volunteers who can train Haitian physicians to do what we do,” Reichman says. “Our long-term goal is to train enough Haitian medical personnel to be able to take over and run the entire facility.”

Reichman says he’s most proud of the partnerships created with Haiti’s health ministry, the local hospital In Jacmel and numerous other clinics to better the country’s overall health care system. He encourages other physicians with public health interests to narrow their focus as they define how they want to make an impact.

Interested in volunteering with Community Coalition for Haiti?

Email Wayne Reichman, M’83, F’89, at wayne@cchaiti.org for details.

“There are many places around the world where you can volunteer,” he says. “But you can’t change the whole world and do everything for everyone. Pick one area and serve it well.”

And if you can find your spot and make an impact with your fellow alumni?

All the better.

By Polly Roberts


Millennials ‘ideally suited’ to be doctors, says Class of 77’s David Adams

David Adams, M'77, specializes in treating challenging gastrointestinal disease. He recently returned to the MCV Campus for a guest lecture.

David Adams, M’77, specializes in treating challenging gastrointestinal disease. He recently returned to the MCV Campus for a guest lecture titled “Total Pancreatectomy with Islet Auto Transplantation — When, Why, How.”

David Adams, M’77, is weary of hearing about “the good old days.” From where he sits as a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, the best is yet to come.

“Every generation is the greatest generation and every generation has its challenges,” says Adams, who has spent three decades at the Medical University of South Carolina. While Millennials often are criticized as work-shy and entitled, Adams sees it differently. “They are ideally suited to be the doctors of the future because they value meaningful work, they’re internationalists, they’re tech-savvy, they like feedback, they’re team-oriented and they’re collaborative.

“So all the things my generation complains about come naturally to Millennials.”

His feelings were reinforced on a recent visit to the MCV Campus when he joined VCU Health transplant fellows and residents on morning rounds. The coordination between the transplant and critical care teams impressed Adams, who hadn’t returned to campus since graduation.

“From what I saw, the future of surgery is bright,” Adams later told attendees at his guest lecture, “Total Pancreatectomy with Islet Auto Transplantation — When, Why, How.”

Adams specializes in treating challenging gastrointestinal disease and performs islet cell transplantation for patients with chronic pancreatitis. Marlon Levy, M.D., chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery and director of the VCU Hume-Lee Transplant Center, calls Adams one of the field’s senior surgeons.

“David Adams has had a long and very influential career,” Levy says. “His particular contributions to surgery for chronic pancreatitis patients underscore his thought-leader status in academic surgery.”

‘Colorful, smart characters’

During his return to the MCV Campus, David Adams, M'77 (right), visited with his mentor Walter Lawrence, M.D.

During his return to the MCV Campus, David Adams, M’77 (right), visited with his mentor, the beloved surgeon Walter Lawrence, M.D.

During medical school, Adams learned from favorite professors such as rheumatology’s Shaun Ruddy, M.D.; surgery’s Walter Lawrence, M.D., and H.M. Lee, M.D., H’61; pediatric surgery’s Arnold Salzberg, M.D., H’53; neurosurgery’s Harold Young, M.D., and gastroenterology’s Alvin Zfass, M’57.

“They were all colorful, smart characters,” Adams says. “Every chance I got, I would go to the operating room to watch Dr. Lawrence work because he’s such a beautiful surgeon.”

Lawrence enjoyed getting to know the young student as well, and the two continued a mentoring relationship over the next 40 years. “I knew when he was an M3 he was going to amount to something,” Lawrence says. “I’m so proud of the work he’s done and his whole career.”

Adams credits the School of Medicine for laying his foundation. “It was easy to transition to an intern after being a medical student here,” says Adams, who completed his residency at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, where “they were all astonished when I showed up the day before I was to start my internship to get to know the patients. But that’s what you would do on the MCV Campus. You were responsible.”

And the medical students relied on one another.

“There was a great camaraderie among students,” Adams says. “Your rotations were difficult. There was a lot of hard work so you had to depend on others to share the work.”

‘Another mountain to climb’

Interested in visiting the MCV Campus?

Find out when your class will celebrate Reunion Weekend or contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at (804) 828-4800 or MedAlum@vcu.edu to schedule a tour.

Adams found his way to gastrointestinal disease thanks to Zfass, who would arrive in his blue corduroy suit and give “wonderful lectures. He made me realize we weren’t there to learn facts; we were there to learn how to think critically. That made it fun.”

After residency, Adams served as chief of surgery at the Naval Hospital in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He later transferred to the Naval Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, where he worked with residents from the Medical University of South Carolina and rekindled his affection for academic medicine. He went on to spend 18 years performing traditional operations for chronic pancreatitis before transitioning to islet cell transplantation in the late 2000s.

“We weren’t always successful with traditional operations and frequently we were unsuccessful,” Adams says. “So we had to think of new ways to treat patients. One way to deal with the terrible pain was to remove the entire pancreas before patients have nerve damage and then, so they don’t become diabetic, transplant the islet cells into the liver.”

In medical school, Adams didn’t know his life’s work would lead him to fighting chronic pancreatitis. But his patients showed him the way.

“You serve the needs of where you are,” he says. “What became apparent to me was that chronic pancreatitis is and was poorly understood and these people suffered.”

Even with the latest progress, chronic pancreatitis remains a baffling disease with many unanswered questions. “That is what’s so exciting,” Adams says. “What’s the new frontier? Where are the new answers going to come from? There is always another mountain to climb.”

By Polly Roberts

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Updated: 04/29/2016