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Sharing the gift of sight is an ‘incredible experience’ for the Class of 80’s Sara Jones-Gomberg

Ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, with elderly patient and daughter

Ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, looks on as an elderly mother sees her daughter for the first time in many years after receiving free cataract surgery.

The joy cannot be contained when an elderly mother, previously blinded by cataracts, sees her adult daughter for the first time in many years. Mother and daughter smile, then weep. There isn’t a dry eye in this makeshift operating room in the Philippines as mom marvels at how much her little girl has grown.

“She still thought of her as a young person, unchanged,” says ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, who performed the free cataract surgery in March 2014 to restore the mother’s vision. “It was an incredible experience.”

But it’s one that almost didn’t happen.

The mother had arrived at the clinic scared and unsure of the procedure. She was hot and hadn’t eaten much. Like many of the patients, she had come a long way much earlier in the day to be evaluated for the surgery. Her daughter was worried that if her mother didn’t have the surgery that day, she wouldn’t go through with it — and she desperately wanted her mother to see again.

Jones-Gomberg was concerned, too, that the mother — understandably on edge after the long, hot wait — would be too restless for surgery in a setting without standard anesthesia. So they decided to wait one more day.

“We got her dinner and a place to stay the night,” Jones-Gomberg says, “and her daughter reviewed with her mom what to expect. She was the first patient in the morning to have surgery. She was rested and like a changed person. The surgery just went beautifully.”

So beautifully that the patient said she wanted to have the other eye operated on later that same day. No more fear. “We all felt like a happy family but this was our last day of surgery with many more patients waiting for a turn,” Jones-Gomberg says. “We promised to come back to perform the second eye surgery.”

It’s experiences like these that keep Jones-Gomberg going back to the Philippines, where she has traveled seven times since 2005, performing as many as 15 surgeries a day with a team of two to three doctors, including a local physician. She’s also treated patients in Bangladesh, India, Laos, Mexico, Peru and Tibet.

“In some of these countries, they simply accept that nothing can be done to restore their vision. But when suddenly it is, it’s like night and day — from sitting in the corner of their home and growing useless to suddenly becoming a contributing member of the family,” Jones-Gomberg says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better profession than giving back vision. You do something to help people but you receive such a good feeling for yourself. In some ways, it’s a little bit selfish. I’m so fortunate to have had my education at MCV and become a physician. A number of things came together and now I have a gift. To not share it would be such a shame.”

Back in her California home, Jones-Gomberg shares the gift of sight with patients at Kaiser Permanente in the Antelope Valley as a partner emeritus and at the High Desert Regional Medical Center of Los Angeles County. She previously spent 27 years as a partner physician in Panorama City and Santa Clarita Kaiser Permanente but moved to provide care to an underserved population that previously had to travel as far as 60 miles for ophthalmological services.

Caring for the less fortunate, and treating her patients as friends, is a running theme of Jones-Gomberg’s career.

“It’s something inside of me that I wouldn’t be able to change,” she says. “I talk to patients about their family, their concerns, their social life. I do think part of the responsibility as a caregiver is to look at the whole person, not just the eye.

“My sense of patient care began in my years at MCV and the way the students cared for one another. I do think our class was a special class. We didn’t rely on competitiveness. We actually worked together.”

Jones-Gomberg arrived on the MCV Campus at age 28, after earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics. She even spent a few years teaching math prior to medical school. Yet influential people in her life, including her family physician, encouraged her to become a doctor, noting the increasing presence of math in medicine.

She’s especially grateful to Miles Hench, Ph.D., former dean of admissions in the medical school, and oncologist Susan Mellette, M.D., who were instrumental in her path to becoming the caring physician she is today.

It was during her fourth-year rotation when she realized ophthalmology encompassed everything she loved about medicine: physics, mathematics, surgery and patient interaction.

“Every day I’m so thankful that I was given this experience,” Jones-Gomberg says. “In some ways, I was probably a gamble on MCV’s part. I hope I’ve shown it was well worth the gamble. MCV gave me the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”

By Polly Roberts


Reflections on Pinares as HOMBRE team heads back to Honduras

Medical students travel to Honduras, as part of HOMBRE.

Medical students travel to Pinares, Honduras, as part of the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigagda Relief Effort.

This June a team of more than a dozen health sciences students head to Pinares, Honduras, as part of the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigada Relief Effort, where alongside faculty they will provide medical services and health care education to the country’s underserved and rural populations.

Nine medical students will travel with this year’s team, led by faculty members Michael Filak, M.D., and Sandra Tandeciarz, M.D., who have a combined decade of HOMBRE experience between them.

“We are ever grateful to our School of Medicine faculty for their volunteerism, as well as mentorship, as exemplified here in this global outreach with our dedicated medical students,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., Dean of Medicine.

Team members also include Kate DiPasquale Seelig, M’12, an HOMBRE alumna now returning for the second time as faculty. As a student, Seelig received an Aesculapian Scholarship, made possible through the medical school’s Annual Fund. Even a partial scholarship relieves the burden of debt today’s medical students face and can make it easier for recipients to choose to travel and gain global health experience.

In Honduras, team members will work in health care clinics or on public health projects geared toward improving villagers’ quality of life. On the trip, held June 13-24, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience working alongside nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy students.

After HOMBRE’s summer 2016 trip to Honduras, nonprofit partner Shoulder to Shoulder provided a glimpse into the landscape and people of Honduras, as well as the work of the HOMBRE team. Read on for highlights from the Shoulder to Shoulder blog as this year’s team embarks on a new journey.

As the crow flies

HOMBRE team members provide medical services and education.

HOMBRE team members provide medical services and education to Honduras’ underserved and rural populations.

“As the crow flies …” is a great expression, probably a little bit overused in the U.S. We don’t hear the expression here in Honduras very much. Primarily, I guess, because we don’t have too many crows. We do have vultures, “zopilotes” we call them, and they fly across the mountains with great ease. Perhaps that’s more the reason why the expression doesn’t get used that often here. It is just a little too depressing to think on how quickly a zopilote crosses from one mountain peak to the other, a matter of a minute or two, and then to think that the same trip takes up to an hour or two in a four-wheel drive pickup. It’s just a little bit too humbling to think that nature is that far ahead of human ingenuity. Here, the terrain and the elements of the natural world continue to present tremendous challenges to human dominance. Perhaps not so much in the U.S. Here, we prefer to not remind ourselves how much easier it is to be a crow or a zopilote.

The Frontera is a really small place, less than 700 square kilometers, smaller than El Paso, Texas. But, there are no straight lines and nothing is ever level. One goes north to arrive at a destination to the south, or up in order to go down. This counterintuitive travel is yet worsened by roads that would not merit the designation of a road in the U.S. Steep volcanic mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, but living within them is hardly practical.

San Marcos de La Sierra is the first municipality that one encounters in the Frontera, driving south from La Esperanza. The road here is still at a high elevation and one doesn’t really see any evidence that people live here. Virginia Commonwealth University and Fairfax Family Practices have been coming to this area three times a year for many years. They were just here once again. We dropped them off at the school and clinic in Pinares and we came back about a week or so later to pick them up. If we didn’t know what they do while they are there, we might assume they just hang out and admire the tremendous vistas they are privileged to view. But we do know better.

During HOMBRE, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience.

During HOMBRE, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience working alongside nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy students.

Hiding behind those mountains, across ravines and beyond the treacherous slopes, are about 9,000 residents. Few of them make their way to the health clinic. This is not surprising. They are poor, simple people. They have all they can do to maintain a small home and, if they are fortunate, a small plot of land on which to farm. They travel to a river for water. They collect wood for a fire to cook humble meals. They battle daily with a harsh, unforgiving environment so that they can stay ahead of a mortality curve. They remain unseen, forgotten, abandoned, invisible if you will, except for the zopilote vultures that circle their heads. If anyone is going to know these people, if anyone is going to care for them, treat their illnesses, recognize their dignity, then it demands going to them. They can’t come to us.

We sometimes look naively upon a just response to inequity and poverty. It would be easy to sit outside the school at Pinares where VCU/Fairfax houses their service team and admire the beauty of majestic mountains. It takes insight, compassion and even sacrifice to gain the view of a zopilote that flies beyond the mountains with ease. For the doctors, students, translators and volunteers, they brave the rough terrain to make their way to unseen, ignored people who live in poverty. They climb into the beds of pickup trucks, squished in among the bins of medical supplies, and bump along to destinations where most anyone would not dare to go. They stare down the cliffs as they go. They stop when they can go no further with a car because the road has fallen down the mountain. They sling their supplies over their shoulders and into backpacks. Then they walk. Perhaps even as they trek along, they wonder about this odd journey: going south to arrive to the north, and up in order to get down. Then they finally arrive in a little village, a place mostly unknown. Maybe they look up and see a zopilote circling their heads. Perhaps they indulge themselves with a knowing smile.

This is how we discover people. We make our way along treacherous journeys. Once again, VCU/Fairfax has made their journey to reach a poor, forgotten, invisible people. The people they have met are happy and grateful for the encounter. For this journey, to have arrived to where the crow flies, everyone has been enriched.


Through Your Eyes: A poem by Megan Shandelson Lemay, M’11


In the third grade, MEGAN SHANDELSON LEMAY, M’11, won her first writing contest, and she’s been hooked ever since. “Whenever I reflect about my experience with a patient, I always think of it as a story. I write a story in my head on the drive home from work and write it down later. It has helped me connect with patients to think of what their story has been, how it may conclude and what role I can play in their story.” Thoughshe usually writes prose, this poem is the result of a writing workshop at the end of her residency that prompted her with the word ‘redemption.’ She encourages her fellow alumni: “I have no formal training in writing. You don’t need to write well to reflect in pen and paper!”

Needle to Neck

I very nearly killed someone
the first time I put needle to neck.
The senior resident in my ear,
“We have to be quick. Go on, deeper.
Poke around. Get the flash.”
Twenty minutes later, the chest x-ray.
The pneumothorax.
The surgeon running in.
Swinging neck tie,
plunging tube into chest.
My mouth agape in the corner.
Five days later,
she’s awake.
I cry at her bedside, apologizing.
She asks me where her front tooth is.

This story first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the medical school’s alumni magazine, 12th & Marshall. You can flip through the whole issue online.

I vow never to put needle to neck again.
Now they call me,
sometimes at 2 am.
“She can get the line. She’s really good.”
I tell all the interns
what I had to teach myself.
Needles can kill.
Measure twice.
Second guess.

A difficult line.
Fourth attempt.
I place it now quickly, safely.
The nurse claps.
Daughter thanks.
The patient and I both cry.
All teeth are intact.


Face Time: Alumnus returns to campus to discuss pioneering surgery

In 2005, surgeons in France completed the world’s first partial face transplant on a woman who lost her lips, cheeks, chin and most of her nose after she was mauled by her dog.

A dozen years and many lessons later, face transplantation has moved from possibility to reality, with surgeons refining techniques and transforming the lives of patients once considered beyond hope. Leading the way is Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M’99, considered one of the world’s pioneering surgeons in the field.

This story first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the medical school’s alumni magazine, 12th & Marshall. You can flip through the whole issue online.Eduardo Rodriguez, M'99

EDUARDO D. RODRIGUEZ, M’99, returned to the MCV Campus last summer as the speaker for the 2016 S. Dawson Theogaraj Lecture. At the annual event, he described his team’s work to complete the most extensive face transplant ever. Rodriguez is the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at New York University’s School of Medicine. The surgery, which took place at the NYU Langone Medical Center in August 2015, received extensive media coverage and cemented Rodriguez’s reputation in the field.

Patrick Hardison, a 41-year old firefighter from Mississippi who had received horrific facial injuries, received the face of David Rodebaugh who had died in a cycling accident. The operation included a number of milestone procedures including transplanting the donor’s eyelids and muscles that control blinking – which had not been previously performed on a seeing patient. In addition, the ears and ear canals were transplanted along with bony structures, including portions of the chin, cheeks and the entire nose.

Rodriguez credits his time in VCU’s School of Medicine for a solid foundation in medicine. Rodriguez earned a D.D.S. degree from New York University in 1992, then completed his residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“There are oral surgery programs that have affiliations with a medical degree, and I had colleagues who recommended that this was something I should do. I applied to all the medical schools in the country that had a relationship with an oral surgery program.” He ended up at VCU, condensing his medical degree into two years. After that, he trained in the plastic surgery program at Johns Hopkins Hospital/University of Maryland Medical Center and completed a fellowship in Taiwan.

“I thought VCU was the best education I ever received,” he said in a telephone interview from New York. “Those were the most enriching educational years of my life. I became a very good student. Living in Richmond, a smaller town, allowed me to focus on education and gave me a very strong foundation to be successful.”

Patrick's ProgressionRodriguez first became interested in the possibility of face transplants after hearing a lecture at Johns Hopkins about face transplants in rats. “My mentor at Johns Hopkins, the chief of plastic surgery, told me this is what I should be doing. I had no idea what that really meant, but I was fascinated by it.”

Before joining NYU Langone in 2013, Rodriguez was on faculty at R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. There he led a 2012 landmark surgery, the most extensive facial transplant at the time, of a Virginia man who had suffered a gunshot wound.


At the time of the death of S. Dawson Theogaraj, M.D., in 1984, a fund was established with gifts from a variety of sources to honor the life and work of the plastic surgeon who was known for his academic brilliance and dedication to teaching. The fund supports an annual lectureship program as well as an award to the plastic surgery resident who achieves the highest score on the plastic surgery in-service exams.

The lectureship is one of about two dozen in the medical school supported by endowed funds at the MCV Foundation. The funds carry the names of some of the school’s best-known faculty, alumni and friends including: renowned orthopaedic surgeon Richard Caspari, M.D., who advanced arthroscopic surgery and treated Mary Lou Retton six weeks before her gold-medal-winning Olympic performance; Clarence Holland, M’62, who served his community as a family physician for 42 years and as a Virginia state senator for more than a decade; and the pioneering medicinal chemist and faculty member Everette May, Ph.D., who synthesized an anti-malaria drug as well as a drug still used as an alternative to methadone treatment for opioid addiction.

The medical school’s lectureship endowments, totaling more than $2.7 million, enrich the MCV Campus’ learning environment for students, residents and faculty by bringing important topics and innovative thinkers to campus. In addition to Eduardo Rodriguez, M’99, serving as the Theogaraj Lecturer, recent years have seen highly regarded speakers from all over the country visit Richmond to share advances, technologies and perspectives that shape future approaches to patient care, scientific discovery and medical training.

Rodriguez notes that such transplants include health and mental risks that must be weighed against the benefits. Recipients deal with the psychological battles of living with someone else’s face, as well as lifelong reliance and side-effects of immunosuppressant medicines. As with other transplants, the body can reject a new face.

In such a developing field, he notes, there’s not yet a blueprint for success.

“Physicians and patients are on this journey together,” he says. “Once you’re successful and you see the patient doing well and you reflect on what we’ve achieved, and reflect on change in this individual’s life, you can’t help but be amazed by the complexity of the process.”

The Department of Defense and several research institutions, including NYU, have dedicated funding and resources to refining the procedure.

Rodriguez knows that the next decade will include improvements in transplantation and perhaps even some breakthroughs that seemed unimaginable in recent years.

“First, we have to keep working on trying to reduce the toxic effects of the anti-rejection medicines,” he says. He believes biomedical engineers will one day be able to create tissues specifically for patients needing transplants.

“It’s not just how many more transplants I can do. It’s how can we continue to improve the quality of face reconstruction and bring in different elements of science to provide these types of procedures safely, as well as improving the quality of these patients’ lives and shaping a better future for these individuals.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


Vietnam, Revisited

For the New PBS Film Series THE VIETNAM WAR, a Doctor Tells His Story

On Nov. 30, 1967, HAL KUSHNER woke up to find himself hanging upside down by his seatbelt in a burning helicopter. The 27-year-old Army flight surgeon from the Class of 1966, not yet four months into his first tour of duty in Vietnam, had crashed into the south Vietnamese jungle. One crew member was dead. Another, badly injured, would soon die as well. A third, who went in hopes of finding friendly aid, would be shot and killed. When no help came, Kushner, alone and injured, the sole survivor, struck out into the jungle on foot. He had burns from the fire, a broken wrist and collarbone, lost and broken teeth, and wounds in his shoulder and neck from live rounds set off by the fire.

The Vietnam War, a 10-part, 18-hour documentary, will air in September on PBS stations nationwide.
For her part, Novick says that working on the film “has been the most challenging and the most rewarding experience I have ever had.” She expresses deep gratitude for the people, like Kushner, who shared their stories in the making of the film. “To get to know people who have had these remarkable experiences and to trust us enough to personally tell their story – it changes the way you understand the world and what it is to be a human being.”

Within hours he would be captured by the Viet Cong, shot and wounded again in the shoulder when he couldn’t raise his injured arm to signal surrender. It was Dec. 2, 1967, and Kushner was a prisoner of war, the ordeal to come foretold in the words of an English-speaking enemy officer he would soon encounter, who promised him, “You will find that dying is very easy. Living – living is the difficult thing.”

For more than three years he was held under horrific conditions, starving and ill in jungle camps in South Vietnam, a doctor helpless to save the men around him who died of hunger and dysentery and malaria and abuse, for want of food, or basic medicine, or hope. “Each day was a struggle for survival,” he told fellow veterans at a reunion many years later. “We often wanted to die.”

Somehow, Kushner survived. Eventually he was marched more than 500 miles to North Vietnam. He arrived in Hanoi weighing 88 pounds, and finally ended up in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, before at last, in March of 1973, he would be released to come home, 1,931 days after his capture.

This story first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the medical school’s alumni magazine, 12th & Marshall. You can flip through the whole issue online.Hal Kushner, M'66

For many who served in Vietnam, leaving the place, the war and the suffering behind them proved impossible. Kushner, however, returned to his wife and two young children (his youngest born not long after Kushner’s capture), ready to move forward with his life and his career – a long and successful practice as an ophthalmologist in Daytona Beach, Florida. “My philosophy has always been to look forward, not backward, to consider the future rather than the past,” he told his fellow veterans at the reunion. The war did not haunt him.

But it has continued to haunt this country. The America Kushner came home to was not the one he’d left. It was a nation in tumult, fractured along countless fault lines by a war that even today, more than 40 years after its end, remains an unhealed wound and an unresolved trauma.

“It is one of the most painful, tragic, divisive, polarizing and misunderstood conflicts in U.S. history,” says documentary filmmaker Lynn Novick. “It reverberates in our lives, our politics and our culture to this day.”

It is because Vietnam is “unfinished business in American history,” says Novick, that she and fellow director Ken Burns began 10 years ago to conceive of the project that would become The Vietnam War, an exhaustive, 10-part, 18-hour film that will begin airing this September on PBS stations nationwide, and which, Novick says, is “the most ambitious and challenging project we have ever undertaken.”

The war, says Novick, is “deeply unsettled history,” and Novick and Burns “wanted to go back and take advantage of new scholarship, new perspectives from people who lived through it,” she says. “We wanted to represent many points of view.”

And so, over the course of six years of production on the film, more than 100 people were interviewed on camera, according to Novick – Americans and Vietnamese, veterans and anti-war protesters, survivors of those who died in the war, civilians whose lives were upended by it. And among them was retired Army colonel and former prisoner of war Dr. Hal Kushner. He might not necessarily have seemed the obvious choice at first; he had rarely spoken publicly about his experiences. Kushner says that it’s not that he has trouble talking about any of it, but that he has found that living by a philosophy of not looking backwards in anger or bitterness or regret was the positive path for his life. “It’s not who I am. I don’t define myself by that experience.”

However, he was friends with the veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway (co-author of the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young), who was a consultant for the film. In the winter of 2011, Galloway recommended Kushner to Novick and Burns – who of course were seeking to include the POW perspective.

Hal Kushner, M'66, and Lynn Novick

Novick and Kushner spoke first on the phone. “Within five or ten minutes,” Novick says, “I certainly felt that having him in the film would be enormously important.” She flew down to meet him in Daytona Beach, and after their conversation there, he agreed to take part.

“I think she probably auditioned me covertly without me knowing it,” he says, amused, but he liked her very much. For Novick’s part, she says that the occasion was a “mutual get-to-know-each-other.” She and Burns were looking for people who had “something to say,” a story that was compelling, an ability to connect with viewers, and Novick saw that in Kushner and his story.

“I asked him to share his story not just with us but with millions of people who were going to see the film,” Novick says. “Because he is not someone who gives speeches or is well known as a former POW, we felt extraordinarily fortunate that he was willing to tell the story in our film, and at much greater length and more depth.”

The actual filming took place in Kushner’s home in Maine in July 2011. He was intrigued by his behind-the-scenes look at the process, as a full production crew descended on his house. “They came in and took photos of everything, then they moved everything around, the tables and chairs and furniture, and they put screens on the windows to filter the light.” After a long day of filming – Kushner seated in a chair with the camera on him as Novick sat opposite him – and only a brief break for lunch (peanut butter sandwiches, Kushner recalls), the crew consulted the photos they’d taken in the morning “to put everything back the way it was.”

Kushner sums up the day concisely as a “far-reaching interview.”

Novick, however, says that for her and the crew it was far more. The word she chooses is “profound.” “The day that we spent with him doing that interview was one of the most remarkable days on this project and one of the most remarkable days in my 25 years of doing documentaries,” she says. “It was such an incredible privilege to be in the room; I will never forget it as long as I live.”

Without going into the details that she wants viewers to experience watching the film, Novick describes Kushner’s story as riveting – not only for what happened, but also for how he chooses to tell it. “He describes things with a methodical scientific observation of the world, and he also brings poetry and humanity and a sense of humor,” she says.

In November of 2015, Novick and Burns invited Kushner, along with a number of others involved in the film, to New York City for a long weekend of viewing the documentary – at that point in its final stages of editing – in its entirety. Hundreds of hours of footage and interviews had been shot, in Vietnam as well as in the U.S. The production team had assembled a database of more than 20,000 still images gleaned from around the world. “There was a lot of stuff in this film that you will find nowhere else,” Kushner says.

The schedule was very rigorous over that weekend, Kushner says, long days of watching segments of the film and then engaging in discussion with everyone assembled in the room – which included former anti-war peace activists, retired military leaders, family members of someone who had died in the war and others, with often diverging perspectives. The conversations, though respectful, at times grew heated, Kushner acknowledges.

To Novick and Burns, that was a good sign – an indication of the kinds of “courageous conversations” that they hope the film will provoke among viewers. In a film that sought to be comprehensive and fair in representing “a very complicated story from many angles,” says Novick, the expectation is that there will be moments of discomfort for everyone watching it. “There are very intense feelings about the war and what it means,” she says.

Kushner agrees. “The Vietnam wound is still open,” he says. “I would hope that the film would provoke a national conversation about Vietnam and really bring some closure to the whole history.”

By Caroline Kettlewell


Myron Levine, M’67: A pioneer of the modern discipline of vaccinology

A brilliant and determined visionary saves lives and helps develop a new medical discipline

M67 Myron Levine receives 2017 Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific AchievementThe National Foundation for Infectious Diseases has honored Myron M. (Mike) Levine, M’67, with the 2017 Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement for his outstanding contributions to infectious disease and vaccinology, as well as his excellence in research and training, which have had enormous impact on global public health and will continue to pay dividends for millions of individuals in the future.

Levine’s latest contribution to improving public health is the live cholera vaccine, created and tested under his leadership, and recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I always had an interest in the developing world and what we then called tropical medicine and tropical pediatrics,” Levine says. “I was also an addict for flying light planes. My early goals was to be a member of the flying doctor’s service in East Africa.”

Through the Center for Vaccine Development, the academic vaccine development enterprise that he founded in 1974 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, his research has encompassed disease burden measurement, bacterial pathogenesis studies, design and creation of vaccine candidates, clinical studies to test the safety of vaccine candidates and their ability to elicit relevant immune responses, and large-scale field trials to assess vaccine efficacy.

Once vaccines are licensed, Levine collaborates with industry and public health authorities to facilitate their introduction into target populations and to measure their impact on disease burden and safety.

Alongside his landmark research, Levine has also developed courses and mentored scores of individuals who now hold leading positions in academia, research institutes, United Nations agencies and industry. His children are among them. Though he says neither he nor his wife Suzanne, a pediatric nurse and 1963 alumna of the School of Nursing, urged them toward the field, all three now have careers in global health and medicine — the Levine family business.

A ‘walking atlas’
Levine was born in Riverdale, New York, a quiet residential neighborhood in the northwest Bronx. Ironically, for someone who would spend his entire adult life working on global infectious diseases, by age 16 the farthest he had traveled was a few hundred miles to visit his mother’s relatives. But as a child he voraciously read books on the history of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America and was jokingly called a “walking atlas” because of his detailed knowledge of world geography.

His interest in the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases in developing countries was already fervent when he arrived on the MCV Campus in the 1960s. Although there were few opportunities for global health experiences in those days, the entrepreneurial spirit and skills Levine would demonstrate throughout his career drove him to arrange four separate electives, each accompanied by a student fellowship that included travel, living expenses and a stipend, and each spanning several months during each of his four years of medical school.

He studied in Israel (1964), Paris (1965), Costa Rica (1966) and Pakistan (1967) where a major smallpox epidemic erupted that provided him with a clinical experience that kindled a life-long intellectual interest in smallpox. Likewise, his interest in cholera was sparked around the same time during a stay at the Cholera Research Laboratory in Dhaka, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). These consecutive international experiences indelibly imprinted and reinforced his early interests.

Forty years of scientific achievements
Levine joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1973. One year later, he founded the Center for Vaccine Development and served as its director for the next 40 years. Though he stepped down as director in 2015, Levine remains on faculty with the university.

From basic vaccine research to vaccine field trials and impact measurement, Levine’s work has had worldwide impact.

For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, emerging technologies incriminated many new bacterial, viral and protozoal agents as causes of diarrhea. By the turn of the millennium, so many new etiologic agents had been identified that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided Levine with $50 million in support to quantify the burden and identify the most important pathogens associated with moderate-to-severe diarrheal disease in children younger than age 5 years.

The BMGF-funded Global Enteric Multicenter Study was carried out in four sites in sub-Saharan Africa and three in South Asia where collectively 80 percent of diarrheal disease deaths occur globally in children under age 5 years. The study’s findings have had a powerful influence on research priorities and on the implementation of vaccines and other interventions.

A determined scientist responds to global public health needs
Levine’s leadership has been sought repeatedly by the World Health Organization. In 1975, he was in Bangladesh — the last country in Asia to eliminate smallpox — when smallpox transmission was interrupted. And as recently as 2014, when the devastating epidemic of Ebola struck West Africa, he was asked to organize Phase 1 clinical trials of one Ebola vaccine in Mali and assist in a historic Phase 3 efficacy field trial in Guinea of another.

He has received many honors for his work including the Rank of “Grand Officer of the National Order of Mali” from the President of Mali, an honor traditionally bestowed only upon heads of state. In 2007, the VCU School of Medicine honored him with its Outstanding Medical Alumnus Award.

“Mike Levine sets a goal and does not stop until he reaches it,” says Kathy Neuzil, M.D., M.P.H., FIDSA, who succeeds him as only the second director of the CVD, and marvels at his unfailing energy and work ethic. “He outworks everyone in the room and shows no signs of slowing down!”

And that is very good news for the future of global public health.

You can read more about Levine’s career as a pioneer of the modern discipline of vaccinology in a profile published in the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases 2017 awards program and in the blog post “Celebrating Infectious Disease Heroes.”