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How a career in emergency medicine introduced the Class of 2007’s Laura Diegelmann to helicopters and kangaroos

Laura Diegelmann sitting in a plane

Early in her career, emergency medicine physician Laura Diegelmann, M’07, spent a year in Australia with the Royal Flying Doctors.

Laura Diegelmann, M’07, was mesmerized by the stories her father used to share around the dinner table.

She was a teenager then, but remembers vividly the detailed accounts of life and death he gave while volunteering with the local rescue squad. She knew then that what she was hearing would shape the rest of her life.

“I think it was the excitement that drew me in,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

When she turned 16, Diegelmann signed up as a volunteer EMT with the rescue squad near her Richmond-area home. Her father, Robert Diegelmann, Ph.D. — a longtime faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology – was often the driver, and the two headed out on calls together.

“It was amazing,” she said. “That sealed the deal for me.”

Her experience as an EMT confirmed her desire to work in emergency medicine. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from VCU in 2002, she worked for a year on the MCV Campus as a tech in the emergency room. She entered medical school the following year.

During her third year, she completed an internal medicine rotation in Alaska. While there, her supervising physician introduced her to the crew of Guardian Flight. Diegelmann flew a few times with them to remote areas of the state providing emergency care to those in need. The adventure exposed her to a whole new world.

Laura Diegelmann sitting in a plane

While in Cape Town, South Africa, to teach ultrasound to emergency medicine residents, Diegelmann also had the chance to share the technology with local school children.

“It combined all the ambulance stuff I love – and then you get to throw an airplane into the mix,” she said. “Who could ask for more?”

Diegelmann completed her emergency medicine residency at the University of Maryland, then packed her bags for Australia, where she spent a year with the Royal Flying Doctors.

“Living somewhere I’d never been before was exciting in itself,” she said. “But then I’m putting on a flight suit and rappelling out of helicopters to treat patients. Wow!”

Many of her missions involved transferring patients from small clinics in the Outback to larger hospitals. She also responded to traumas at farms or to other medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke. Many times, the places she flew to were so remote that she didn’t see a house for miles. She and her team often landed next to open fields.

“Sometimes we would have to circle around to scare the kangaroos from the airstrip,” she said.

While she loved the adventure, one year away from her parents and four siblings was enough. She returned to the states and completed a fellowship in emergency medicine ultrasound at the University of Maryland.

Laura Diegelmann with a leopard

In her travels overseas, Diegelmann has visited gorillas in Rwanda and this leopard in South Africa.>

In 2013, the travel bug hit again. This time, she ventured to Cape Town, South Africa, to teach emergency ultrasound at a local hospital. She also was involved with an ongoing study that continues to examine whether the early intervention of ultrasound in severely septic patients makes a difference in treatment plans.

“I really formed an attachment to South Africa,” Diegelmann said. “You really feel appreciated there. Patients there can travel all day just to see a doctor. They are there because they truly need help — they truly need you. It makes me realize why I became a doctor in the first place. To help people.”

After South Africa, Diegelmann headed to Rwanda and has been back a second time teaching emergency ultrasound at the main hospital there. She leaves at the end of August for Liberia, where she will spend a month teaching emergency ultrasound to the residents at JFK Hospital.

All the while she remains on faculty and as an emergency room physician at the University of Maryland.

“I really start to miss home when I am gone,” Diegelmann said. “Every time I go, I say this will be my last one. But it’s hard to walk away from. It’s so rewarding. I’m not only expanding my own knowledge and experience, but I know I’m making a difference. I think that’s why most of us go into medicine in the first place. We want to do our part.”

By Janet Showalter


Class of 1979’s Rebecca Bigoney returns to campus to talk medical ethics with incoming first-year students

Rebecca Bigoney, M79

Rebecca Bigoney, M’79

When students first arrive at medical school, they expect to dive right into the hard science that will form the basis of their medical knowledge. This year, Rebecca Bigoney, M’79, got the chance to show incoming first-year students another side of medicine that is equally important, yet often overlooked by students early in their medical education. This fall she returned to the MCV Campus to talk about medical ethics and the puzzling dilemmas the members of the Class of 2019 will assuredly encounter at some point in their careers.

Bigoney has confronted a wide variety situations involving medical ethics over the course of her career, which includes 18 years in private practice and a term as vice president of medical affairs at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Va., where she now works as chief medical officer.

She shared some of her experiences with students as a guest speaker for the “Patient, Physician, and Society” curriculum. Her talk illustrated the complex situations that doctors can encounter at what Bigoney called “the intersection of ethics, liability, policy and reality.”

She told the stories of a patient who declined kidney surgery because a travelling preacher told her she had been cured, factory workers exposed to dangerous heavy metals with no protections from their company and a wife who tried to interfere with her husband’s treatment because of the race of his doctor.

These types of situations, Bigoney explained, require doctors to weigh medical, ethical and procedural decisions to arrive at acceptable, though often imperfect, conclusions.

For many of the assembled students these were new situations and questions they hadn’t previously considered. Students asked frequent questions throughout Bigoney’s presentation, wanting to clarify the decisions she’d made to resolve certain situations. At a student’s prompting, she walked the class through her logic in a hypothetical mass casualty situation — which patients would receive priority, how limited hospital resources might be divided up and how legal liability factors into such decisions.

Bigoney made sure to remind the students that “the ethical problems you face most likely will not be catastrophic or dramatic like the ones I’ve described, but you’ll encounter ethical challenges every day.”

Mark Ryan, M’00, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine, was also on hand to help facilitate the presentation. He praised Bigoney for showing students that “being a good doctor is more than knowing biochemistry or physiology — it is about learning to work with people, and the often complicated and difficult situations in which they find themselves.”

Even after the presentation was over, students lined up to ask her questions one-on-one. Although they may be years from having their own patients and making ethical decisions on their own, the Class of 2019 showed Bigoney that they intend to fully explore these complex questions so that they too can make the right ethical decisions when the time comes.

By Jack Carmichael


“You don’t have to leave the United States to find a need.”

Kelli McFarlingThis summer, the Class of 2018’s Kelli McFarling (second from right) traveled to both Honduras and Wise County, Virginia, to help provide health care to the underserved. She was struck by the similarities shared by the patients she met.

The Class of 2018’s Kelli McFarling knew the need for medical care was great in Honduras. But she had no idea how overwhelmed she would feel trying to do her part.

“I know any little dent we can make is a good thing,” said the rising second-year medical student. “But it’s frustrating to see how much needs to be done.”

Kelli was one of about 32 students from the VCU School of Medicine to participate this summer in HOMBRE (Humanitarian Outreach Medical Brigade Relief Effort). Started in 2000, this medical mission trip, organized by first-year students under guidance of faculty from the schools of medicine and pharmacy, takes place the summer before their second year. What began with mission trips just to Honduras has grown over the years to include four sites – Honduras – Norte; the Dominican Republic; Peru; and Honduras – Pinares.

“I learned so much about disease from both a pathological and population health perspective,” Kelli said. “It definitely makes me want to be a doctor even more.”

A few weeks after returning from Honduras, Kelli hit the road again, but this time she remained in the United States. As a member of the RAM (Remote Area Medical) team, she traveled to Wise County with 11 other medical students in July to a temporary clinic that provides free medical, dental and eye care to more than 2,500 patients from 16 states.

Did you know?

HOMBRE was first organized as the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigada Relief Effort when students and faculty were traveling only to Honduras. As HOMBRE grew to include more sites, the name changed last year to reflect that growth. HOMBRE is now known as the Humanitarian Outreach Medical Brigade Relief Effort.

“It was an incredible experience to go to both places and see what it was like to be in a third-world country, and then come right back here to Virginia and see the similarities,” Kelli said. “You don’t have to leave the United States to find a need.”

This marked RAM’s eleventh year at Wise. The 12 medical students were among 1,000 volunteers on this year’s RAM team that included physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, podiatrists, respiratory therapists, lab technicians and radiologists.

“Our patients here don’t have access to medical care because the area is so rural,” said Kevin J. Lee, M’09, who led VCU’s RAM team this year. “In addition to not having health care facilities, many can’t afford health insurance, or the insurance they can afford has huge deductibles.”

The three-day clinic is an invaluable experience for students, Lee said, because it takes them outside their comfort zones.

Kevin J. LeeKevin J. Lee, M’09, has volunteered with Remote Area Medical in Wise County, Virginia, for five years. This summer he led VCU’s RAM team.

“They are seeing things they may not necessarily be exposed to otherwise,” he said. “For example, in school they generally listen to normal heart and lung sounds, or somewhat well managed chronic problems. Here, they tend to hear far more unusual murmurs or lung sounds, as well as complex medical conditions stemming from longstanding untreated chronic medical problems and a significant lack of resources.”

At this year’s clinic, many patients waited in line all day to see a doctor. When they first entered the triage area, they were seen by volunteer nurses. The general medical team then met with them, with third- and fourth-year medical students conducting interviews and evaluations under the supervision of attending physicians. From there, they were either set up with a treatment plan or directed to other specialties.

“I was all over the place,” Kelli said. “I helped with pelvic exams, I helped remove skin lesions and even assisted with tooth extractions. That’s what makes RAM so special – the interprofessional care. It was amazing as a student to have this kind of experience.”

HOMBRE provides interprofessional care as well, with medical, pharmacy and physical therapy students working alongside faculty from VCU’s Medical College of Virginia Campus to treat the medically underserved. This summer, for example, the Dominican Republic team treated about 900 patients over a 10-day period.

“We empower the students to be the primary care providers,” said Mark Ryan, M’00, a site leader for the Dominican Republic team and assistant professor for the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. “We are asking a lot, but they answer to it. We have a lot of confidence in them.”

A working medical student Twelve VCU medical students were among 1,000 volunteers on this year’s RAM team. Physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, podiatrists, respiratory therapists, lab technicians and radiologists provided care to more than 2,500 patients from 16 states.

Students worked in pairs. A medical student might have been paired with a pharmacy student, for example, so they could experience team-based care. They conducted patient interviews, performed exams and presented their findings to faculty. They worked as a team to formulate a treatment plan. This approach allows student teams to independently evaluate patients, while ensuring necessary supervision and teaching takes place.

“They are not only providing meaningful service, but come out of it with significant professional growth,” said Ryan, medical director of the Hayes E. Willis Health Center. “They are seeing such a wide range of cases, which really builds their confidence.”

Whether the students are volunteering with RAM or HOMBRE, the cases they see can be quite similar. Patients are often suffering from hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, depression, chronic back issues, arthritis and tooth decay. In Wise, where long-term tobacco use is common, many patients also suffer from respiratory issues and even cancer.

“The similarities were shocking,” Kelli said. “In Honduras, I became appreciative of the aspects of health related to infrastructure. Lack of clean drinking water, working plumbing and health literacy were all major factors negatively impacting patients’ health. Lasting impacts in Honduras require more than just a few day’s work. In rural Virginia, the basic infrastructure was in place, but access to health care is limited by costs and distance.”

In both locations, patients return year after year, often seeking out the same doctor or student they saw the year before.

“This summer, a man I see every year came up and gave me a big hug,” said Lee, who has been traveling to Wise for five years. “He had this smile on his face as he told me he had found a job and would have health insurance. He was so proud.

“The best part was he was there this year to sign up as a RAM volunteer. After all those years of being the one in need, he was back to serve. That was so incredible to hear and very emotional for me. What a testament to how much the people in the community feel we are making a difference.”

By Janet Showalter


Alumnus and faculty member Mark Hom teams up with cycling legend to spotlight the science of fitness

Mark Hom, H’92

His interest in physical fitness led Mark Hom, H’92, to write a book that focuses on the crucial role mitochondria play in exercise, disease prevention and nutrition. Here he’s pictured breaking away on a Richmond Area Bicycling Association club ride. Photo by Allan Cooper

As he approached his 50th birthday, Mark Hom, H’92, made a pact with his wife that they would try to stay in great shape as they got older. They both took up cycling and, after struggling to pedal only a few miles when they first began, they now log thousands of miles on their bikes each year. His interest in physical fitness, and in cycling specifically, led him to write a book on the subject. “The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance and Endurance” focuses on the crucial role mitochondria play in exercise, disease prevention and nutrition.

In a recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch by Louis Llovio, Hom described how mitochondria – the power plants of our cells – convert food and body fat into the energy we need to exercise. Mitochondria multiply in response to intense exercise and diminish from lack of activity. Because their role in fitness and health is so central, it’s important to take care of your mitochondria to ensure top physical performance and to prevent the diseases of the modern age such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome.

“My analogy is that since mitochondria are inside your body and inside your cells, it is up to you to be a good shepherd to your mitochondrial flock by feeding them, making them strong and protecting them.” That translates into supplying them with good nutrition and exercising with intensity, while avoiding toxins that might weaken them.

“The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance and Endurance” can be found online at Amazon.com. The book is also available in Richmond at Barnes and Noble’s Libbie and Short Pump locations.

When he began writing the book, Hom, an assistant professor of radiology at the School of Medicine, started thinking about examples to demonstrate the importance of mitochondria’s role in fitness. As a cyclist, his thoughts quickly turned to one of the sport’s legends: Greg LeMond. LeMond. The two-time World Champion and three-time Tour de France winner obviously had superior mitochondria to power those wins but also suffered a near-fatal hunting accident in 1987 that knocked him out of cycling at the peak of his career.

After he recovered from his wounds, LeMond rebuilt his fitness to win again, but later suffered from muscle weakness and a lack of endurance. A muscle biopsy revealed the hallmark ragged red fibers of mitochondrial myopathy.

Mark Hom, H’92

Mark Hom, H’92

Hom, familiar with LeMond’s story, says this diagnosis was a seminal event in mitochondrial disease awareness. The lead shotgun pellets from the accident leaked toxins into LeMond’s body, damaging his mitochondria and prolonging his recovery time. Diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy, LeMond was forced to retire from bike racing in 1994 when he still should have been in his prime years.

Because LeMond’s story presents such a poignant example of the connection between mitochondria and fitness, Hom decided on a whim to send an early draft of his book to the famous cyclist.

To his surprise, LeMond responded with a long email and agreed to co-author the book. LeMond, who always sought coaches knowledgeable in physiology, says that physical training needs a more scientific approach as described in this book, something that trendy fitness books tend to lack. He has also gained a deeper understanding of how mitochondria shaped the high and lows of his cycling career.

Hom hopes that his book can be a guide for others looking to get in shape and understand the science behind fitness.

“My book is meant to help anyone at any age or fitness level to be as energetic and healthy as possible. We have different chapters on exercise, nutrition, maintaining muscle mass, slowing the aging process, and staying mentally sharp. Getting older is difficult enough. You don’t want to get old and have diseases too, especially diseases that can be largely prevented with exercise. For younger readers it explains why exercise should begin at an early age, in this era of childhood obesity.”

For his part, Hom plans to continue tending his mitochondrial flock on long, intense bike rides with his wife.

By Jack Carmichael


Alumnus Patrick Stover, Ph.D. named president of the American Society for Nutrition

Patrick Stover

Patrick Stover, PhD’90 (BIOC)

The American Society for Nutrition has elected Patrick Stover, PhD’90 (BIOC), president of the national organization that seeks to bring to together top researchers, clinicians and industry leaders to advance the understanding and application of nutrition. He plans to use his term as president to increase engagement between the diverse institutions that study nutrition by promoting collaboration between chemists, physicians, economists, politicians and others who make up the field.

Stover, professor and director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, said in an article for ASN’s newsletter that he will rely on his experience engaging students and academic departments as he seeks to create greater cohesiveness across the diverse field of nutrition. “Individuals, especially academics, have lots of choices these days, and one of the questions is how do you create loyalty – that is, establish real, firm connections between your organization and your membership.”

He has identified five initiatives that he hopes will increase ASN’s value to its members and foster a sense of belonging in the organization. He hopes to strengthen ASN’s connections with academic departments, develop a system of graduate student organizations around the world, expand ASN’s global visibility and authority, assure that ASN programming meets the diverse needs of its members and develop a new strategic plan for the organization.

These goals make clear just how expansive the field of nutrition is, as well as how important ASN’s role is in promoting collaboration and communication among its members. “We need to reach out to all members of the society and think about how we’re going to position ourselves as the leading authority in nutrition and the go-to academic home for nutrition research,” Stover said.

He wants the organization to move away from expressing its own, sometimes divisive, opinions and ideas, as was the case in the past when nutritional information was often based on opinion rather than evidence-based science. Rather, he sees ASN’s role as a “trusted and neutral broker” that promotes the exchange of ideas between members.

“People who want blue bananas can argue for blue bananas and people who want yellow bananas can argue for yellow bananas. We just look at the merits of those arguments and identify what we need to move forward to solve those problems.”

By promoting inclusiveness and collaboration, Stover aims to make the organization a home for everyone during his time as ASN’s president and welcomes faculty, practitioners and students with an interest in nutrition to engage with the organization and attend its scientific meetings.

By Jack Carmichael


A trio of Physiology alumni speak with current students about connections and collaborations

Clockwise from top: Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12; Robert Vick, PhD’86; and John Kennedy, PhD’84

Clockwise from top: Clockwise from top: Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12; Robert Vick, PhD’86; and John Kennedy, PhD’84

Soon after Chair Diomedes Logothetis, Ph.D., arrived in 2008, he instituted an annual retreat for the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Now in its seventh year, it’s proved to be a great venue for current students to learn from alumni who’ve gone before them into the fields of research, academia and industry.

In June, three returning alumni shared lessons learned from their careers.

Both Robert Vick, PhD’86, and John Kennedy, PhD’84, arrived on the MCV Campus in the 1980s. They compared stories about what it was like in an era of time-consuming hands-on science.

“Before so many resources were available for purchase, you had to make them,” said Vick, an associate professor of biology at Elon University where he’s twice served as chair of his department.

Three decades of scientific progress mean that scientists can now buy materials like monoclonal antibodies, but Vick emphasized that the theme of steady change is the take-home message. “The technology you’ll use in 20 years doesn’t exist now.”

John Kennedy, PhD’84, agreed, encouraging the students to be adaptable and willing. For the majority of his career, Kennedy was a funded investigator building a research program in muscle development. More recently, the associate professor of physiology and biophysics turned his attention to teaching. He’s now director of physiology education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“You have to rely on the people around you,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to reach out. It’s those connections that make it interesting and lead to new directions. At each step of the way, if I hadn’t used the people and resources around me, it would have been much more difficult.”

Continuing the theme of collaboration and connections, Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12, described how – early in his career – he’s honing his networking skills as well as his laboratory techniques.

A post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology at Ohio State University, Bhattacharya arrived on the Columbus campus at the same time as his post-doc advisor. Because of it, he gained experience in setting up a lab from the ground floor. He’s now exploring whether he’d like a career in industry.

“Social media is a great tool, but you have to use it judiciously to brand yourself,” he said. “It’s one route for reaching out. I’ll ask for an informational interview about a job I might be interested in, and people are happy to help.”

Bhattacharya described how he is also pursuing a masters of business administration from Fisher College of Business to further his goal of getting his foot in the door of the biotech industry.

For students considering a teaching career at a liberal arts college like Elon in North Carolina, Vick shared his view, gained from the challenge of making his physiology class fresh for a new set of students – even for the 75th time.

“It’s a chance to pique their interest. That is why I love doing it. It’s their first exposure, and it will hopefully propel them on to a health professions or science career.”

A fan of teaching, Vick is also a visiting scholar with Duke University’s Preparing Future Faculty program, but he noted there’s no place like an undergrad campus for rubbing shoulders with a truly diverse set of faculty.

During a Q&A session with the students, Kennedy recalled what it had been like to be in the shoes of his audience.

“You have successes, failures and screw-ups. I came to grad school not very confident in my abilities. I almost quit because I thought I didn’t have the chops. But, slowly, I got past the first semester. It took the faculty’s support to get me through.

“There’s no one who doesn’t hit a roadblock. But when you do, look close to home. You have more resources than you realize in the faculty and students around you.”