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02
2018

Biostatistics alumna turns award into chance to honor mentor

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

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

“Stop. Think. Tell the story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Janet Showalter

21
2018

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

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

Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Scott Harris

21
2018

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

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

Teri Stockham, PhD'87 (PHTX)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Polly Roberts

08
2018

Advocating for children: alumnus Wil J. Blechman honored at Alpha Omega Alpha honor society induction

Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58

Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58

Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58, wants to talk about babies.

In fact, advocating for the world’s youngest citizens — those under the age of 5 — has been his consuming focus since retiring from his medical practice in 1994. And on April 27, he was honored for this work as the 2018 alumni inductee — and keynote speaker — at the School of Medicine’s Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society annual banquet and induction ceremony.

During his more-than-30-year career as a rheumatologist mostly focused on older adults, Blechman acknowledges, the developmental needs of young children were far from his professional concern.

In 1990, however, he assumed the role of president for Kiwanis International and in that position helped the organization select the focus for a new charitable initiative. Consultation with a wide range of experts led Blechman and the Kiwanis to understand the vital importance of the early-childhood years for brain development and lifelong health, well-being and success — and thus was born what would become Kiwanis International’s now-longstanding worldwide service program: Young Children Priority One. It was also the start of Blechman’s “second career,” as he sometimes refers to it, as an advocate on behalf of young children. Since that time, he has played an active role in a number of charitable and public organizations concerned with the well-being of young children.

At the AOA banquet, Blechman, sporting his signature bow tie, spoke to the gathering about the essential role that environment plays in early childhood. During this period, he explained, the brain undergoes tremendous growth, building neural connections at an astonishing rate. But in this time the brain is also uniquely affected — for good or for ill — by environment and experience. “There is tremendous input from the environment in the first few years of life,” he says.

Significantly, chronic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, family instability and exposure to violence or substance-use disorders can cause lasting harm to developing brains. That carries consequences for learning and behavior as well as mental and physical health that can reach across the lifespan. Children living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to being exposed to such adverse childhood experiences.

“There are communities in which you go 20 blocks and there is 10 years’ difference in life expectancy because of the difference of income in those 20 blocks,” Blechman says.

However, early intervention can make a difference — and the earlier, the better. “‘Zero to three’ is where it starts,” says Blechman, referencing the national nonprofit organization that operates under that name.

During this period of rapid brain development, providing resources — such as high-quality early childhood education or parenting support programs — that foster healthy development can help offset the negative consequences of adverse childhood experiences. Yet, pointing out that “in too many cases, we wait too long,” he called upon his audience to make this cause their own. “Let the legacy of this group be of activism for early childhood,” he concluded, “and we will all be better off for it.”

Blechman’s call to action was appropriately in the spirit of the occasion of the Alpha Omega Alpha induction ceremony. Founded in 1902, AOA is the only medical school honor society worldwide and seeks to recognize and perpetuate excellence in the medical profession. Membership in the society “confers recognition for a physician’s dedication to the profession and art of healing” that Blechman’s work has personified.

In addition to Blechman, 14 members of the medical school’s Class of 2018 and 19 members of the Class of 2019 were inducted into the School of Medicine’s Brown Sequard chapter of AOA, along with faculty members Gautham Kalahasty, M.D., and Vikram Brar, M’03, H’07, as well as housestaff Chris Young, M’16, Avinash Pillutla, M’15, and Hiba Alam, M.D.

By Caroline Kettlewell

08
2018

More than a game: baseball tour connects father-son alumni, raises money for charity

Neil Rosenberg, M'78, and Ron Rosenberg, M'18, at a Chicago White Sox game

Neil Rosenberg, M’78, and Ron Rosenberg, M’18, at a Chicago White Sox game in April 2018.

Ron Rosenberg, M’18, always knew he wanted to see a game in every Major League Baseball stadium. The lifelong baseball fan even found the perfect time to do it, plotting out a cross-country trip to 30 parks in 60 days between medical school and residency.

Along the way, the Chicago native discovered something special about his tour of America’s pastime. Turns out, it was about much more than baseball.

It was about helping others by raising money for Sportable, a Richmond, Virginia, nonprofit where Rosenberg volunteered during medical school. Sportable provides adaptive sports and recreation opportunities for athletes with physical and visual disabilities.

It was about family. Rosenberg’s love of all sports comes from his father and fellow alumnus Neil Rosenberg, M’78. In particular, his love of baseball — Chicago White Sox baseball — comes from his dad. It was their trip to Game 2 of the 2005 World Series and the game-winning, walk-off home run by White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik that sealed the younger Rosenberg’s White Sox fandom for life.

Lastly, the trip was about hospitality. Friends and family opened their homes to Rosenberg as he spent two months traveling across the country. Medical school friends joined him for the game in Baltimore. Fans from coast to coast welcomed him to their stadiums as he experienced the unique flavor (and flavors) each park had to offer.

At Marlins Park, Rosenberg’s first stop on the tour, Miami Marlins left-fielder Derek Dietrich even tossed him a ball in the stands between innings.

“That was the first MLB ball I’ve gotten in my life,” Rosenberg says. “He had no idea about my tour. It was totally random.”

If you’re a believer in baseball superstitions, this was a pretty good sign the tour was going to go well.

“The tour was a blast for so many reasons,” Rosenberg says.

He has raised nearly $3,000 for Sportable on his fundraising website … and counting. “It’s made the tour even more fun to combine it with raising money and awareness for Sportable,” Rosenberg says. “I wanted to support a local organization that could feel the impact.”

"The blue seat marks where Paul Konerko landed his unforgettable grand slam in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series, a game my pops took me to that is still the greatest sporting event I've ever attended," Ron Rosenberg says.

“The blue seat marks where Paul Konerko landed his unforgettable grand slam in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series, a game my pops took me to that is still the greatest sporting event I’ve ever attended,” Ron Rosenberg says.

Rosenberg will begin his residency in family medicine later this month at Presence St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago. His father, a pulmonologist with Chicago’s Chest Medicine Consultants, points to his son’s Sportable fundraising as an indicator of what attracted him to the medical field.

“I think one of the reasons Ron went into medicine, and is going into family practice, is that he sees you can combine different interests in your career to use them in a positive way,” Neil Rosenberg says. “The idea he could take a passion and combine it with something that benefits the community, and brings awareness and financial support, is a good lesson to learn.”

Neil Rosenberg understands the value of exposure to new people and places. During the summer between his first and second year on the MCV Campus, he and classmate Charles Wilson, M’78, lived in Israel for one month, where Rosenberg worked in a kibbutz, or farm, traveled to Italy and Greece, and met his future wife.

“I always told the kids about the trip, how it’s where I met their mother, how it changed my life,” Rosenberg says. “It made me a better doctor and gave me a little perspective. It was my first time out of the country.” Rosenberg and his wife, Tamar, have four sons, including Ron.

“The most fun of being a parent is seeing your children develop differently and go through their life choices,” Rosenberg says. “You watch them grow, change, mature, make mistakes, change again. That’s the beauty of parenthood. You see everything.”

On April 21, Rosenberg joined his son on his tour for the White Sox game. The team lost 10-1 to the defending champion Houston Astros. But that was OK — it was about more than baseball.

“The only pictures that matter from my stop at the White Sox game are the ones with my dad, who took me to my first baseball game and tossed a ball with me as a kid,” Ron Rosenberg says.

He credits his father for helping him find his path, both in sports and medicine. “He helped me get to where I am today. I’m very thankful to have him.”

By Polly Roberts

24
2018

Supporting the next generation of physicians

Eric Freeman, M’02, returned to campus as the speaker at the medical school’s Second Look program.

Eric Freeman, M’02, returned to campus as the speaker at the medical school’s Second Look program.

For Eric Freeman, M’02, life is all about giving back.

“So many people gave their time, talent and treasure to mentor me and allow me to be successful. I believe that much of my success was because of my upbringing and I am around an outstanding family, my church and my community,” he says. “Now, my practice has become a ministry for me, and what better way to pay back those who helped me than to give back to my local community.”

In addition to running a busy private practice, Old Dominion Pediatrics in Richmond, Freeman volunteers with the Richmond Academy of Medicine and with the health ministry at his church, Providence Park Baptist.

He’s also committed to supporting the next generation of physicians.

That’s why he returned to the MCV Campus recently to share his experiences, learnings and advice with prospective medical students. The medical school’s Second Look program gives applicants who are members of underrepresented minorities a chance to explore the school’s programs in more depth. Each year, a weekend of activities is organized by the School of Medicine’s Office of Student Outreach, along with VCU’s chapters of the Student National Medical Association and Latino Medical Student Association. The weekend offers opportunities to interact with faculty and current students in a more relaxed atmosphere than the usual formal tours and interviews.

Freeman credits his family – his mother was a teacher, father a masonry contractor, and two aunts were physicians – for inspiring and encouraging him. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from the College of William & Mary, he found support in medical school from a variety of faculty members. He credits family medicine physician Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, now the senior associate dean for admissions, with keeping him grounded and treating him like family. Cheryl Al-Mateen, M.D., associate professor and child psychiatrist, taught him about the importance of mental health in children, something he spends a great deal of time addressing in his practice today. Linda Costanzo, Ph.D., professor emerita of physiology and biophysics, he said, was an amazing mentor and teacher. And the late Thomas Tucker, M.Ed., director of the Health Careers Opportunity Program at VCU, opened doors to the profession.

Freeman is proud of the education he received in the School of Medicine and is determined to continue the tradition of supporting others. “I think alumni have a responsibility to give back. The reason I am who I am is that there were so many people who took time with me to provide me knowledge and to give me a chance. I think that has made me a better person, a better pediatrician and a better physician.”

Donna Jackson, Ed D., assistant dean for admissions in the School of Medicine, has noticed Freeman’s commitment to others ever since he was a student on the MCV Campus.

“At VCU’s School of Medicine, service is important, and Dr. Freeman is one who got that idea,” Jackson says. “As a student, he always expressed a desire to serve in communities of need in Richmond and continued that when he returned to Richmond after residency to fulfill his life-long aspiration to practice in his hometown. Our current students can be inspired by Dr. Freeman’s journey to set goals that continually include service to others. Whether at home or in a new city or state, we want our students to give back. There is no better example of one giving back than Dr. Freeman.”

Freeman stresses that he’s just paying it forward. “It’s important to reach back and bring people along on the journey. That means a great deal to me.”

As part of that pledge, he assured Second Look participants that he would be available for students and residents alike looking for a mentor.

He also gave them some advice. “First of all, stay humble and stay hungry. People will want to help you and add to your life and to your worth. Also, when you’re humble, doors will open to you to guide you on your journey.”

The other thing, Freeman notes, is to be committed and to be consistent. He’s fond of a Denzel Washington quote: “Without commitment, you’ll never start, but more importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

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Updated: 04/29/2016