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24
2018

‘It was like life was on standby:’ VCU team returns from Puerto Rico

M2 Gabriel Martinez Alvarez walks the streets in Tao Baja during a weeklong trip to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

M2 Gabriel Martinez Alvarez walks the streets in Tao Baja during a weeklong trip to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. “I was surprised by how evident the aftermath of the hurricane still is and how much recovery there still is to do.”

An interdisciplinary team learned a great deal while providing care to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico last month. Perhaps two of the greatest lessons: even months after the September storm caused a humanitarian crisis, the situation on the island is still changing rapidly and health needs – especially mental health needs – will continue for a long time.

The VCU team included Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, associate professor of family medicine and medical director, I²CRP program; Emily Peron, Pharm.D., M.S., assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy; School of Medicine students Gabriel Martinez Alvarez and Frank Soto del Valle; School of Pharmacy student Camilla De Jesus Pinero; and clinical psychologist, Carla Shaffer, Ph.D., L.C.P.

The plan was to spend the week of Dec. 16 at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja, just west of San Juan. Ryan had visited the clinic in October and established a relationship with its organizers. But when the VCU team arrived, the patient load was significantly lighter, so the team partnered with Clinica Bantiox to expand the clinic’s reach into nearby barrios and mountain communities in the island’s center.

VCU students and faculty also worked with another clinic in Quebradillas on the western side of Puerto Rico. There, they managed acute and chronic care needs while listening to residents who needed to share stories and emotions.

Through their interactions with the community, they heard chilling stories about the devastation and its long-term effects.

“Absolutely everyone on the island was affected by the hurricane,” says the Class of 2020’s Martinez Alvarez. “I was surprised by how evident the aftermath of the hurricane still is and how much recovery there still is to do.” Months after the hurricane, he notes, electrical poles are down, debris is piled up and tarps cover many of the roofs. Many residents in the areas visited still don’t have potable water and must fill containers from streams.

An interdisciplinary team including medical school faculty and students travels to Puerto Rico with donated supplies.

An interdisciplinary team including medical school faculty and students travels to Puerto Rico with donated supplies, ready to manage acute and chronic care needs for the country’s residents.

Though Puerto Ricans’ most urgent medical needs may have been addressed for now, a slow-moving crisis still exists, Ryan says. “The emotional and psychological trauma is still a huge problem. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Clinical psychologist Shaffer agrees. “It was eye-opening to see firsthand that recovering from this storm wasn’t just a matter of recouping the tangible, it was also about rebuilding a sense of safety and normalcy.

“It really seemed life was on hold and they were finding a way for life to start moving again. I heard several people describe ‘it was like life was on standby’ and this sentiment still rang true even for those who felt the storm had spared them.”

Some residents, Shaffer adds, found the months after the storm as worse than the storm itself. “It’s the aftermath that feels harder to survive, harder still for those who had very little to begin with and continue to struggle without basic resources like electricity or water.”

With the images of the island’s devastation still fresh, Ryan hopes to work with contacts in Puerto Rico and at VCU to see if an ongoing relationship can be developed to support the Puerto Rican community and give VCU faculty and students an opportunity to gain practical experience. One possibility could be partnering with a clinic in Quebradillas. Organizers hope the facility will become a fully functional hospital in a few years.

“It felt great to be able to contribute in a small way to the long and hard rebuild that Puerto Rico is going through,” Martinez Alvarez says, adding that the experience honed skills that will be valuable in his future as a physician. “It reinforced the importance of listening and taking into account situations and environments when treating patients’ conditions.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

03
2018

Alumna and faculty member Betsy Ripley named fellow in Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine

Betsy Ripley, M'86, H'92, interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the medical school, has been named a 2017-18 fellow in the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine.

Betsy Ripley, M’86, H’92, interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the medical school, has been named a 2017-18 fellow in the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine.

The keys to becoming a successful leader, says Betsy Ripley, M’86, H’92, MS’04 (BIOS), begin with being open to the opportunities that come your way while taking time to do your current job well.

“By being a leader and doing your job well on a daily basis, you’re not just shooting for the next job. You’re contributing along the way,” Ripley says. “Be active and participate. People will remember that and you’ll be asked to do the next thing. It all builds on itself.”

Saying “yes” has led Ripley down a path to her current role as interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs for the VCU School of Medicine and, more recently, as a 2017-18 fellow with the prestigious Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine. ELAM is a year-long part-time fellowship for women faculty in schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and public health.

A core program of the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, ELAM is dedicated to developing the professional and personal skills required to lead and manage in today’s complex health environment, with special attention to the unique challenges facing women in leadership positions.

“Applicants have to be incredibly accomplished to earn their position and Dr. Ripley was accepted the first time she applied,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., who also serves as Ripley’s ELAM sponsor. “This national recognition comes as no surprise to those of us who see Betsy’s outstanding work with faculty on a daily basis. I couldn’t be more proud to see her represent our medical school as part of ELAM.”

More than 1,000 ELAM alumnae hold leadership positions in institutions around the world. The VCU School of Medicine has sponsored 12 previous ELAM fellows.

“At VCU, we have a lot of good strong women leaders — Marsha Rappley, Deborah Davis, Deborah Zimmermann, Melinda Hancock, to name a few,” Ripley says. “Phenomenal women who speak to how open VCU is to developing and growing our women.”

As part of ELAM, fellows participate in three week-long on-site training sessions in September, January and April, in addition to working on assignments and reading throughout the year, participating in the leadership online curriculum and communicating regularly with ELAM colleagues.

Each fellow works on an Institutional Action Project that aligns with her experiences and meets an organizational goal or need at her home university. Ripley chose a cause near and dear to her heart: education and training for faculty members.

“In medical school, we don’t go to class to become a faculty member,” she says. “You come up through the ranks and — poof! — you’re a faculty member.”

In an effort to ensure that faculty development opportunities at the medical school better meet faculty’s needs, Ripley is cataloging each development opportunity offered through the school, assigning it to a particular competency (general knowledge, leadership, scholarship or teaching and service) and determining where more resources are needed.

“We offer a lot of development opportunities but what do our faculty truly need to grow and become successful?” Ripley asks. “Along the way, what they need to know may change. What resources are needed for that growth?”

Ripley will present her project at ELAM’s on-site meeting in April not only to this year’s 54-member ELAM class, but to a host of deans, including Buckley, who will attend the final session. Networking and mentoring opportunities among national leaders is a key component of ELAM’s ultimate goal to expand the national pool of qualified women candidates for leadership in academic medicine, dentistry and public health.

She attributes her leadership success to a multitude of mentors at the medical school: Domenic Sica, M.D., Berry Fowler, M.D., John Nestler, M.D., and Dick Wenzel, M.D., all in the Department of Internal Medicine, as well as retired senior associate dean of faculty affairs P.J. Coney, M.D., and, now, Dean of Medicine Buckley.

“I’m blessed to be at an institution that’s recognized the leadership skills within me,” says Ripley, who earned her medical degree at VCU and remained on the MCV Campus to complete residency training. “I’m lucky many people have helped me when I needed it and encouraged me along the way.”

Ripley remembers a “say yes” moment when early in her career, she applied for a National Institutes of Health K Award at the encouragement of Wenzel and Fowler. She received the award and it led her to sit on a panel of VCU’s Institutional Review Board, of which she later became senior chair. It sparked an interest in research ethics that led to a master’s degree from the Department of Biostatistics, an AMA ethics fellowship, and the role as clinical research compliance officer for the university.

Ultimately, her clinical and research experience, combined with her dual role as a mother to three sons, led her to faculty affairs, first in the Department of Internal Medicine and later in the School of Medicine.

“I can speak to the variety of challenges faculty members might face, both in the workplace and at home,” Ripley says.

Sometimes, it only takes that one voice telling — and showing — others it’s possible that can make all the difference. It was in her medical school interview on the MCV Campus with a female faculty member when Ripley heard the words that molded how she approached medicine, a career and family.

“She said ‘you can do it all — if you want to,'” Ripley says. “I had that one woman who told me I could.”

Now she serves as that one voice of encouragement for faculty members across the School of Medicine, taking her place as a role model and mentor for countless others.

By Polly Roberts

12
2017

Art class gives medical students new tools for wellness, empathy and fighting burnout

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey.

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey. The popular 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening. Scroll below for more pictures from the painting workshop.

A room of medical students sit nervously in front of their assignment. As they wait for instructions, they inspect the tools they will use, eyeing other students, seeing how they hold the instruments. For more than half the class, it’s the first time they’ve ever performed this kind of work.

It’s unlike any other class they have taken. “There is no quiz. There is no test,” says Steve Sawyer, Ph.D., a retired professor and former vice chair in the VCU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, as he welcomes students to the class. Then he adds with a knowing look:

“You don’t have to compete with each other.”

The students’ laughter fills the room. They’re not standing at the side of a cadaver waiting their turn to dissect or preparing for their first suture. They’re sitting at an easel contemplating a blank canvas. Their tools are brushes and a palette filled with the colors to paint the Richmond city skyline. For the next two hours, they’re artists.

The mood is light as the students get to work on their paintings, filling the canvas with skies of blue, purple and orange. They’re led by an instructor from Art for the Journey, a Richmond nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to groups as a way to inspire healing and peace. For M3 Ashley Craddock, it’s just the change of pace she needed.

“I’m loving it so far,” says Craddock as she paints the skyline and James River. “I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to not be thinking about medicine. Eighty percent of my day is medicine.”

That’s the beauty of art, says Melissa Bradner, M.D., M.S.H.A., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health who put together the series of third-year wellness workshops that include the Art for the Journey class. The wellness workshops are the result of a collaboration between Project HEART and the medical school’s Physician, Patient and Society course.

A holistic approach

Both Project HEART and the Physician, Patient and Society course span all four years of medical school and speak to the medical school’s commitment to education students on the importance of learning how to interact and empathize with patients, and how to take care of themselves, as they prepare to enter a profession known for its high burnout rate.

The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that “bringing the humanities and arts into medical education is one way to help students form deeper connections with patients, maintain joy in medicine, and develop empathy and resiliency.”

The PPS course encompasses the humanistic, ethical and legal responsibility of physicians to their patients and society. Topics covered include career and professional development, the physician-patient relationship, integrative/complementary medicine, palliative care, spirituality, health disparities, physician bias and cultural competency, and the practical application of ethics and law to the practice of medicine.

Through Project HEART, an initiative to remind students to health with empathy, acceptance, respect and integrity, incoming students are assigned to small groups that meet at least eight times during their first year, and then throughout their medical school career — all under the mentorship of faculty or staff members who provide guidance, assistance and support.

“Physicians and medical students spend their whole life getting A’s and it’s how you define yourself,” says Bradner, adding that the only criteria for the art workshop is that you participate. “You connect with yourself on a completely different level.”

The wellness workshops also include classes in mindfulness training, food and mood, and exercise in medicine.

“It helps to go someplace else for a little while,” says Mary Blumberg, M.D., an internist and pathologist who has painted for 20 years. Along with Sawyer, she spoke to the class about her experiences finding art as a place of well-being. “Painting is a forgiving place. In reality, it can be whatever you want it to be. What matters is what you want. Green sky and pink water? Go for it.”

Turns out, students were hungry for the right-brain experience. The 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening.

A lasting impact
The Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao, who is pursuing a dual M.D./M.H.A., completed the Art for the Journey class in 2016. An experiential learner, she says she appreciated the opportunity to learn by doing.

“It was a great experience to do something different and have the opportunity to recharge after a long string of months on the wards,” Chiao says. “You were able to experience well-being and self-care concepts and were more likely to realize the value of these things to our ability to continue caring for our patients.”

At the start of each class, Cynthia Paullin, Art for the Journey’s assistant executive director, details the organization’s work in the community with dementia patients and incarcerated women. Chiao was so inspired by the stories that she contacted Paullin to volunteer with the dementia patients. She has volunteered at two sessions where she was paired with an elder with early onset dementia.

“As a volunteer, I am an assistant to my elder partner’s creative space and provide support of her artistic efforts,” Chiao says. “We do not make any decisions for our partners. We just provide them the space, time and opportunity to be creative.”

Chiao says she has been a dancer most of her life and knows she is a happier person when she makes time for it, a lesson she learned as she studied for the national medical licensing exam. “To me, I cannot take care of my future patients the way they deserve to be taken care of if I do not make sure that I am healthy and happy in my own life. Provider resiliency is critical in our ability to provide high quality and safe care to the patients that we serve.”

That’s why Bradner’s goal is to expand the art initiative so every medical student can participate.

“Addressing physician burnout is important, especially for these students who were biochemistry majors,” she says. “They’ve had science their whole lives and not necessarily an education that includes art or music. Art is a tremendous outlet to use your brain differently and decompress. For me, art is a way to connect with a different part of myself that is really important to happiness.”

Story by Polly Roberts; photos by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.

12
2017

VCU team heads to Puerto Rico

The medical school's Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy's Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The medical school’s Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy’s Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. They’ll lead a VCU team to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja.

Students and faculty alike usually want to kick back and relax once the fall semester ends. But an interprofessional team from VCU instead will pack up donated supplies and use their skills in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The VCU team includes Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, assistant professor of family medicine and medical director, I²CRP program; Emily Peron, Pharm.D., M.S., assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy; School of Medicine students Gabriel Martinez Alvarez and Frank Soto del Valle; School of Pharmacy student Camilla De Jesus Pinero; and Carla Shaffer, Ph.D., L.C.P., a clinical psychologist. They’ll fly to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja, just west of San Juan.

Hurricane Maria, the tenth-most intense hurricane recorded, made landfall on Sept. 20, causing a humanitarian crisis and devastating damage.

Ryan was introduced to the clinic in October when he participated in a medical service trip with colleagues from other universities. “I got to meet some organizations I feel will be good partners and that are providing community-oriented care. What we don’t want to do is go down there and set up our own thing disconnected from other efforts.”

He believes that the VCU team will be able to staff the clinic while some of its regular staff does community outreach, or the team will be able to do the outreach themselves to relieve weary workers. Puerto Rico has a reciprocal agreement so that licensed clinicians can practice there as long as they are registered with government officials.

Ryan believes that the group will serve a vital purpose. “Having been there and seeing the need in chronic disease, the need in managing ongoing health issues for patients who suffered such trauma, and supporting our colleagues who’ve been doing this double-shift for two months … it feels important to be there.”

Because Puerto Rico’s infrastructure – especially telecommunications – was destroyed, Ryan found that one of the biggest challenges this fall was basic communication: who would be where, when. Because the VCU team will stay in one location all week, Ryan expects things to be easier.

Two students on the team have family on the island. They’ll be interested to see firsthand how their loved ones are faring. Those local connections also provide benefits to the team. They’ll have the chance to get offsite, as they’ll be staying in the home of one team member and using a car loaned by the family of another. That allows them flexibility and eases the budget somewhat. It will also allow the team to evaluate other potential partners for future service trips.

By Lisa Crutchfield

12
2017

Genetics Chair Paul Fisher elected a 2017 fellow of National Academy of Inventors

Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D.

Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D.

Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D., is among 155 renowned academic inventors elected in December to the National Academy of Inventors. Election is the highest professional accolade bestowed to those who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.

Fisher is professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics and director of the VCU Institute of Molecular Medicine. He holds the Thelma Newmeyer Corman Chair in Cancer Research at the VCU Massey Cancer Center.

“Congratulations to Dr. Fisher on this outstanding honor,” said Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “NAI Fellows include Nobel Laureates as well as scientific leaders from research universities, the federal governmental and non-profit research institutes. Together their ingenuity and discoveries are responsible for advances that will shape the future of biomedical research and human health.”

NAI Fellows have generated more than 9,400 licensed technologies and companies and created more than 1.3 million jobs, with over $137 billion in revenue generated based on their discoveries.

Fisher is an inventor on 55 issued U.S. patents and author or co-author on approximately 600 peer-reviewed publications and reviews. Chosen as a Virginia Outstanding Scientist in 2014, he has founded four companies. He and 2017’s other Fellows are named inventors on nearly 6,000 issued U.S. patents, bringing the collective patents held by all 912 NAI Fellows to more than 32,000 issued U.S. patents.

Fisher’s research is focused in the areas of cancer gene discovery, novel approaches for gene identification/cloning, strategies for imaging primary cancers and metastases, discovery of small molecule inhibitors of cancer invasion and metastasis and creation of unique immunotherapeutic cancer terminator viruses.

On April 5, 2018, the 2017 NAI Fellows will be inducted as part of the Seventh Annual NAI Conference in Washington, D.C. In honor of their outstanding accomplishments, Fellows will be presented with a special trophy, medal and rosette pin.

The National Academy of Inventors is a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to recognize and encourage inventors with patents issued from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.

Learn more about the 2017 NAI Fellows or to see a complete list of NAI Fellows.

04
2017

Paramedic training program receives national honors at the Pentagon

Kenneth Williams (center), VCU’s paramedic program director, was on hand for a ceremony at the Pentagon where the program’s training partnership with Fort Lee was honored with the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award.

Kenneth Williams (center), VCU’s paramedic program director, was on hand for a ceremony at the Pentagon where the program’s training partnership with Fort Lee was honored with the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award. Photo by Darrell Hudson.

VCU’s paramedic training partnership with Fort Lee in Prince George County has received national attention, receiving the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award.

In a ceremony at the Pentagon, Hon. Ryan McCarthy, Under Secretary of the Army, cited the partnership as an example of a program that not only benefits military personnel, but also the surrounding community. McCarthy served as host of the Dec. 4 ceremony, along with Hon. Jordan Gillis, acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment, and Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, assistant chief of staff for installation management.

The annual awards recognize organizations that help improve Army readiness and develop strong community relationships. Ten VCU representatives attended the ceremony.

“It was a great day,” said Kenneth Williams, VCU’s paramedic program director. “We were the only educational organization recognized, and there were about 300 that applied for the honor.” A high point of the day’s event, he said, was being in the Hall of Heroes, where Medal of Honor recipients are recognized.

Meeting or exceeding national standards
VCU’s partnership with Fort Lee was created to help Army personnel attain national standards for emergency response teams. Fort Lee medics, as well as first responders from the community, attend the year-long course, which brings them in compliance with new national standards for emergency management service providers. In addition, the program develops Fort Lee into a field preceptor training site for VCU students interested in emergency care.

Currently, more than 20 Fort Lee emergency medical technicians and community members are enrolled in the paramedic training program, which includes classroom work held on the Fort Lee base in Colonial Heights, field training and rotations in various departments at VCU Medical Center.

The Pentagon recognition helps draw attention to VCU’s program, Wiliams said, and ensures that the care provided by first responders will be strong not just on the base but also in surrounding communities. Those trained as military paramedics will one day join civilians trained by VCU in programs held across the state.

VCU’s paramedic training program, part of the School of Medicine, has certified more than 1,000 students since 1980. It’s offered through the Center for Trauma and Critical Care education in the Department of Surgery.

At the ceremony, Williams said, Army personnel stressed their commitment to continuing the partnership which currently brings military emergency responders up to paramedic level. “They’re hoping we can run a full paramedic course, and not just a bridge course,” he noted. “There are plenty of opportunities for us to work together.”

Future plans for program
Back at VCU, Williams is working with School of Medicine administration to develop the program to offer a bachelor’s degree in paramedic medicine, which would make it one of a handful in the country. “A bachelor’s program is important to many because it’s a promotion ladder in the field,” Williams explained. “People who want to get off the fire truck or work their way up the ranks to be in charge of an engine company or EMS are usually required to have a degree. If you want to be battalion chief, they look for a degree. We can play a role in that.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

Virginia Commonwealth University
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Updated: 04/29/2016