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Alumna Marcella Fierro’s continued service to forensic medicine featured in Richmond Academy of Medicine newsletter

Marcella F. Fierro, M.D.

Fierro retired in 2007 from her post as the state’s Chief Medical Examiner, where she investigated the results of some of the nation’s most notorious crimes.

Retirement hasn’t hindered how alumna Marcella F. Fierro, M.D., is impacting the future of forensic medicine. Following a 34-year career and serving as Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner, Fierro has remained a steady influence in her field. Recently featured in the summer issue of the Richmond Academy of Medicine’s quarterly newsletter, Fierro describes her current work educating others and advocating on behalf of the profession that she dedicated her life to serving.

Fierro’s recent work includes the 2009 publication of a book she co-wrote with her colleagues on the NAS Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Community: “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” Fierro shared her thoughts on the publication of the book for the Richmond Academy of Medicine’s Ramifications, “If you asked me what’s the most important achievement of my career, this had to be one of them.” The book outlines basic infrastructural necessities in the field of forensic medicine and is being used to garner support from Congress to address those needs.

Widely known as the inspiration for Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta book series, Fierro also has appeared on TV including a recent PBS special on New York’s first trained medical examiner. Asked how she’s coped with what she’s witnessed as Virginia’s CME, Fierro compared it to trauma surgeons and other physicians who help accident victims. She told Ramifications: “You realize what the patient needs is not your emotions or your outrage. What the patient needs is your care, and no one but you can provide it. The discipline is you know you can do something—you can speak for that patient.”

Fierro has multiple connections to the medical school. She completed her residency and fellowship training with the School of Medicine in 1973 and 1974 respectively. She also served on faculty and as the chairman of the Department of Legal Medicine and Pathology until her retirement in 2008.

Read more about her recent activities and her plans for the future in the Ramifications’ summer issue, page 14.

By Eleana M. Legree


Vigneshwar Kasirajan named Chair of Surgery

Chair of surgery

Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D.

Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., has been named Chair of the Department of Surgery effective immediately. Kasirajan joined the MCV Campus in 2000. A professor of surgery and chair of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, he has served as interim chair of the department since July 1, 2013.

Kasirajan has transplanted over 150 donor hearts in his career and is also one of the pioneers in the surgical implantation of artificial hearts and other mechanical assist devices. In 2006, he led the first surgical team on the East Coast to implant the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart, the only device of its kind approved by the FDA. His work in this field has helped establish VCU as one of the leaders in the realm of artificial hearts.

“Dr. Kasirajan has helped to create a vibrant environment at VCU,” said Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “In addition to his work with transplant patients, he is at the forefront of a new frontier in cardiac surgery that includes artificial hearts and mechanical assist devices. As the lead investigator on a number of national clinical trials, he is addressing some of the most urgent issues in cardiac surgery.”

Based upon his experience and success with artificial hearts, Kasirajan was selected to be the lead investigator of a national clinical trial for the Freedom Driver, a small, portable air compressor that keeps artificial hearts pumping and allows patients to leave the hospital.

Kasirajan earned his medical degree at Madras Medical College, Madras, India and completed his internship and residency at Government General Hospital in Madras. His postgraduate medical education and training continued at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, in Cleveland, Ohio, as chief resident in general surgery, followed by a fellowship in cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical assist devices and appointment as administrative chief resident in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery.


Two Pharmacology and Toxicology faculty honored by NIDA

A pair of professors from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology have been selected as 2014 winners of awards of excellence from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s International Program.

William L. Dewey, Ph.D., professor and department chair, received a special recognition award for excellence in scientific accomplishments and for his devoted service to the addiction research community. Charles O’Keeffe, M.B.A., professor, received the Award of Excellence in International Leadership for his role in advising three U.S. presidents on international health and drug policy issues and as a frequent consultant to the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies.

The NIDA International Program works with colleagues from around the world to find evidence-based solutions to the public health problems of drug abuse, addiction and drug-related HIV/AIDS. Its Awards of Excellence winners are selected based on contributions to areas essential to the mission of the NIDA International Program: mentoring, international leadership and collaborative research. The awards were announced on June 14 at the 19th annual NIDA International Forum in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“The 2014 Awards of Excellence winners are dedicated and experienced leaders in the international effort to advance drug abuse research and training,” said Steven W. Gust, Ph.D., director of the NIDA International Program. “This year’s winners have helped to prepare international scientists to work together across international borders and to lead the way for key scientific breakthroughs.”


William L. Dewey, Ph.D.

William L. Dewey, Ph.D.
The Louis S. and Ruth S. Harris Professor and Chair
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology

Dewey’s research – funded by the National Institutes of Health for more than 45 years – focuses on the mechanisms of action of opioids and marijuana that change brain function and contribute to tolerance, dependence and addiction. He helped discover the role of endogenous opioids in sudden infant death syndrome and also investigates the effects of drugs on pain, cardiovascular alterations and respiratory depression.

He founded and leads the nonprofit Friends of NIDA, a coalition of individuals, scientific and professional societies and patient groups that supports the work of the institute. He has twice served as president of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and received the CPDD Distinguished Service Award in 2009. NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., presented Dewey with the NIDA Public Service Award in 2004, the same year he received the Commonwealth of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award in Science. Dewey received the VCU Presidential Medallion in 2012.

“While Dr. Dewey’s scientific contributions are significant, his service to the addiction research community is extraordinary,” said Gust. “His innovative educational briefings for members of Congress and their aides provide science-based information about addiction that helps improve U.S. drug policy.”


Charles O’Keeffe, M.B.A.

Charles O’Keeffe, M.B.A.
Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and in the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies

In addition to advising three U.S. presidents on international health and drug policy issues, O’Keeffe served as deputy director for international affairs of the Office of Drug Abuse Policy under President Jimmy Carter. He played a key role in securing U.S. approval for the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances and served on U.S. delegations to the World Health Assembly and the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs. He has been a frequent consultant to the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies.

During his career as a pharmaceutical company executive, O’Keeffe worked with NIDA scientists and government officials in France and the U.S. to secure approval for buprenorphine to treat opioid dependence. He also developed the first abuse-resistant packaging for take-home doses of methadone and ran the largest clinical toxicology laboratory in the United States. At VCU, O’Keeffe worked with colleagues from King’s College London and the University of Adelaide in Australia to create the International Programme in Addiction Studies, an online master’s degree program.

“Professor O’Keeffe has worked tirelessly to educate policymakers, law enforcement officials and health care professionals around the globe about addiction policy and treatment,” said Gust. “His work with the International Programme in Addiction Studies prepares its international students to become leaders in translating addiction research into effective treatment, prevention and policy.”

Three other individuals were awarded 2014 NIDA International Awards of Excellence. Dennis McCarty, Ph.D., a professor at Oregon Health & Sciences University, was honored for Excellence in Mentoring. The award for Excellence in Collaborative Research went to Marek C. Chawarski, Ph.D., Yale School of Medicine and Vicknasingam B Kasinather, Ph.D., Universiti Sains Malaysia.


A taste of home


Cathy Kravetz, aka the Brownie Queen, with her husband Robert Kravetz, M.D., who’s retiring from the Department of Anesthesiology this summer.

It’s been a sweet ride for Cathy Kravetz, better known around the MCV Campus as “the Brownie Queen.”

Since her husband took on medical student education for the anesthesia department about 10 years ago, Cathy has baked a pan of brownies nearly every week for his students, and often the residents as well. That’s more than 500 pans of brownies, or 15,000 single brownies, over the years.

“I just wanted to provide a touch of home for the students,” said Cathy, a retired mental health nurse with 35 years of experience in marriage, family and individual counseling. “They work very, very hard, so I thought it would be a nice thing to do for them. It’s been a great way to connect with my husband’s students.”

But on July 1, Robert Kravetz, M.D., will retire from his position as associate professor in anesthesiology. And Cathy will hang up her royal crown.

“I used to think it was my wonderful teaching skills that the students liked so much,” Robert Kravetz said. “But now I know it’s the brownies. The students have come to expect them. I joke all the time that it’s a requirement for graduation to have at least one.”

Cathy will continue to bake brownies for special occasions, a few conferences and during the holidays, but she holds out hope someone will keep the tradition alive by baking brownies regularly for the students.

“They deserve it,” she said. “They need to be nurtured.”

Cathy would love to share her recipe with her loyal fans, but she can’t. Each pan she bakes is unique. She tweaks, fine tunes and improves. One batch may contain cranberries, another toffee and still another marshmallows. She never includes nuts in order to protect students who may have a food allergy.

“I definitely ate my fair share of brownies,” said Priya Venugopal, M’14, who served as president of her class. “They always disappeared very quickly. I think the ones with Craisins were my favorite.”

Venugopal, who begins her residency at the Medical College of Georgia this summer, was initially surprised by the weekly brownies, but like her classmates came to expect – and savor – them.

“It’s just one of many unique things about MCV,” she said. “It truly is very much like family here. Medicine can be so hectic, so it was nice to take a break to appreciate life’s special moments.”


Robert Kravetz, M.D., jokes with the students that it’s a requirement for graduation to have at least one.

During the weekly brownie-fests, Kravetz would always take time to call his wife and put the phone on the speaker setting so students could say thanks and offer their feedback on the latest batch.

“I never heard any complaints,” Cathy said with a chuckle.

Cathy and her husband often provided juice boxes with the brownies, sending students on a wonderful trip back to their childhoods. The couple also organized bus tours during graduation weekend so students and their families could visit historic spots around Richmond.

“Like so many things in life, we received much more than we gave,” Cathy said. “With everything the students had going on, they always managed to seek me out at graduation to say ‘thanks’ for the brownies.”

A 1968 graduate of the School of Nursing, Cathy urged her husband to join the MCV family after he retired from private practice in Fredericksburg. His career in Richmond, he said, has been an incredible one.

“It’s been a fabulous ride,” he said. “I’m sad to leave, but there is a season for everything. Cathy and I are each other’s best friend, and I can’t wait to travel less and snuggle more.”

–By Janet Showalter


Cheifetz authors timely classification system for regional campuses in premier journal for medical educators


Craig Cheifetz, M.D., F.A.C.P.

Faced with forecasts of serious physician shortages, the Association of American Medical Colleges called on U.S. medical schools for a 30 percent increase in enrollment by the year 2016. Half of that growth has already occurred.

Much of the expansion has been accomplished through the growth of regional medical campuses – campuses geographically separate from the medical school’s main campus. Often, RMCs have missions that differ from their main campus, especially in the areas of rural and community medicine. Up to now, there has been no an easy-to-use classification system to make those distinctions.

For the past two years, Craig Cheifetz, M.D., F.A.C.P., has chaired the AAMC’s Group on Regional Medical Campuses. The GRMC is the national body representing regional medical campuses throughout the U.S. and Canada. In that role, he has led development of a system that classifies RMCs into one of four models—basic science, clinical, longitudinal or combined.

He describes the process in the May issue of the Academic Medicine, the premier journal for medical educators.

The classification system will pave the way for research into RMCs’ impact on medical education. Even questions as basic as the number of RMCs and whether they are growing or shrinking in number have been difficult to answer until now.

“The utility of the definition is in its simplicity and the practical ways in which it can be used in future research,” writes Cheifetz in the report: Regional Medical Campuses: A New Classification System.

The first research study using the classification system is expected later this year. Deans were asked to apply the classification system to their own RMCs and to provide information ranging from student and faculty affairs to medical education and finances.

Cheifetz, who is associate dean for medical education at the VCU School of Medicine, has overseen the development of the medical school‘s Inova Campus since its earliest stages. Each year, two dozen third-year and two dozen fourth-year medical students train at the branch campus at Inova Fairfax Hospital.


Paul Wehman lets his voice be heard

Edith Mitchell

Paul Wehman, Ph.D.

In a pair of recently published op-ed columns, Paul Wehman, Ph.D., writes about the challenge and necessity of helping those with autism find meaningful, gainful employment.

It’s a subject he knows well. He pioneered the development of supported employment at VCU in the early 1980s and has been heavily involved in its use with people who have severe disabilities, such as those with severe intellectual disabilities, brain injury, spinal cord injury or autism.

In “Employing People with Autism,” published by the Washington Post on April 3, Wehman tells the story of Sean:

“Sean was born at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond, Va., and spent many weeks of his young life in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit. Today, 20 years later, he is a handsome young man with a brilliant smile, and he is back in the same pediatric intensive care unit. Now, however, he is serving a 10-week internship stocking nursing stations, sanitizing supplies and verifying patient information on charts.”

Sean participates in one of Wehman’s ongoing studies, and Wehman outlines its findings in his column: participants’ increased independence, their success in securing employment with wages that ring in 24 percent higher than Virginia’s minimum wage.

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch column, “Autism and (Un)Employment,” published on April 30, Wehman points out that those with autism could be an untapped resource in answering the nation’s unemployment woes.

“They hold gifts that are not fully realized by the public — yet,” he writes.

Wehman’s program partners with VCU Medical Center and Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital, where “there is a high demand for accuracy and cleanliness. Persons with autism can provide unique attention to the detail required.”

The program’s success was highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article published on May 20: Adults With Autism Find New Source for Job Interview Advice.

Wehman is a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and is the director of the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center. He has written, co-authored or edited 42 commercially published books and written over 200 journal articles. He is on several editorial boards and has been Editor of the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation for 18 years. He has been the principal investigator of more than $70 million worth of federal grants since being at VCU. Wehman is the parent of two children with disabilities.