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19
2015

“An underdog disease finds a champion”

Robert B. Scott, M.D., the Honorable L. Douglas Wilder, Florence Neal Cooper-Smith, Wally R. Smith, M.D., and John E. Nestler, M.D., at the May 2014 reception celebrating the appointment of Smith as the inaugural holder of the Florence Neal Cooper-Smith Professorship.

Robert B. Scott, M.D., the Honorable L. Douglas Wilder, Florence Neal Cooper-Smith, Wally R. Smith, M.D., and John E. Nestler, M.D., at the May 2014 reception celebrating the appointment of Smith as the inaugural holder of the Florence Neal Cooper-Smith Professorship.

Florence Neal Cooper-Smith (MS’85) became aware of sickle cell disease in 1942, 34 years after the first known case presented itself in the United States.

Her lifelong dedication to the disease began during a routine childhood trip to the family doctor. During her visits, she often waited in the doctor’s office rather than in the waiting room. Once, she found a book to read and stumbled on a few new words: hematology and sickle cell anemia.

“It hit me. Sickle cell was a disease in colored people, that was the terminology back then,” she remembered. “You were born with it, there was no cure and you died early. That stuck with me.

“When I asked my doctor about it, he explained that the disease affects the shape of red blood cells and you’re born with the anemia, but he didn’t know much more than that. I kept asking people about it. It never left me.”

Advancements have been made in the study and treatment of the disease in the century since it was first identified, but people of many races are still born with it, still die early from it and no cure exists.

Cooper-Smith hopes all of that will change in her lifetime. It’s hard to doubt her when she emphatically proclaims that she’ll raise a million dollars for research before she dies.

She has $725,000 to go.

Her grass-roots efforts — gaining support from churches, fraternal and civic groups, family and friends, for example — raised enough money to endow last May a professorship in the VCU School of Medicine. Thought to be the first of its kind in the country and named in her honor, the milestone professorship supports aggressive research projects designed to discover lifesaving treatments and perhaps a cure.

Recently, a group of her friends organized the Florence Neal Cooper-Smith Sickle Cell Research Committee to increase awareness about the disease and to raise money for research.

Cooper-Smith’s devotion to finding a cure includes years of community-based education and legislative work in Virginia as well as national networking through the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 1969, she led a Richmond-area survey to gauge awareness of the disease. Only 3 in 10 people had heard of it. Two decades later, she pushed a bill through the Virginia legislature mandating statewide newborn screening for the disease.

“We call Florence the ‘mother of sickle cell in Virginia,’ and it’s definitely a term of endearment,” said Wally R. Smith, M.D., professor and vice chair for research in the VCU Division of General Internal Medicine at the School of Medicine and inaugural holder of the Florence Neal Cooper-Smith Professorship.

Trained as a medical technician, Cooper-Smith began her career at the Medical College of Virginia in burn research alongside E.I. Evans, M.D., in the early 1950s. Later, she met hematology professor Robert B. Scott, M.D., and the two collaborated to create the Virginia Sickle Cell Anemia Awareness Program, now housed at the Virginia Department of Health.

Even with a national reputation for her efforts, Cooper-Smith remains humble and hopeful.

“It overwhelmed me to hear that the professorship was going to carry my name,” she said. “I didn’t do anything other than move something along. I just want to keep the research going. We’ve got to find better treatment, management and care for the 100,000 people affected in the U.S.”

“In a way, we’re continuing Florence’s original community work through one of our current projects,” Smith said. “We find and bring into care patients with sickle cell disease who have not been seeking care. It’s as if we hand these patients a life raft.”

The life raft is hydroxyurea, an underutilized, under-prescribed anti-sickling medication approved for use in the late 1990s.

When explaining why the drug isn’t more widely used, Smith said, “It’s the curse of sickle cell. There are not enough doctors taking care of adults with the disease. Patients don’t trust the medical establishment and they feel rejected.”

It’s an uphill climb, but thanks to the funding the Cooper-Smith Professorship provides, he said, he and his VCU colleagues can continue that climb.

To learn more about the Florence Neal Cooper-Smith Professorship, contact Brian Thomas, interim president of the MCV Foundation, at 804-828-0067 or bsthomas@vcu.edu.

This article by Nan Johnson first appeared in the fall 2014 issue of Impact, the quarterly publication of VCU’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations.

19
2015

Alumna Melissa Byrne Nelson honored with YWCA outstanding Woman Award

Alumna Melissa Byrne Nelson

Melissa Byrne Nelson

Melissa Byrne Nelson, M’98, will be honored by Richmond’s YWCA as one of its Outstanding Women of 2015 at the annual awards luncheon on April 24. Each year, the YWCA recognizes women in the Richmond area who have made significant contributions to the community, and Nelson is being honored for her work in the health and science field.

Nelson is passionate about delivering the best possible pediatric care to Richmond’s children, and she works hard to fight for the ideas she believes in. That’s all part of her personal philosophy on life. She says that “Whatever the challenge – school, work, family – don’t be a bystander and just get through it. Get involved. “

She practices with Pediatric Associates of Richmond and has been working with Pediatricians Associated to Care for Kids (PACKids) to advocate for the construction of a children’s hospital in Richmond. In describing her vision for a single location providing a family centered environment, she recently told RVA News “VCU’s premier pediatrics department and the best pediatric medical teams in our community will take care of our children as a collaborative team.”

She earned her undergraduate degree at Virginia Tech and her medical degree on the MCV Campus. She has volunteered with the alumni board of both those schools as well as with the World Pediatric Project.

19
2015

Neurosurgery resident Lisa Feldman named to prestigious William P. Van Wagenen Fellowship

Lisa Feldman, M.D., Ph.D.

Lisa Feldman, M.D., Ph.D.

Fifth-year neurosurgery resident Lisa Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., has been selected for the William P. Van Wagenen Fellowship.

“It’s the most prestigious fellowship award offered by the national neurosurgical societies,” says R. Scott Graham, M.D., director of the Department of Neurosurgery’s residency program. “Its yearbook of past awardees reads like a who’s who of the neurosurgical field. Many have gone on to become chairs of neurosurgery departments around the country or hold other prominent roles.”

Feldman is the department’s first Wagenen Fellowship winner. With the award, Feldman receives a $120,000 stipend and $15,000 in research support. She’ll travel to New Zealand in July to study perfluorcarbon as a new oxygen delivery therapy in hopes of reversing the cell death that results from radiation treatment of brain cancers. She’ll collaborate with a researcher at Washington University on the project. Her past research projects have already resulted in presentations, publications and patent applications.

“I am absolutely delighted to be awarded this fellowship, and look forward to beginning my work,” Feldman said. “In addition to exploring perfluorocarbons as a treatment for a serious neurosurgical disease, radiation necrosis, I hope to foster a long-lasting international collaboration with my host lab at University of Auckland, collaborators at Washington University in St. Louis and my home Neurosurgery Department at VCU.”

Feldman earned her medical degree at Rush Medical College in Chicago and her Ph.D. work was completed at Montréal Neurologic Institute.