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M4 John Weeks returns to Eastern Shore to treat underserved population

For the Class of 2017’s John Weeks, practicing medicine means more than providing care to patients in an exam room. It’s a commitment to caring for an entire community and the challenges it may face.

That’s why after earning his undergraduate degree from the College of William & Mary and spending three years as an outreach worker on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, he enrolled in the VCU School of Medicine where he also was accepted into the International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program on the MCV Campus. I2CRP is a four-year program for students who declare an interest in and commitment to working with medically underserved populations in urban, rural or international settings.

“The I2CRP program is one of the big things that drew me to VCU,” says Weeks. “There’s an overall sense that you can really make an impact — improving people’s lives and improving the community they live in. It’s not just serving one patient, treating them, and moving on to the next, but going beyond and helping a whole community.”

International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program ‘Open your eyes and look around you’
In addition to working for the Eastern Shore Rural Health System prior to medical school, he returned during his third-year family medicine clerkship and fourth-year community immersion elective. There Weeks experienced firsthand the challenges of providing effective medical care to an underserved population that included the indigent, elderly and Spanish-speaking migrant farm workers.

For starters, some of the biggest hurdles he saw had very little to do with the medical issues that originally brought patients to the clinic. High blood pressure, diabetes and work-related injuries are further complicated by high levels of poverty, housing and food insecurity, lack of transportation, exposure to pesticides and chemicals, legal problems with immigration status or navigating Medicare.

“People think that to truly find the underserved, you have to go international,” Weeks said. “But that’s just not the case. All you have to do is open your eyes and look around you. The biggest similarity of all underserved populations, regardless of location, is access.”

Serving the Eastern Shore population has particular meaning for Weeks, who grew up in Northern Virginia and appreciated the small, intimate community he met on the shore.

“It was constantly amazing to me how much the people knew each other,” he says. “The outreach worker I partnered with knew not only everyone’s family ties, but where they lived, what they needed and, most importantly, what resources they might be willing to accept to help them through difficult times.”

Weeks received the medical school’s Scott Scholarship, awarded by the Marguerite L. Hopkins Trust and James Perkins Memorial Trust to a deserving medical student from Virginia with preference given to a student with ties to the Eastern Shore.

Marguerite Hopkins grew up on the Eastern Shore and stipulated that some of the funds in her trust should be used to create an annual scholarship named for her cousin, Ralph M. Scott, M’50. Scholarships continue to be a high-priority need for the medical school and donors may outline criteria to select student recipients, including supporting students from a particular geographic region.

‘I want to go someplace and make people healthier’
Approximately 24 students are admitted to I2CRP from each medical school class, said Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, I2CRP medical director and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. “Our students are amazing. They have diverse experiences and diverse backgrounds but a similar sense of ‘I want to go someplace and make people healthier where otherwise they would have struggled.’”

Since its first graduating class in 2000, 37 percent of I2CRP graduates have gone on to practice in family medicine with nearly a third of those practicing in rural areas. All told, 85 percent of graduates enter careers in the National Health Service Corps priority fields of family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, combined internal medicine-pediatrics, OB-GYN, psychiatry and general surgery.

I2CRP director Mary Lee Magee attributes much of the program’s success to its curriculum that spans all four years of medical school, starting with electives in the spring semester of M1 and ending with a month-long community immersion during M4. Along the way, students share their experiences with their peers and faculty members.

“Our retention rate is very strong,” she says. “The program offers meaningful opportunities for critical thinking, reflection, mentorship and community building that are essential to support careers in underserved communities.”

That support is designed to go beyond graduation, Ryan says, when the challenges of caring for the underserved can become trying.

“Patients can’t fill prescriptions, can’t get to appointments, don’t have the same language as their physicians,” he says. “There will be times when it feels very hard to sustain and it’s important to have a support system to lean on. Hopefully through I2CRP, John and others will develop a network of peers, physicians and faculty who they can ask for advice and connect with when that time comes.”

It’s advice Weeks takes to heart as he applies for a family medicine residency with the ultimate goal of working “where people need me.”

“Find the little victories,” he says. “Some patients have a million obstacles lying in their path but if you can remove one or some of those obstacles, it’s huge. Every piece of the puzzle matters and once you start putting it together and help people get healthy, you realize everything you do, no matter how big or small, can be really rewarding.”

By Polly Roberts


MD-PhD students spotlighted in Internal Medicine’s research newsletter

A pair of M.D.-Ph.D. students have been featured in the winter 2017 issue of the Department of Internal Medicine’s research newsletter. The Class of 2017’s Bridget Quinn and Tim Kegelman are both preparing to graduate this spring and hoping for a residency match in radiation oncology.

M.D.-Ph.D. student Bridget Quinn

M.D.-Ph.D. student Bridget Quinn is preparing to graduate from the program this spring and hoping for a residency match in radiation oncology.

Originally from central New Jersey, Bridget Quinn earned her bachelor’s degree from Loyola University in Maryland and then she spent two years doing ovarian cancer research at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia before entering medical school. Quinn had been drawn to a career in clinical medicine since she was young, but it was the two years she spent in the lab after college that pushed her to pursue a dual degree.

The M.D.-Ph.D. dual degree program is designed to provide students the knowledge to ask pertinent and meaningful clinical questions that may ultimately lead to novel discovery in the medical field. The degree gives graduates the preparation to stay involved in research and work on the translational border between science and medicine.

Quinn completed her Ph.D. work in the lab of Department Chair Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D., in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics where she focused on novel therapeutics for pancreatic cancer.

After completing the graduate phase of her MD-PhD program in late 2014, Quinn has been working on clinical research projects with the Department of Radiation Oncology’s Emma C. Fields while completing the program’s medicine phase. In addition to providing clinical mentorship, Fields has also spent time with Quinn discussing various aspects of career planning and the process of applying to residency programs. Quinn is currently applying to residency in the field of radiation oncology and plans to do an internal medicine intern year. You can read more about her background and research on page 5 in the Department of Internal Medicine’s research newsletter.

Finding a career that balances discoveries with patients

In Tim Kegelman’s final year of the MD-PhD program, he’s pursued an elective with the Center for Human-Animal Interaction. Now he’s certified his Siberian Husky, Lola, to be a Therapy Dog and part of VCU’s Dogs on Call program.

Tim Kegelman grew up in Yorktown, Virginia, where his mom, a nurse practitioner, and his dad, a NASA scientist, influenced his interest in becoming a physician-scientist. The path he took led to the University of Notre Dame where he pursued a chemical engineering degree.

Drawn by the potential of making discoveries in medical sciences while also having significant and direct patient interactions, Kegelman enrolled in the M.D.-Ph.D. program. Like Quinn, he performed his dissertation research with Department Chair Paul Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D., where he could explore his interest in cancer molecular biology and genetics.

He’s known he wanted to work in oncology research since he enrolled in the M.D.-Ph.D. program, and more recently he’s begun collaborating with the Department of Radiation Oncology on projects combining a small molecule inhibitor in combination with radiation in glioblastoma.

While at Notre Dame, Kegelman worked as an undergraduate research assistant in the chemical engineering department. He also was captain of the men’s swim team and competed at the NCAA championships. He has applied a student-athlete’s work ethic to various aspects of M.D.-Ph.D. training and credits his time as a collegiate swimmer with helping him integrate well into new teams – which is something he does regularly during his clinical training.

Away from campus, both Quinn and Kegelman have young children as well as a love for dogs. Kegelman, in fact, recently certified his Siberian Husky to be a therapy dog as part of VCU’s Dogs on Call program.

You can read more about Kegelman on page 7 of the Department of Internal Medicine’s research newsletter.


Social and behavioral health PhD alumna Lindsey Saul: “This is what I was meant to do”

PhD alumna Lindsey Saul

“Data is a means to provide action for change, such as providing more services to the military,” says Lindsey Saul, PhD’13 (SBHD). “This is what I was meant to do. It fits my personality to be that connector and get information and results where they need to be.”

Since graduating from VCU with a Ph.D. in social and behavioral health, Lindsey Saul, PhD’13, has taken a career path straight to the Pentagon.

In July 2016, she completed a two-year appointment to the Presidential Management Fellow program, assigned to the Department of Defense’s Defense Health Agency. At that point last summer, Saul converted to a permanent position as branch chief of the data and analysis team for the Non-Medical Counseling Program Office, where she analyzes data from the Military and Family Life Counseling program. The MFLC program was established after 9/11 as a short-term, confidential program to provide U.S. service members and their families with emotional, social, financial and marital support that falls outside of medical attention.

“Our job is to keep our force ready,” she says of her office, where she oversees a team of three. “Part of that is making sure we care for service members, their families and their well-being.”

When service members contact an MFLC counselor for assistance — for anything ranging from grief and loss to mitigating problems in school — Saul’s team receives the who, why and where of the requests and translates the data into plain English to aid senior leadership in their decision-making. Saul is responsible for improving the program’s data collection, analysis and reporting processes as well as providing the team and leadership with program trend analyses. She also oversees developing and implementing a new business operations support system that integrates masses of data across multiple sources in order to capture and convey meaningful metrics.

“Data,” Saul says, “is a means to provide action for change, such as providing more services to the military. It also guides decisions to benefit or impact service members and their families.”

Her job comes with an inherent obstacle. “I work with teams of civil servants and the military who are accustomed to doing business a certain way. I need buy-in when bringing a new and innovative approach,” Saul says. “It’s a challenge.”

But it’s a challenge she has long been prepared for.

With an interdisciplinary educational and work background that includes public health, psychology, forensic science, social work and project management, Saul has a unique ability to translate research findings into succinct, compelling and persuasive information for various audiences.

“I’ve worked at ground level as a social worker in the field, and I’ve worked at operational level,” says Saul. “When I became a civil servant, it was a huge milestone. This is what I was meant to do. It fits my personality to be that connector and get information and results where they need to be.”

Growing up, Saul envisioned herself in a hands-on profession — as a doctor, for example — but pursued experiences and interests that would one day enable her to inform policy and thereby help groups of people, rather than individuals. Yet she didn’t see herself as a researcher. “I resisted certain aspects of the job because of the initial time spent away from direct interaction with the community, as well as the pace at which tangible change is achieved,” she says. “I wanted to be the voice of the people, but it can take years before your work affects the community you’re researching.”

She pursued her doctorate at VCU after earning a bachelor’s in psychology from Duke University and a master’s in forensic studies with a behavior analysis concentration from Florida Gulf Coast University. Studying under the Ph.D. program’s founder, Laura Siminoff, Ph.D., Saul was a motivated, focused student who wrote her dissertation in a speedy six months.

Saul is driven to help the greatest number of people possible, and, to that end, is prepared for a high-level leadership role in the government. She sees her current job as a place to stimulate important discussions and drive decisions that are evidence-based. “The more people I can impact,” she says,” the more meaningful my work would be. That’s my ultimate goal.”

This story by Carla Davis first appeared on the Department of Health Behavior and Policy’s website.