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In focus: medical student Trammell Cox helps thousands see

The Class of 2018’s Trammell Cox

This August the Class of 2018’s Trammell Cox is in Cambodia, where he’s supplied more than 13,000 pairs of glasses over the past six years.

Trammell Cox has a vision: to help others see.

While studying at VCU’s School of Medicine (and serving as president of the Class of 2018), Cox runs a nonprofit that helps provide eyeglasses for countless patients overseas.

The organization, Seeing is Believing, began on a small scale with a few pairs of reading glasses. Six years and more than 13,000 pairs of glasses later, it’s still going strong as Cox returned to southeast Asia in August to continue what he started as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2008.

As he was teaching in Cambodia on his mission trip, he realized that some students weren’t participating. “Often we’d ask people to read but they’d say they couldn’t. For a while we assumed that it was that they never learned to read. But as we probed a little bit, we found out it was because they couldn’t see.”

Cox and colleagues went out and purchased reading glasses for many people. At about $1 a pair, it didn’t seem too daunting. But then he realized how many people needed them.

Trammell Cox, M’18

“The majority of people in Cambodia live day-to-day, using the money they earn throughout the day to buy dinner for the family at night,” says Trammell Cox, M’18. “As a result, many can’t save enough money for a simple pair of prescription glasses.”

On one of his twice-yearly calls home, he described the situation to his younger brother, Parker. When Cox’s family came to see him in Cambodia, they delivered cash and donated eyeglasses that Parker had collected as part of his Eagle Scout project.

For about $100, the brothers conducted vision screenings and provided eyewear to children in an orphanage.

After returning home in 2010, Cox, his wife, Jen, and his brother founded Seeing is Believing. At least once a year, they go back to help some of the world’s poorest people.

“The majority of people in Cambodia live day-to-day, using the money they earn throughout the day to buy dinner for the family at night,” Cox says. “As a result, many can’t save enough money for a simple pair of prescription glasses.”

Poverty is rampant in Cambodia, which still struggles with aftereffects of dictator Pol Pot’s genocide and policies. Cox notes that Pol Pot directed the killing of any intellectuals he deemed a threat to his organization. Eyeglasses became a symbol of intelligence, and those who wore them were targeted by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Fluent in Cambodian, Cox has established a network to support the nonprofit.

“Through our connections, we identify those with the greatest need, and those who can benefit the most. We then work with the Cambodian optometrists to screen them. Rather than undermine the local Cambodian market, we support and encourage economic growth by relying on the optometrists to make the prescription glasses, which we buy from them.

“We can provide those in need with an eye screening and brand new pair of prescription glasses for about $5 a pair.”

Trammell Cox, M’18

“We’re giving glasses and sight,” says Trammell Cox, M’18, “but also vision.”

Cox said his School of Medicine classmates and faculty have been supportive, and many have donated to Seeing is Believing. His enthusiasm and generosity have made an impression, said Assistant Dean for Curriculum Lelia Brinegar, Ed.D. “When I think of Trammell, some of the first words that come to mind are supportive, encouraging and friendly. He is the first person to step forward when a request for volunteers is announced.”

Cox is visiting Cambodia and neighboring Laos in August and will return to VCU’s MCV Campus for his third-year of medical school. He isn’t sure what type of medicine he’ll practice when he graduates; while ophthalmology is a possibility, he’s still considering his options.

But he’ll definitely continue to help others see. “We chose the name Seeing is Believing because it has such a positive connotation. That’s the effect we believe sight can have. We’re giving glasses and sight, but also vision.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

Donate cash or eyewear:
visit http://www.seeingisbelieving.vision/donations/
for details.


Exploring what’s possible: Ph.D. student attends Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Matthew Riblett was awestruck when Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, Ph.D., spoke at his college graduation four years ago.

But he had no idea what to expect when he met the man in person.

Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett with Steven Chu, Ph.D.

Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett was inspired by his talk with Steven Chu, Ph.D., who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. “Let’s go out and explore and discover for ourselves what’s truly possible,” says Riblett.

So Riblett, a Ph.D. student in VCU’s medical physics program, took a chance and introduced himself to Chu during the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany, earlier this summer.

“He came across as this really cool guy – someone you could really talk to,” Riblett said. “I’m happy to say he was exactly the same in person. He was more interested in hearing about what I was working on than talking about his own accomplishments. I was surprised by how eager all the laureates were to talk with us and encourage us.”

Riblett, 26, was one of 400 young researchers from around the world selected for the weeklong meeting, and the fourth VCU student to attend.

“Matt is a joy to have in our lab and is doing great work, so I am really pleased for him that he was selected,” said Geoffrey Hugo, Ph.D., director of the medical physics graduate program and Riblett’s adviser. “He is very inquisitive and creative. He brings great ideas to the table.”

Riblett is applying physics to improve the quality of diagnostic imaging that can often be blurred due to the breathing motion of patients during image collection. Quality images are crucial in radiation therapy. If the physician can’t precisely identify the location of a tumor, for example, it becomes more challenging to direct the radiation beam to hit the tumor and avoid healthy tissue.

“I like dealing with the hardware side of things,” Riblett said. “I’m not a blood and guts kind of guy. But I wanted to get involved in helping doctors treat their patients. For me, this is personal.”

Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett

At the 66th Annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett had the chance to meet many of the 29 Nobel Prize winners in attendance. He even got to hold the Nobel Prize of German physicist Klaus von Klitzing.

Riblett was in middle school when his father was diagnosed with cancer and often accompanied him to the hospital for treatment. His father is cancer free today.

“It was a sobering reality that this happens to people,” said Riblett, who grew up in Richmond. “I got to meet the radiation oncologists and came to realize that they were doing something of major importance.”

He credits several high school teachers with introducing him to the nuclear sciences and pushing him to follow his dream. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in nuclear engineering, he worked for a year before coming to the MCV Campus in 2013. He hopes to complete his Ph.D. in the next few years.

“I looked at a number of schools, but what struck me about VCU is they have people who are the best of the best in their field,” Riblett said.

He found the same scenario in Lindau, where he met many of the 29 Nobel Prize winners in attendance and sat in on lectures and panel discussions. He also made friends with dozens of other students from 80 countries.

“There was this spirit there that was amazing,” Riblett said. “It was incredibly motivating.”

Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 and served as the United States Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013, stressed the importance of taking chances.

“He said he never would have gotten to where he was if he hadn’t pushed an adviser, asked a lot of questions, explored and challenged himself,” Riblett said.

As for his own future, Riblett is undecided whether he will work in a clinic, a research lab or in academia, but he knows his end goal – helping people.

“We’ve got all these opportunities throughout our lives to do something good,” he said. “If you listen to everyone else about what they think is possible, you won’t accomplish a thing. Let’s go out and explore and discover for ourselves what’s truly possible.”

By Janet Showalter


Walk the Walk 2016

GME Match Map 2016From all over the country: 140 new interns begin training at VCU Health this summer, hailing from 25 different states and 53 different medical schools.

Each summer, academic medical centers around the country welcome a new class of interns into their teaching hospitals. These recent M.D. graduates are embarking on three to seven years of additional training in the specialty of their choice.

From Boston to Tucson to Seattle, 140 new interns have arrived at VCU Health from 25 states.

“We’re really proud of the caliber of this year’s recruits,” said Mary-Alice O’Donnell, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate medical education. “I’ve heard from many program directors who are enthusiastic about the interdisciplinary team spirit and patient focus this group will bring.”

Of the 140 interns, 43 completed their medical degrees at the VCU School of Medicine. But the remaining 97 interns hail from 53 different medical schools. They bring with them certain core competencies along with experiences and expectations that are based on what they’ve learned at more than four dozen medical centers.

GME Match Map 2016“Nationwide, communication failures are the leading cause of medical errors,” Ryan Vega, M.D., H’14, told the interns.

To be sure that they are on the same page in terms of what’s expected at VCU Health, the GME office organizes a three-day orientation called Walk the Walk. It differs from orientation programs at other medical centers where newly arrived interns are often trained in specialty specific programs. Instead, for seven years, O’Donnell has trained new arrivals in interdisciplinary teams.

Highlighting Handoffs
A session this year emphasized how to transfer care and responsibility of a patient to the next shift of caregivers, a process known as the handoff. The session was led by Ryan Vega, M.D., H’14, who completed residency training in internal medicine at VCU in 2014 and serving as the first chief resident for quality and safety at the McGuire VA Medical Center in 2014-15.

“Nationwide, communication failures are the leading cause of medical errors,” Vega told the interns.

Walk the Walk 2016This summer, 140 new interns participated in interdisciplinary orientation program so that everyone is on the same page. One of this year’s sessions tackled a leading cause of medical errors in hospitals across the country: handoffs.

To address the issue, VCU Health has adopted the I-PASS system developed by Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s a guideline for structured communication that uses a mnemonic to help health care providers move through the handoff process. (See chart below.) A 2014 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported the system can greatly increase patient safety without significantly burdening existing clinical workflows.

Vega estimates that VCU Health has applied the system more broadly at an institutional level than any other medical center in the country. Seven departments have completed a yearlong training, it’s built into patients’ electronic medical records and this is the second class of interns to train in the process.

“If we’re going to becoming the safest hospital in the nation,” Ryan emphasized, “structured communication is a route to eliminating medical errors.”

I Illness Severity Stable, “Watcher,” Unstable
P Patient Summary Summary statement; events leading up to admission; hospital course; ongoing assessment; plan
A Action List To do list; timeline and ownership
S Situation Awareness & Contingency Planning Know what’s going on; plan for what might happen
S Synthesis by Receiver Receiver summarizes what was heard; asks questions; restates key action/to do items

© 2016 I-PASS Study Group/Children’s Hospital Boston
All Rights Reserved. For Permissions contact ipass.study@childrens.harvard.edu

By Erin Lucero