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Why, yes, it is rocket surgery

The Class of 1979's Richard Williams (third from left), former chief health and medical officer for NASA, returned to the MCV Campus.

The Class of 1979’s Richard Williams (third from left), former chief health and medical officer for NASA, returned to the MCV Campus at the invitation of the newly formed Aerospace Medicine Student Interest Group.

Space travel grabbed the public’s attention in the 1960s, and it seemed every little boy wanted to be a NASA astronaut. But Richard S. Williams had a different dream. He aimed to be a pilot.

But though being diagnosed with below-standard eyesight for military pilots kept him from training when he was young, Williams eventually held an even rarer title: “There’s only one NASA chief health and medical officer in the world.” He was just the second person to hold the position, beginning in 2002 and bridging the end of the space shuttle program and the start of the International Space Station era.

A 1979 VCU School of Medicine alumnus, Williams recently returned to Richmond to speak to medical students in the newly formed Aerospace Medicine Student Interest Group about what it’s like to work in the aerospace field, including some of the unusual physical effects of space flight on the body. Astronauts have higher exposure to radiation than any other occupation, he said, and risks include cancer, cataracts, and acute radiation sickness.

During his time as chief health and medical officer, NASA optometry experts noticed increased farsightedness with optic nerve swelling that occurs only after returning from space. Known as Spaceflight Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome, or SANS, “It can possibly progress to blindness if not treated,” Williams says, and it affects male astronauts more often than female. “We think this is associated with high intracranial pressure, but the true cause has not yet been determined.”

Williams also was there when the Columbia Shuttle broke up during re-entry in February 2003, a “devastating tragedy,” he says.

“As a group, they understood the risk,” Williams says of the seven lost astronauts. And the other qualified astronauts on the ground — then, about 130 people — “They grieved, they understood.”

Williams, who grew up around the world as part of an Air Force family, graduated from the College of William & Mary. As an Explorer Scout in the early 1970s in Hampton, Virginia, he visited the MCV Campus’ Sanger Hall and recalls being fascinated by the anatomy lab and facilities. Then he saw the movie “M*A*S*H” about wartime surgeons and their hijinks, and he decided he wanted to be a physician.

Entering medical school in 1975 was a “very humbling experience for me,” Williams says. “I went from fairly accomplished to fairly mediocre.” But as he got his footing as a medical student, his experience improved. That drew him back to VCU, when he returned to get a master’s degree in public health in 1996. “The faculty here was just outstanding.”

Medical student Nilan Vaghjiani, who started the aerospace medicine interest group, grew up in California’s Antelope Valley, where Boeing, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and the Edwards Air Force Base have manufacturing plants and test facilities. He was thrilled when Williams was available to talk to him and his classmates about his experiences, and hopes that they’ll be able to schedule an astronaut to speak to the group sometime in the future.

“The feedback was great,” Vaghjiani says. “Some students really didn’t know that aerospace medicine was a field.” Now, though, he and a few other students are looking into a rotation in Houston that specializes in spaceflight medicine.

After finishing medical school 40 years ago, Williams completed a general surgery residency, working 120 hours per week. He served as a general surgeon and a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force, commanding a field hospital during the first Gulf War in 1990.

“That toughened me up,” says Williams of his war experience. “It prepared me to succeed everywhere I went.”

It also led to some unexpected opportunities. He spent time on network morning shows discussing the medical care of soldiers, and received fan mail and even a marriage proposal.

He joined NASA on detail from the U.S. Air Force as the director of the Office of Health Affairs, and was selected as NASA’s chief health and medical officer when he retired four years later.

After 15 years of studying and treating astronauts’ medical issues and advocating for health care for retired astronauts, Williams retired in 2017. He remains active as a senior aviation medical examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration and as director of the Three Rivers Health District for the Virginia Department of Health, a return to his interest in public health.

Working in eastern Virginia not far from the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Williams oversees health care for at-risk populations in the Three Rivers district. His staff of health care workers, he says, “reminds me a lot of NASA — very selfless.”

By Kate Andrews


Vascular surgeon Chip Sternbergh, H’95, shares pioneering approaches at H. M. Lee Lecture

Vascular surgeon Chip Sternbergh, H'95, returned to the MCV Campus to present the Department of Surgery's annual H. M. Lee Memorial Lecture.

Vascular surgeon Chip Sternbergh, H’95, returned to the MCV Campus to present the Department of Surger’s annual H. M. Lee Memorial Lecture.

Being a successful physician requires a commitment to lifelong learning. That’s the firm conviction of vascular surgeon and housestaff alumnus W. Charles “Chip” Sternbergh III, M.D., H’95, who returned to the MCV Campus March 28 to present the Department of Surgery’s annual H. M. Lee Memorial Lecture.

Sternbergh believes continuing education is essential in all medical specialties, and particularly vascular surgery. “At least two-thirds of what I do now I never did in my training,” he says. “If I didn’t keep up my education, I’d be a dinosaur.”

Instead, he is professor and chief of vascular and endovascular surgery at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. The invitation to guest lecture enabled him to contribute his own expertise to the education of tomorrow’s vascular surgeons in memory of Lee, under whom he trained for seven years during his general surgery residency.

“He was a master teacher, technician and surgeon — someone you’d like to emulate,” Sternbergh says. “And he really cared about the people he was helping to train.”

After Hyung Mo “H. M.” Lee’s death in 2013, his family, friends and colleagues made gifts in his memory to create the memorial lecture that bears his name. The focus of the annual lecture alternates between the Divisions of Transplant Surgery and Vascular Surgery.

Sternbergh credits his “superb” MCV Campus training with giving him the comfort and confidence to make sound clinical decisions while operating on critically ill patients.

Decision-making when treating vascular patients is rarely black and white, Sternbergh says, adding “Judgment plays a huge role.” About 80 percent of his patients don’t receive surgical intervention and, instead, are treated medically. His favorite pearl of wisdom for aspiring vascular surgeons? “You may make your living by operating, but you’ll make your reputation by not operating.”

Sternbergh is nationally recognized as an expert on vascular disease and is the author of more than 100 scientific publications and book chapters on the subject. He wrote the leading textbook on the endovascular treatment of abdominal and thoracic aortic aneurysms and is regarded as a pioneer in minimally invasive intervention for hepatic artery stenosis during liver transplantation, his topic for the H. M. Lee lecture.

Mark Levy, M.D., chair of the Division of Vascular Surgery, lauded Sternbergh’s lecture and how it engaged his audience. “I don’t know when I last saw so many questions at the end of Grand Rounds.”

The minimally invasive interventions to treat stenosis that Sternbergh spoke about in the lecture can be unforgiving and difficult, experts agree. Nevertheless, Sternbergh’s experience with the procedures has enabled him to develop a reliably safe algorithm so he can now remedy such stenosis with relatively low risk.

In 1996, Sternbergh joined Ochsner, home to the busiest liver transplant program in the country and where he has performed 150 interventions for hepatic artery stenosis — the largest amount at a single center in the world.

Vascular surgeon Clayton Brinster, M.D., has worked with Sternbergh at Ochsner since 2015 and calls him “one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.” In addition to helping Brinster refine his technical operating skills and leadership abilities, Sternbergh has provided him with “advice and countenance without judgment,” which can be challenging in a high-stress field, Brinster says. “He’s been a real asset to my personal development as a surgeon.”

By Beth Shamaiengar


Mentors pay it forward

The Department of Internal Medicine celebrates the awarding of the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award.

The Department of Internal Medicine celebrates the awarding of the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award. L-R: Marc Thames, M’70; inaugural recipient Antonio Abbate, M.D., H’07; Hermes Kontos, M.D., H’62, PhD’67; and Todd Gehr, F’87, interim internal medicine chair.

“It was critical to my career development.” That’s how Marc D. Thames, M’70, describes the mentorship of Hermes A. Kontos, M.D., H’62, PhD’67 (PHIS), and its impact on his life and career. Thames calls his medical school years a magical time and says, “Dr. Kontos was the most impactful part of the magic. I always felt like I could talk to him about anything.”

Thames began working in Kontos’ cardiac research lab after completing his first year of medical school and the two quickly established a bond that continues today.

“I realized right away how lucky I was to have Hermes Kontos as a mentor. He never said ‘I don’t have the time.’ He shared my excitement for the science that served as the basis for the work we did together, and was always available to come to the lab when help was needed with the technical aspects of the experiments we performed.”

Kontos was just beginning his 41-year tenure on the MCV Campus when he and Thames first started to work together. He would go on to become medical school dean and later vice president for health sciences and CEO of VCU Health System. He always saw mentoring as part of his role.

“To establish a younger generation of academic physicians, you have to get them interested in science early on,” Kontos says. “Be there for them when they come to you with a problem or need career advice. It doesn’t take much time to suggest what you think is best for them.”

But it can be the critical difference in the career development of a young physician. What Thames received from Kontos inspired him in his own work with students, residents and fellows throughout his career at Temple University, Case Western Reserve University, VCU (based at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center) and University of Iowa. Today his academic career and mentoring continue at Emory University in the School of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology.

“It became very clear to me that mentoring is such a critical part of career development for young people,” Thames says. “I’ve worked to pay it forward by being a good listener and trying to help young people to pursue a direction that excites them and makes them want to work hard.”

In honor of mentoring relationships and their power to change lives, and as a way for him to express his gratitude to the institution that was so critical to his own career development, Thames made a generous gift to the School of Medicine to establish the Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award. Housed in the Department of Internal Medicine, the award celebrates faculty who have had a significant impact on the lives of medical students, residents, fellows and junior faculty through exceptional mentorship or professional guidance. It also serves as annual recognition of the mentoring relationship between Thames and Kontos.

“Without his mentorship, my career would have taken a completely different path. He opened my mind to the possibilities of what could be done, and got me excited about an area that ultimately became the focus of my research career,” says Thames, referring to his research on the autonomic nervous system and how it regulates the heart and circulation.

Who was your mentor?
Do you have a memory of a favorite mentor from your time on the MCV Campus? Email us at MedAlum@vcu.edu and share your story.

Housestaff alumnus Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., the James C. Roberts, Esq. Professor in Cardiology, received the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award on Feb. 8, 2019.

Kenneth A. Ellenbogen, M.D., Martha M. and Harold W. Kimmerling Professor of Cardiology, wrote one of Abbate’s multiple nomination letters. In his letter, Ellenbogen cited the outstanding guidance of his own mentor — Marc Thames.

In the 1980s, Kontos had recruited Thames back to Richmond, Virginia, to serve as professor of medicine and chief of the cardiology section at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Then Thames recruited Ellenbogen from Duke University to lead the development of cardiac electrophysiology at the VA.

Now chair of VCU Health’s cardiology division, Ellenbogen wrote, “Dr. Thames created an enthusiasm for research and work that was contagious and an environment that was always inspiring and exciting … I have never been more stimulated to ask questions in my life. Marc taught me that the questions were what was important and the techniques and technology were just tools. He taught and inspired so many young cardiologists, many of whom went on to very successful careers in academic medicine.”

Ellenbogen says Abbate has created the same type of palpable enthusiasm and excitement among today’s junior faculty. “He is a gifted and highly productive clinician scientists who gives selflessly of his time and effort to support trainees and faculty in cardiology. It’s very fitting that he is the first recipient of this special award.”

Thanks to the Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award, the cycle of mentorship will be celebrated for many years to come.

By Polly Roberts

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Updated: 04/29/2016