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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


M2 Shivam Gulhar went blind for two weeks. Then he found his calling.

In February, the Class of 2021's Shivam Gulhar will present findings from his stroke patient research at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In February, the Class of 2021’s Shivam Gulhar will present findings from his stroke patient research at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the Association of Academic Physiatrists annual conference in Puerto Rico.

In high school, the Class of 2021’s Shivam Gulhar dreamed of becoming a computer engineer and changing the world through technology. But plans shifted his junior year when a misdiagnosed cornea ulcer left him blind for two weeks.

Suddenly, Gulhar found another calling, inspired by the care of an ophthalmologist he met at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“He was my first exposure to how a doctor could really help a patient,” Gulhar says. “I was extremely upset — if my scar had been a centimeter down, I would have needed a transplant — but he quickly put me at ease. The care he provided saved me from permanent blindness and made me realize the importance of medicine.”

The Maryland native went on to shadow his ophthalmologist several times before coming to Virginia Commonwealth University as an undergraduate biology major with aspirations for a medical career. In 2017, he was accepted to the VCU School of Medicine.

His decision to study on the MCV Campus was reinforced when he learned he’d been awarded the Sarah Snyder Laughon Medical Scholarship.

The scholarship had been established upon Laughon’s passing, when she bequeathed a generous gift to the School of Medicine for scholarship support to deserving medical students. Her daughter, S. Katherine Laughon Grantz, is a 2000 graduate of the School of Medicine.

“While I worked hard to realize my dreams, I did not entirely understand the price that it would cost me,” Gulhar says. “Now that I have begun medical school, the financial burden is astonishing. But just as I was shown how medicine is the path for me earlier on in my life, I felt that earning a scholarship was nothing short of a sign that I truly deserved to be here and that medicine was my calling.”

Last summer, Gulhar returned to Johns Hopkins for a research rotation in the hospital’s Motion Analysis Lab at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Through the Rehabilitation Research Experience for Medical Students, provided by the Association of Academic Physiatrists, he researched gait patterns of stroke patients and healthy adults with the ultimate goal of finding the best way to teach stroke patients how to improve their walking.

While on a treadmill, patients walked wearing oxygen masks and electrodes attached to nine different leg muscles, sending data to a computer to create a patient model. “Then we can develop a model that mimics stroke patients, giving physical therapists tools to target the most affected muscles during therapy and providing patients with the best treatment possible,” Gulhar says.

In February, he will present the lab’s findings at the Association of Academic Physiatrists annual conference in Puerto Rico.

“With the increasingly competitive nature of the residency match, being able to present his research at a national conference will distinguish Shivam from other applicants regardless of his eventual specialty choice,” says Christopher Woleben, M’97, H’01, associate dean for student affairs.

1838 Scholarship Campaign
The School of Medicine’s 1838 Campaign aims to increase the number and size of scholarships to students. Full- and half-tuition scholarships are most urgently needed and serve as one of the medical school’s best resources for recruiting and rewarding top students. Learn more about how you can help a medical student escape debt.

Originally drawn to ophthalmology, Gulhar says the summer research experience — suggested to him by his sister, a medical student at Howard University who had worked with stroke patients — opened his eyes to other specialties where patient interaction plays a prominent role.

Luckily, thanks to the Sarah Snyder Laughon Scholarship that pays a portion of his tuition and fees, he has the freedom to let his interests (and not his student loans) decide his ultimate path in medicine.

“Debt can cause students to choose fields for monetary reasons,” Gulhar says. “I’m glad I don’t have that constraint. This scholarship allows me to choose what I want to do.”

By Polly Roberts


VCU trauma director Aboutanos leads planning for statewide trauma system

Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam recently reappointed VCU Trauma Center Medical Director Michel Aboutanos, M.D., H'00, M.P.H., to the state's EMS Advisory Board. Here, Aboutanos is pictured at the Shining Knight Gala, an annual event honoring first-responders, nurses, doctors and others who save trauma patients' lives.

Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam recently reappointed VCU Trauma Center Medical Director Michel Aboutanos, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., to the state’s EMS Advisory Board. Here, Aboutanos is pictured at the Shining Knight Gala, an annual event honoring first-responders, nurses, doctors and others who save trauma patients’ lives.

When coordinated trauma care succeeds, it’s like a symphony, says VCU Trauma Center Medical Director Michel Aboutanos, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S.

It takes every member of the care team coming together — perfecting their skills and hitting their notes — to save lives.

“We need everyone working together for that patient who’s facing impossible injuries to survive,” says Aboutanos, a 2000 housestaff alumnus.

A symphony also needs the right conductor. And what Aboutanos has helped create at VCU, he’s been asked to expand to a statewide level.

Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam recently tapped Aboutanos for a second three-year term on the state’s EMS Advisory Board, where he will continue to lead the Trauma System Oversight and Management Committee. The reappointment gives him the chance to oversee implementation of the plan for a statewide trauma system that the committee developed during his first term.

“Our ultimate purpose is to make sure the injured patient receives appropriate care across the commonwealth,” says Aboutanos, who notes that currently protocols for treating injured patients may differ across the state’s five Level 1 trauma centers. “Second, we have not collectively looked at our top trauma problems and how we’re going to tackle them under one coordinated effort.”

A Level 1 trauma center designation recognizes hospitals across the nation that deliver the highest quality care within and beyond hospital walls through teaching and research, as well as injury and violence prevention programs.

“VCU Medical Center was the first trauma center designated in Virginia,” Aboutanos says. “We have 30 years of experience so it’s extremely important that we continue to show that commitment and leadership to the commonwealth.”

Gary Brown, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, says that’s one of the many reasons Aboutanos is most qualified to chair the committee.

“Dr. Aboutanos was the only clear, objective and logical pathway to navigate the commonwealth’s complex facets and components of trauma care and mold it into an integrated vision and trauma system plan for all Virginians,” says Brown, whose office manages the EMS Advisory Board.

Brown saw the success of VCU’s trauma center when Aboutanos invited him to the Shining Knight Gala. The annual VCU Health event honors all members of the trauma team from emergency medicine first-responders to doctors, nurses and others who save trauma patients’ lives and put them on the road to recovery. The event raises funds for VCU Trauma Center’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program.

“Trauma care must be structured around the patient’s needs and delivering optimal outcomes along a continuum of care,” Brown says “The Shining Knight Gala represented and demonstrated every aspect and component that defines a comprehensive, coordinated, efficient and effective Level 1 trauma care program.”

Similarly, as chair of the EMS Advisory Board’s Trauma System Oversight and Management Committee, Aboutanos created a task force comprised of all the players and stakeholders who influence a patient’s care from before the point of injury to pre-hospital and hospital care to rehabilitation and reentry into the community.

About the Fletcher Ammons Professorship in Surgery

Endowed professorships and chairs represent the highest academic honor a university can bestow on a faculty member. They aim to help universities recruit and retain the brightest teachers, researchers and clinicians, enriching the academic and clinical environment for students and patients alike.

An endowed professorship or chair also serves as a lasting tribute to the donor who established it. Mary H. Ammons, wife of Col. Fletcher E. Ammons, M’26, established the professorship in surgery that bears his name after her husband’s death in 1978.

Col. Ammons served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, retiring in 1946 with the rank of Colonel. His last duty station was as hospital commander at Langley Air Force Base.

The task force’s seven sub-groups met more than 100 times over three years, first reviewing recommendations from the American College of Surgeons and then determining how to incorporate those recommendations into a statewide trauma system plan.

“We always say it’s not the plan that matters, it’s the planning that matters more,” Aboutanos says. “People who haven’t worked together collectively are now at the same table and learning from one another.”

For Aboutanos, giving the appropriate time and effort to the committee would not be possible without the support of VCU leadership and his Fletcher Emory Ammons Professorship in Surgery.

“This professorship financially supports and protects time on my schedule,” he says. “With it, I can provide this level of service to the commonwealth. It’s what an institution of our caliber should be doing, and I am incredibly thankful that I hold an endowed position. I wish I could have every member of my division in endowed positions so that we could do the work we have to do.”

In October 2018, Gov. Northam approved the proposed trauma system plan. Now the task force will reconvene to begin implementation — including seeking funding from the General Assembly for a sustainable trauma fund that would support the Virginia trauma system plan, including a robust data system to gather trauma data across the state, identify the top causes of mortality and tackle those issues.

Then, the symphony can begin.

By Polly Roberts


Passion pays off: Sanyal to receive premier award in field of liver disease

The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases will honor Arun Sanyal, M.D., with the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award.

The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases will honor Arun Sanyal, M.D., who holds the Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology Research, with the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award, recognized as the premier award in the field of liver disease.

In November 2018, Arun Sanyal, M.D., will accept the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. The award signifies 30 years of research including 17 continuous years of National Institutes of Health funding, the development of therapeutics reducing liver disease across the globe, and countless international leadership roles and awards.

“This is the premier award in the field of liver disease and Dr. Sanyal is most deserving,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “His work is the definition of translational medicine. Through his extraordinary commitment to research, teaching and patient care, and to always finding a better way, he has improved the standard of care for liver disease around the world.”

A housestaff alumnus who’s now a professor in the VCU Department of Internal Medicine and education core director in the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research, Sanyal embodies a passion for liver disease that has taken him to the top of his field. It’s a much different place than he envisioned in 1987, when he came to the MCV Campus as a gastroenterology fellow.

“I had no interest in liver disease and I was actually terrified by it because all the patients were dying when I was in training,” Sanyal says.

Then-chair of VCU’s Division of Gastroenterology Z. Reno Vlahcevic, M.D., who had recruited Sanyal, wasted no time in calling the young trainee into his office. “He knew it troubled me tremendously that what was being taught as the best care possible still resulted in the majority of people dying,” Sanyal says. “I thought that was completely unacceptable. He believed that would prove a strong motivator, so he told me, ‘I think you should do liver disease.’

“And off I went.”

Finding a better way
Today, Sanyal holds the Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology Research that honors his mentor who died in 2000. “At a personal level, it’s extremely poignant and meaningful. I hope I can do him proud.”

Practically, the professorship gives Sanyal the freedom to get early-stage, unfunded projects off the ground with the goal of doing what Vlahcevic knew he wanted — and needed — to do: find a better way to treat liver disease.

“We have developed new paradigms for drug development that are now being used across all the field of liver disease. None of that would have been possible without having an endowed professorship that protects your time for that kind of research,” Sanyal says. “It allows more time for educating young physicians and for developing new ideas and concepts that have a footprint beyond the university to a national and even international level.”

Sanyal has had a hand in three high-profile advances that have improved liver disease treatment since his training days. First, along with a former radiology colleague, he helped establish the foundation for a procedure known as TIPS that places a stent in the abdomen and has helped lower the mortality rate associated with internal bleeding in cirrhosis patients from 30 percent to 15 percent.

Second, he discovered a link between nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance that translated to new treatment and practice guidelines. Finally, Sanyal is in the midst of a study to reverse kidney shutdown in cirrhosis patients that could reduce mortality for this otherwise fatal condition without liver transplantation.

Over the next five years, Sanyal will lead a $14 million national project to find an alternative to using biopsies to test for fatty liver disease. Today, many patients will refuse the invasive procedure, allowing an undiagnosed disease to fester until the only remaining treatment option is a liver transplant.

“By developing simple, non-invasive tools that every physician can use at the bedside, we hope that we will be able to expand access to care for the millions of people who have this condition so we can identify those who need more aggressive attention,” Sanyal says.

“A living textbook”
Sanyal credits his family, teachers, colleagues and patients who have helped him advance the liver disease field.

“Patients are my best teachers,” Sanyal says. “You don’t need a podcast. Every time I walk into a clinic, I’m reading a living textbook.”

It’s a textbook he says he continues to learn from every day.

“The work,” he says, “is never finished.”

By Polly Roberts


Why Planned Giving Matters

Thanks to thoughtful planning, the Class of 1912’s Guy R. Fisher didn’t have to choose between taking care of his family and growing the future of his beloved medical school. A charitable remainder trust allowed him to do both — and do them well.

“Through a charitable remainder trust, a donor irrevocably makes a gift to the trust that’s then used to provide beneficiaries a payment stream for their lifetimes,” says Jane Garnet Brown, director of gift planning at the MCV Foundation. “Upon the death of the last beneficiary, the remainder of the trust goes to the charity of the donor ’s choosing. This type of trust is considered a life income plan where the donor and their spouse or other beneficiaries are paid for life — or for a term of years.” Brown says a variety of benefits make a charitable remainder trust appealing to donors.

Tax deduction: You will qualify for federal income tax deduction.

Learn how a Class of 1912 graduate sent a gift to a fourth-year student … 106 years later.Payments for life: The beneficiaries you name — which can include you or someone you name — will receive annual payments for life, or for the period you designate.

No immediate capital gain tax: If you fund the trust with a long-term appreciated asset (assets you have held for more than one year, like appreciated stock) and the trust sells it, there will be no immediate tax on the capital gain. If you were to sell such an asset yourself, you would owe tax on all the capital gain realized in the sale.

Reduced estate costs: Your estate may enjoy reduced probate costs and estate taxes.

Success of next generation: You will provide generous support to the medical school and its future students.

These trusts are flexible in that they can also be used to turn illiquid assets, such as an underused vacation home, jewelry, art or land, into an income stream, making this type of planned gift an ideal choice for donors who are interested in supplementing their income during retirement.

“It’s a great idea if you or a loved one needs extra income in retirement,” Brown says. “You may also continue making gifts to the trust over time. Any year you need a charitable deduction, you can make a gift to the trust, receive a charitable deduction for a portion of y our gift, and your trust payout will increase as well. In a year where you don’t need the trust payment, you can even gift the payment stream back to the trust or give it directly to the School of Medicine.”

Through a partnership with the SunTrust Foundation and Endowment Specialty Practice, the MCV Foundation offers services to invest and administer life income plans such as the charitable remainder trust for donors. “This is a more cost-effective way to establish a charitable remainder trust,” Brown says. “We will handle the establishment of the trust, the sale of trus t assets, the investment management, tax reporting and beneficiary distributions. Our partnership with SunTrust allows us to make this process quite easy for our donors.”

Would you like to learn more about how to use estate planning to your advantage? If you are already speaking with a representative from the School of Medicine about making a gift, please let them know you’ve seen this article and would like more information. To begin a conversation about a planned gift, please talk to a gift officer you know or call the MCV Foundation’s Jane Garnet Brown at (804) 828-4599. The MCV Foundation houses the medical school’s endowment funds and offers planned giving expertise to our alumni and donors.

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Updated: 04/29/2016