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Organs for sale

Distinguished transplant surgeon Francis Delmonico, H’78, helps lead global fight against human-organ trafficking for profit. 

In 1957, the Medical College of Virginia’s legendary “restless genius,” David Hume, M.D., performed the first organ transplant in Virginia – a kidney donated between twins. Hume’s pioneering work in transplant medicine helped usher in a new era of hope for patients and laid the foundation for what today is VCU Health’s Hume-Lee Transplant Center, named in honor of Hume and his colleague and longtime chief of transplantation for the medical center, H.M. Lee, H’61.

Francis Delmonico, H’77, has been called both a respected elder statesman as well as a respected trailblazer. “No other transplant professional has done so much or worked so hard to insist on fair and ethical treatment of the live-organ donor and ethical use of the donated organ.”

Francis Delmonico, H’78, has been called both a respected elder statesman as well as a respected trailblazer. “No other transplant professional has done so much or worked so hard to insist on fair and ethical treatment of the live-organ donor and ethical use of the donated organ.” Photo Credit: Skip Rowland

Yet the medical breakthroughs that made organ transplantation possible also inadvertently spawned a darker legacy. Worldwide, the need for human organs for transplant – particularly kidneys – greatly exceeds the number that become available each year from living and deceased donors; in the U.S. alone, more than 100,000 people on the organ-transplant waiting list need a kidney. This stark disparity, coupled with the fact that kidneys can be taken from living donors, has fueled the rise in a lucrative international black market – the trafficking of human organs for profit.

During a December 2017 weekend celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Hume-Lee Transplant Center, Francis Delmonico, H’78, presented a keynote address on organ trafficking and the international effort – in which he’s played a leadership role – to fight it.

Organ trafficking is a complex global business and a “microcosm of social dysfunction,” said Delmonico. At one end of the transaction are people with money and the need for an organ. At the other end are the impoverished and vulnerable – migrants seeking passage to Europe, persecuted minorities, individuals ensnared in human-trafficking. The traffickers lure donors with promises of money, jobs or other opportunities, and sell the organs for amounts that can exceed $200,000 for a kidney. “Transplant tourism” results when recipients travel to another country for the surgery.

“The levels of corruption get so disgraceful that it staggers you,” said Delmonico, “but it is all about money.”

In some cases donors in desperate need actively seek to sell a kidney. In other cases, donors are solicited with sometimes false or misleading information. And in even more horrifying situations, unwitting victims have been imprisoned or held captive and forced to submit to kidney removal. The fate of these donors is often unknown, but some have shared stories of promised payments that never come, of failing health, of being unable to work anymore.

Recipients too are vulnerable. They may be extorted for an ever-increasing fee, may receive a compromised or even non-functioning organ, may be provided with inadequate care, and sometimes suffer serious medical complications or even death.

In his presentation, Delmonico outlined this portrait of human misery exploited for profit and spoke of how he came to be involved in the fight against organ trafficking. His inspiration, he said, reaches back to his days among one of the last cohorts of residents to study under Hume before the physician’s untimely death in a plane crash. The exacting, patient-focused training Delmonico received under Hume, Lee and the other surgeons here, he said, set the standard he has practiced through his own long and distinguished surgical career at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he continues to serve as emeritus director of transplantation and as professor of surgery for Harvard Medical School.

Delmonico’s prominence and accomplishments in his field led in 2005 to his election as president of UNOS (the United Network for Organ Sharing), which manages the organ-transplant system in the United States. A year later in 2006, he was appointed as advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) on transplantation matters and accepted the position of director of medical affairs for the international Transplantation Society.

In 2016, Francis Delmonico, H’77, was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which last year held a summit calling on the world to repudiate the practices of organ trafficking and human trafficking for organ removal and to promote ethical principles of transplantation.

In 2016, Francis Delmonico, H’78, was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which last year held a summit calling on the world to repudiate the practices of organ trafficking and human trafficking for organ removal and to promote ethical principles of transplantation.

In 2004, the WHO had called on its member states to address the problem of international organ trafficking and transplant tourism. For his leadership role in the transplant community, Delmonico travelled all over the world, in collaboration with the WHO, to gather a deep understanding of the problem. What he saw was profoundly disturbing, intolerable for a surgeon whose principles were shaped by the pioneers under whom he had learned during his residency.

“There is a regard for the nobility and science of organ transplantation derived from Dr. Hume,” said Delmonico, “that must not be prostituted by organ sales.”

In 2008, Delmonico was instrumental in helping convene an international gathering – the Istanbul Summit – where more than 150 medical leaders, scientists, public-policy experts, ethicists, legal scholars and others together worked to draft what would become known as the Declaration of Istanbul. The landmark statement called for all countries to establish a “legal and professional framework” for organ donation and transplantation that safeguards donors and recipients, enforces standards and prohibits unethical practices, including the financial exploitation of donors through buying and selling organs.

Delmonico continues to serve as senior advisor to the volunteer Declaration of Istanbul Custodian Group to promote, implement and uphold the Declaration across the globe. More recently, in 2016, Delmonico was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which this past year held its own summit, calling organ trafficking and human trafficking for organ removal “crimes against humanity” and calling on the world to repudiate these practices and promote ethical principles of transplantation.

By Caroline Kettlewell



A “respected trailblazer”: Francis Delmonico, H’78

In 1971, Francis Delmonico came to Richmond to begin his residency in surgery, aspiring to a career in the still-young field of organ transplantation. More than 45 years later, he still recalls with appreciation the qualities of the surgeons who trained him, like H.M. Lee, H’61, (“a great teacher”), B.W. Haynes, H’46, (“so exhilarating to watch”), and the legendary chairman of the Department of Surgery, David Hume, M.D., who, Delmonico remembers, was unpretentious enough to repair a shoe by wrapping it in tape, but exacting and unyielding in what he expected of his residents.

At the Hume-Lee Transplant Center’s 60th Anniversary, Francis Delmonico, H’77, reunited with Kyung Ok Chi Lee, M.D., the widow of transplant pioneer H.M. Lee, M.D., for whom the center is named.

At the Hume-Lee Transplant Center’s 60th Anniversary, Francis Delmonico, H’78, reunited with Kyung Ok C. Lee, M.D., the widow of transplant pioneer H.M. Lee, M.D., for whom the center is named. Photo Credit: Kevin Morley

When Hume died at the end of Delmonico’s second year, though, the young resident’s future was thrown into uncertainty. Delmonico had been slated to complete a research fellowship in transplantation under Hume’s direction, but now, “There was no guarantee that there would be the opportunity,” says Delmonico.

Fortunately, a place was found for Delmonico at Massachusetts General Hospital both to participate in research and to continue clinical service. He took with him the standards of excellence in which he’d trained in Richmond; “I knew how to take care of patients,” says Delmonico.

After two years in Boston, Delmonico returned to Richmond to complete his residency, serving the final year as chief resident. But the professional relationship formed with the chief of surgery while in Boston would lead to him being invited back to join the staff at Massachusetts General.

Delmonico practiced surgery at Massachusetts General until 2005, achieving an impressive list of accomplishments and earning broad recognition, including the National Kidney Foundation’s David M. Hume Award for exemplifying “high ideals of scholarship and humanitarianism.”

“He truly is both a respected elder statesman as well as a respected trailblazer,” notes Marlon Levy, M.D., chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery and director of the VCU Hume-Lee Transplant Center. “No other transplant professional has done so much or worked so hard to insist on fair and ethical treatment of the live-organ donor and ethical use of the donated organ.”

By Caroline Kettlewell


Alumna and faculty member Betsy Ripley named fellow in Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine

Betsy Ripley, M'86, H'92, interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the medical school, has been named a 2017-18 fellow in the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine.

Betsy Ripley, M’86, H’92, interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the medical school, has been named a 2017-18 fellow in the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine.

The keys to becoming a successful leader, says Betsy Ripley, M’86, H’92, MS’04 (BIOS), begin with being open to the opportunities that come your way while taking time to do your current job well.

“By being a leader and doing your job well on a daily basis, you’re not just shooting for the next job. You’re contributing along the way,” Ripley says. “Be active and participate. People will remember that and you’ll be asked to do the next thing. It all builds on itself.”

Saying “yes” has led Ripley down a path to her current role as interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs for the VCU School of Medicine and, more recently, as a 2017-18 fellow with the prestigious Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine. ELAM is a year-long part-time fellowship for women faculty in schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and public health.

A core program of the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, ELAM is dedicated to developing the professional and personal skills required to lead and manage in today’s complex health environment, with special attention to the unique challenges facing women in leadership positions.

“Applicants have to be incredibly accomplished to earn their position and Dr. Ripley was accepted the first time she applied,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., who also serves as Ripley’s ELAM sponsor. “This national recognition comes as no surprise to those of us who see Betsy’s outstanding work with faculty on a daily basis. I couldn’t be more proud to see her represent our medical school as part of ELAM.”

More than 1,000 ELAM alumnae hold leadership positions in institutions around the world. The VCU School of Medicine has sponsored 12 previous ELAM fellows.

“At VCU, we have a lot of good strong women leaders — Marsha Rappley, Deborah Davis, Deborah Zimmermann, Melinda Hancock, to name a few,” Ripley says. “Phenomenal women who speak to how open VCU is to developing and growing our women.”

As part of ELAM, fellows participate in three week-long on-site training sessions in September, January and April, in addition to working on assignments and reading throughout the year, participating in the leadership online curriculum and communicating regularly with ELAM colleagues.

Each fellow works on an Institutional Action Project that aligns with her experiences and meets an organizational goal or need at her home university. Ripley chose a cause near and dear to her heart: education and training for faculty members.

“In medical school, we don’t go to class to become a faculty member,” she says. “You come up through the ranks and — poof! — you’re a faculty member.”

In an effort to ensure that faculty development opportunities at the medical school better meet faculty’s needs, Ripley is cataloging each development opportunity offered through the school, assigning it to a particular competency (general knowledge, leadership, scholarship or teaching and service) and determining where more resources are needed.

“We offer a lot of development opportunities but what do our faculty truly need to grow and become successful?” Ripley asks. “Along the way, what they need to know may change. What resources are needed for that growth?”

Ripley will present her project at ELAM’s on-site meeting in April not only to this year’s 54-member ELAM class, but to a host of deans, including Buckley, who will attend the final session. Networking and mentoring opportunities among national leaders is a key component of ELAM’s ultimate goal to expand the national pool of qualified women candidates for leadership in academic medicine, dentistry and public health.

She attributes her leadership success to a multitude of mentors at the medical school: Domenic Sica, M.D., Berry Fowler, M.D., John Nestler, M.D., and Dick Wenzel, M.D., all in the Department of Internal Medicine, as well as retired senior associate dean of faculty affairs P.J. Coney, M.D., and, now, Dean of Medicine Buckley.

“I’m blessed to be at an institution that’s recognized the leadership skills within me,” says Ripley, who earned her medical degree at VCU and remained on the MCV Campus to complete residency training. “I’m lucky many people have helped me when I needed it and encouraged me along the way.”

Ripley remembers a “say yes” moment when early in her career, she applied for a National Institutes of Health K Award at the encouragement of Wenzel and Fowler. She received the award and it led her to sit on a panel of VCU’s Institutional Review Board, of which she later became senior chair. It sparked an interest in research ethics that led to a master’s degree from the Department of Biostatistics, an AMA ethics fellowship, and the role as clinical research compliance officer for the university.

Ultimately, her clinical and research experience, combined with her dual role as a mother to three sons, led her to faculty affairs, first in the Department of Internal Medicine and later in the School of Medicine.

“I can speak to the variety of challenges faculty members might face, both in the workplace and at home,” Ripley says.

Sometimes, it only takes that one voice telling — and showing — others it’s possible that can make all the difference. It was in her medical school interview on the MCV Campus with a female faculty member when Ripley heard the words that molded how she approached medicine, a career and family.

“She said ‘you can do it all — if you want to,'” Ripley says. “I had that one woman who told me I could.”

Now she serves as that one voice of encouragement for faculty members across the School of Medicine, taking her place as a role model and mentor for countless others.

By Polly Roberts


Art class gives medical students new tools for wellness, empathy and fighting burnout

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey.

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey. The popular 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening. Scroll below for more pictures from the painting workshop.

A room of medical students sit nervously in front of their assignment. As they wait for instructions, they inspect the tools they will use, eyeing other students, seeing how they hold the instruments. For more than half the class, it’s the first time they’ve ever performed this kind of work.

It’s unlike any other class they have taken. “There is no quiz. There is no test,” says Steve Sawyer, Ph.D., a retired professor and former vice chair in the VCU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, as he welcomes students to the class. Then he adds with a knowing look:

“You don’t have to compete with each other.”

The students’ laughter fills the room. They’re not standing at the side of a cadaver waiting their turn to dissect or preparing for their first suture. They’re sitting at an easel contemplating a blank canvas. Their tools are brushes and a palette filled with the colors to paint the Richmond city skyline. For the next two hours, they’re artists.

The mood is light as the students get to work on their paintings, filling the canvas with skies of blue, purple and orange. They’re led by an instructor from Art for the Journey, a Richmond nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to groups as a way to inspire healing and peace. For M3 Ashley Craddock, it’s just the change of pace she needed.

“I’m loving it so far,” says Craddock as she paints the skyline and James River. “I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to not be thinking about medicine. Eighty percent of my day is medicine.”

That’s the beauty of art, says Melissa Bradner, M.D., M.S.H.A., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health who put together the series of third-year wellness workshops that include the Art for the Journey class. The wellness workshops are the result of a collaboration between Project HEART and the medical school’s Physician, Patient and Society course.

A holistic approach

Both Project HEART and the Physician, Patient and Society course span all four years of medical school and speak to the medical school’s commitment to education students on the importance of learning how to interact and empathize with patients, and how to take care of themselves, as they prepare to enter a profession known for its high burnout rate.

The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that “bringing the humanities and arts into medical education is one way to help students form deeper connections with patients, maintain joy in medicine, and develop empathy and resiliency.”

The PPS course encompasses the humanistic, ethical and legal responsibility of physicians to their patients and society. Topics covered include career and professional development, the physician-patient relationship, integrative/complementary medicine, palliative care, spirituality, health disparities, physician bias and cultural competency, and the practical application of ethics and law to the practice of medicine.

Through Project HEART, an initiative to remind students to health with empathy, acceptance, respect and integrity, incoming students are assigned to small groups that meet at least eight times during their first year, and then throughout their medical school career — all under the mentorship of faculty or staff members who provide guidance, assistance and support.

“Physicians and medical students spend their whole life getting A’s and it’s how you define yourself,” says Bradner, adding that the only criteria for the art workshop is that you participate. “You connect with yourself on a completely different level.”

The wellness workshops also include classes in mindfulness training, food and mood, and exercise in medicine.

“It helps to go someplace else for a little while,” says Mary Blumberg, M.D., an internist and pathologist who has painted for 20 years. Along with Sawyer, she spoke to the class about her experiences finding art as a place of well-being. “Painting is a forgiving place. In reality, it can be whatever you want it to be. What matters is what you want. Green sky and pink water? Go for it.”

Turns out, students were hungry for the right-brain experience. The 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening.

A lasting impact
The Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao, who is pursuing a dual M.D./M.H.A., completed the Art for the Journey class in 2016. An experiential learner, she says she appreciated the opportunity to learn by doing.

“It was a great experience to do something different and have the opportunity to recharge after a long string of months on the wards,” Chiao says. “You were able to experience well-being and self-care concepts and were more likely to realize the value of these things to our ability to continue caring for our patients.”

At the start of each class, Cynthia Paullin, Art for the Journey’s assistant executive director, details the organization’s work in the community with dementia patients and incarcerated women. Chiao was so inspired by the stories that she contacted Paullin to volunteer with the dementia patients. She has volunteered at two sessions where she was paired with an elder with early onset dementia.

“As a volunteer, I am an assistant to my elder partner’s creative space and provide support of her artistic efforts,” Chiao says. “We do not make any decisions for our partners. We just provide them the space, time and opportunity to be creative.”

Chiao says she has been a dancer most of her life and knows she is a happier person when she makes time for it, a lesson she learned as she studied for the national medical licensing exam. “To me, I cannot take care of my future patients the way they deserve to be taken care of if I do not make sure that I am healthy and happy in my own life. Provider resiliency is critical in our ability to provide high quality and safe care to the patients that we serve.”

That’s why Bradner’s goal is to expand the art initiative so every medical student can participate.

“Addressing physician burnout is important, especially for these students who were biochemistry majors,” she says. “They’ve had science their whole lives and not necessarily an education that includes art or music. Art is a tremendous outlet to use your brain differently and decompress. For me, art is a way to connect with a different part of myself that is really important to happiness.”

Story by Polly Roberts; photos by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.


VCU team heads to Puerto Rico

The medical school's Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy's Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The medical school’s Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy’s Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. They’ll lead a VCU team to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja.

Students and faculty alike usually want to kick back and relax once the fall semester ends. But an interprofessional team from VCU instead will pack up donated supplies and use their skills in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The VCU team includes Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, assistant professor of family medicine and medical director, I²CRP program; Emily Peron, Pharm.D., M.S., assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy; School of Medicine students Gabriel Martinez Alvarez and Frank Soto del Valle; School of Pharmacy student Camilla De Jesus Pinero; and Carla Shaffer, Ph.D., L.C.P., a clinical psychologist. They’ll fly to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja, just west of San Juan.

Hurricane Maria, the tenth-most intense hurricane recorded, made landfall on Sept. 20, causing a humanitarian crisis and devastating damage.

Ryan was introduced to the clinic in October when he participated in a medical service trip with colleagues from other universities. “I got to meet some organizations I feel will be good partners and that are providing community-oriented care. What we don’t want to do is go down there and set up our own thing disconnected from other efforts.”

He believes that the VCU team will be able to staff the clinic while some of its regular staff does community outreach, or the team will be able to do the outreach themselves to relieve weary workers. Puerto Rico has a reciprocal agreement so that licensed clinicians can practice there as long as they are registered with government officials.

Ryan believes that the group will serve a vital purpose. “Having been there and seeing the need in chronic disease, the need in managing ongoing health issues for patients who suffered such trauma, and supporting our colleagues who’ve been doing this double-shift for two months … it feels important to be there.”

Because Puerto Rico’s infrastructure – especially telecommunications – was destroyed, Ryan found that one of the biggest challenges this fall was basic communication: who would be where, when. Because the VCU team will stay in one location all week, Ryan expects things to be easier.

Two students on the team have family on the island. They’ll be interested to see firsthand how their loved ones are faring. Those local connections also provide benefits to the team. They’ll have the chance to get offsite, as they’ll be staying in the home of one team member and using a car loaned by the family of another. That allows them flexibility and eases the budget somewhat. It will also allow the team to evaluate other potential partners for future service trips.

By Lisa Crutchfield


Paramedic training program receives national honors at the Pentagon

Kenneth Williams (center), VCU’s paramedic program director, was on hand for a ceremony at the Pentagon where the program’s training partnership with Fort Lee was honored with the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award.

Kenneth Williams (center), VCU’s paramedic program director, was on hand for a ceremony at the Pentagon where the program’s training partnership with Fort Lee was honored with the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award. Photo by Darrell Hudson.

VCU’s paramedic training partnership with Fort Lee in Prince George County has received national attention, receiving the U.S. Army’s 2017 Army Community Partnership award.

In a ceremony at the Pentagon, Hon. Ryan McCarthy, Under Secretary of the Army, cited the partnership as an example of a program that not only benefits military personnel, but also the surrounding community. McCarthy served as host of the Dec. 4 ceremony, along with Hon. Jordan Gillis, acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment, and Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, assistant chief of staff for installation management.

The annual awards recognize organizations that help improve Army readiness and develop strong community relationships. Ten VCU representatives attended the ceremony.

“It was a great day,” said Kenneth Williams, VCU’s paramedic program director. “We were the only educational organization recognized, and there were about 300 that applied for the honor.” A high point of the day’s event, he said, was being in the Hall of Heroes, where Medal of Honor recipients are recognized.

Meeting or exceeding national standards
VCU’s partnership with Fort Lee was created to help Army personnel attain national standards for emergency response teams. Fort Lee medics, as well as first responders from the community, attend the year-long course, which brings them in compliance with new national standards for emergency management service providers. In addition, the program develops Fort Lee into a field preceptor training site for VCU students interested in emergency care.

Currently, more than 20 Fort Lee emergency medical technicians and community members are enrolled in the paramedic training program, which includes classroom work held on the Fort Lee base in Colonial Heights, field training and rotations in various departments at VCU Medical Center.

The Pentagon recognition helps draw attention to VCU’s program, Wiliams said, and ensures that the care provided by first responders will be strong not just on the base but also in surrounding communities. Those trained as military paramedics will one day join civilians trained by VCU in programs held across the state.

VCU’s paramedic training program, part of the School of Medicine, has certified more than 1,000 students since 1980. It’s offered through the Center for Trauma and Critical Care education in the Department of Surgery.

At the ceremony, Williams said, Army personnel stressed their commitment to continuing the partnership which currently brings military emergency responders up to paramedic level. “They’re hoping we can run a full paramedic course, and not just a bridge course,” he noted. “There are plenty of opportunities for us to work together.”

Future plans for program
Back at VCU, Williams is working with School of Medicine administration to develop the program to offer a bachelor’s degree in paramedic medicine, which would make it one of a handful in the country. “A bachelor’s program is important to many because it’s a promotion ladder in the field,” Williams explained. “People who want to get off the fire truck or work their way up the ranks to be in charge of an engine company or EMS are usually required to have a degree. If you want to be battalion chief, they look for a degree. We can play a role in that.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


Alumni star M’99 Eduardo Rodriguez inspires the next generation

It was front-page news out of NYU Langone Health in August 2015. In a 26-hour operation, the face of a 26-year-old bike mechanic who was declared brain-dead after a cycling crash was transplanted onto a 41-year-old former firefighter who was severely burned in the line of duty.

Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M'99 (center) with the Class of 2019's Diana Otoya and the Class of 2020's Frank Soto at the 2017 Alumni Stars Ceremony.Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M’99 (center) with the Class of 2019’s Diana Otoya and the Class of 2020’s Frank Soto at the 2017 Alumni Stars Ceremony. Photo credit: Jay Paul.

Leading the team that performed the most extensive facial transplant ever was M’99 Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S., the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone. The painstakingly delicate surgery was a resounding success.

Becoming a leader in facial transplantation, Rodriguez says, wasn’t an anticipated career goal.

“However, I’ve always had an interest in finding solutions to difficult problems, and this pursuit has led me to the position in which I currently reside,” he says.

Rodriguez recently returned to Richmond to be honored at the 2017 Alumni Stars ceremony, a biennial event that celebrates alumni from across the university’s academic units for their extraordinary personal and professional achievements. During the event, Rodriguez met the Class of 2019’s Diana Otoya, who says she was encouraged by Rodriguez’s non-traditional path to medical school.

“I confessed to him I didn’t really know what I wanted to do yet,” Otoya says. “He made me feel comforted by his own story about starting in dentistry before even thinking about medical school. He gave me reassurance that there is no path that is set in stone and that our careers are fluid.”

Rodriguez and his team at NYU Langone are planning for future reconstructive procedures while expanding the face transplant program’s clinical, research and education/training efforts.

“Clinical efforts will focus on patient selection and achieving the most optimal aesthetic and functional results,” he says. “Research efforts are focused on improving immune surveillance and designing patient-specific targeted immune therapies to lessen drug toxicity without increasing risk of transplant rejection.”

Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine, praised Rodriguez’s work. “He brings hope to patients in the most difficult of circumstances and I have no doubt he will continue to transform countless lives,” Buckley says. “I’m proud to see him receive this alumni honor and grateful we can call him one of our own.”

Rodriguez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was born and raised in Miami. His road to VCU began with undergraduate education at the University of Florida followed by a dental degree from NYU College of Dentistry. He completed a residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine before enrolling at VCU, where he earned his medical degree in 1999.

“I was fortunate to have been part of a newly designed education curriculum there and certainly received the best medical education at VCU,” he says.

In addition to pioneering clinical achievements, Rodriguez has written more than 130 articles and 21 book chapters. He is a member of numerous national and international professional societies, and he was the Dawson Theogaraj visiting professor in plastic surgery on VCU’s MCV Campus in 2016.

Rodriguez is quick to share credit for his accomplishments and accolades.

“I am lucky to have been mentored by remarkable individuals, and along the way, I have worked hard but have enjoyed every moment,” he says. “I have learned from the most challenging moments, and that is why one must always look forward and never give up.

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Updated: 04/29/2016