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School of Medicine discoveries

February 28, 2019

Alumnus turns making coffee into life-saving surgeries

The Class of 2015's Larry Istrail founded Pheo Coffee, where freshly ground coffee beans delivered to your door can directly fund someone's health care.

The Class of 2015’s Larry Istrail founded Pheo Coffee, where freshly ground coffee beans delivered to your door can directly fund someone’s health care. As author and cardiologist Eric Topol said on Twitter, “When coffee is good for other people’s health.”

The Class of 2015’s Larry Istrail has never lacked for curiosity. So during medical school when he discovered his attending also made a hobby out of roasting coffee beans, Istrail did what he often does: ask plenty of questions.

Pawan Suri, M.D., happily shared the process he had learned from a former colleague known for his sublime coffee. Two things stuck with Istrail: freshly roasted coffee is unparalleled in taste and doctors really, really love their coffee.

Now a hospitalist at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia, Istrail combined his passion for coffee and medicine to tackle another goal: funding medical care in developing countries. In 2018, he launched Pheo Coffee with the mission of using one of the most consumed beverages in the world to raise money for those who lack access to basic medical care due to cost.

Even as Istrail continues to pay off student loan debt, he has chosen to donate a portion of Pheo Coffee’s proceeds to Watsi, a nonprofit that uses 100 percent of its donations to crowd-fund medical and surgical treatments around the world.

The endeavor has earned Istrail praise in the Washington Post, The Washingtonian and Daily Coffee News, among others.

“We’re all physicians and artists,” says Suri, associate professor and emergency medicine-internal medicine residency program director. “We’re interested in humanity. That’s what inspires physicians to grow coffee, write or paint. I’ve always encouraged stimulating the right brain and it looks like Larry is one of those people who got a spark by it.”

Istrail shared with us more about that spark, Pheo Coffee and how his time on the MCV Campus influenced both.

First, tell us about the name. How did you come up with Pheo Coffee?
It started as a silly idea. I was on endocrine consults and we were seeing a patient with a pheochromocytoma. It is a rare condition in which your body releases far more adrenaline than is necessary, so it was memorable on its own. A ‘Pheo’ is a shorthand name of this condition and I remember walking out of the room thinking, “she looked like she had too many cups of coffee!” I mentioned it to my medical friends and they all loved the name.

How did your time in medical school play a role in Pheo Coffee’s creation?
My experience at VCU played a large part in the development of the business. I thought back to my time at VCU as a med student, when I was lucky enough to have Dr. Pawan Suri as my attending for a week. He was probably the most interesting, kind and inspiring attending I’ve ever had. So knowledgeable about so many topics, one of which is roasting coffee. He is the person who got me into the idea of buying unroasted coffee beans and roasting them yourself. I experimented with it briefly in medical school, but couldn’t get the taste right. But this new experience with the patient with Pheo inspired me to look into it again. I ordered more raw coffee beans and started roasting them in an iron skillet, and that is how Pheo Coffee started. Fortunately I have since outsourced the roasting to a local, professional roaster and the coffee is exponentially more delicious.

What are your fondest memories from medical school?
My favorite memories at VCU all revolved around the incredible classmates I had. Every day I was inspired by their work ethic and genuine, good-hearted nature. We were all in a four-year battle together to come out the other end as doctors, a time that was incredibly difficult but ultimately so rewarding. Most of the best friends I’ve made in my life came from VCU, and I’m really thankful for that.

Why is it important to you to make time for this business when you are already a busy physician helping others on a daily basis?
I LOVE start-ups. I also love medicine, but they stimulate different parts of your brain. Medicine is about hard work, analytical thinking and drawing from a vast knowledge base to treat one individual or a small group of individuals. At the same time, I really yearn for a more creative outlet toward achieving long-term goals. Start-ups offer the opportunity to be creative and develop things other people would want to use, with the hopes of helping a much larger group of people. The idea of starting a company with a medical angle is really the best of both worlds for me.

What inspired you to donate part of your profits to fund surgeries in developing countries?
I wanted to start a for-profit company that can help people in a tangible way. Ultimately, I believe creating a sustainable health care fund by tapping into the 400 million cups of coffee consumed per day in the U.S. is an innovative, elegant solution to helping the roughly one billion people around the world who lack basic funds to pay for life-saving surgeries.

Each order comes with a card introducing buyers to the person their coffee purchase has helped. What are some of the success stories of surgeries funded through Pheo Coffee?
All kinds of people from a 3-year-old from Tanzania in need of an orthopaedic surgery to a tooth extraction in Malawi to an Ugangan high schooler in need of a hernia repair. Probably the most memorable, though, was a teenager from Burma who was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital cardiac disease that can only be repaired with surgery. It is a classic cardiac disease we learn about in medical school, and I was surprised to see she had made it to her teenage years without a surgical repair. When I learned that she had gotten her cardiac surgery, in part due to Pheo Coffee sales, I was pretty emotional. Seeing a photo of her after the surgery with a huge smile on her face is all the motivation I need to keep going with this unorthodox endeavor.

By Polly Roberts

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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