Herman J. Flax professor and chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation National director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ PMR Program

One of Cifu’s favorite roles is that of educator and advocate, inspiring medical students and residents to devote themselves to the rehabilitation specialty that he loves.

But a chairman’s schedule is often dominated by research, patient care or administrative duties, and it can be hard to find the time to mentor your field’s youngest members. Even when it’s your favorite thing to do.

For Cifu, the Flax Professorship makes it possible.

When Herman J. Flax graduated from MCV’s medical school in 1940, physical medicine and rehabilitation was not yet a recognized specialty. Nevertheless, he threw himself into learning about rehabilitation. Visiting World War I veterans, polio survivors and the geriatric set, he began training with physicians who would become giants in the emerging field.

Cifu recalls meeting Flax in the late 1980s. By then, Flax had established himself with a 40-year career spent in Puerto Rico growing the rehab field from obscurity into a recognized specialty. Cifu was just at the start of his own career, completing his residency training at Baylor. Nevertheless, Flax spent time with the young resident, and Cifu recalls the inspiration he took from that exchange.

Flax established the professorship that carries his name in 1996. Cifu is its second holder. The Flax Endowment’s annual payout makes it possible for Cifu to set aside time that he devotes to teaching and mentoring students and residents. “The fund that Dr. Flax established provides the financial resources that make this possible,” said Cifu. “But he also provided me with the motivation to follow his example when he made time for a young resident back in the 80s.”

For students and residents, the time spent with Cifu gives them a unique view into the rehabilitation field. In addition to his responsibilities as professor and chair in the medical school, Cifu also serves as national director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ PMR program. In that role, he provides guidance, leadership and oversight to 150 VA hospitals and to the 3,500 employees involved in providing rehabilitation care to veterans and active-duty service members injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These soldiers come to the VA with multiple disabling injuries including traumatic brain injury. Shaping systems of care for these polytrauma patients, as they’re known, is a priority for Cifu. The medical school has a longstanding partnership with the nearby McGuire VA, where Cifu has created a clinical laboratory of sorts. Now considered the VA’s premiere polytrauma program, McGuire tests approaches to healing these difficult to treat patients and then shares what works throughout the VA system.

This national and international perspective is what Cifu shares with his students and residents as he seeks to close the circle that Flax set in motion. “I believe in investing time with students and residents who’ll one day be the leaders of our field. Dr. Flax and my chairman supported me when I was at the beginning of my career.”

Research has potential to direct treatment decisions

Cifu is principal investigator on two Department of Defense grants totaling nearly $4 million. The first will follow 750 active duty service men who have sustained mild brain injury. In the civilian world, 97 percent of such patients would return to full function within a year. In this first-of-its kind study, the military will learn whether a blast-related initial injury dictates a different outcome for servicemen who have received what amounts to a mild concussion.

The second grant funds a study of the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen, which is thought to have the anti-inflammatory and regenerative effects needed to promote healing for brain injuries. Even though it has not been proven effective for brain injuries, some service members have pursued this avenue of treatment. Cifu’s pilot study will enroll 60 active-duty Marines who have suffered the effects of a mild brain injury for more than three months. In an example of intra-service cooperation, the Marines will travel to the Navy’s largest dive center, the Pensacola Naval Institute, where they will receive two months of treatment in the institute’s eight-person hyperbaric chamber.