This story was published in the fall 2021 issue of 12th & Marshall. You can find the current and past issues online.

Medical students, residents and physicians often define their careers with a singular, life-changing chapter. For those coming up in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic marked a turning point. In recent years, Ebola, SARS, SARS-2 and now COVID-19 have left an indelible impression.

Each chapter also revealed deeper issues within society. COVID-19 exposed the inequality and health disparities that exist for seniors, minorities and other vulnerable populations. As the coronavirus pandemic and its impact spread, so did the level of engagement among our alumni who came alongside their alma mater during the crises of the last year.

“I am extraordinarily grateful for our alumni’s support to our students and the medical school as we meet and overcome the challenges of an unprecedented time in modern medical history,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “With all the uncertainty, upheaval and uneasiness we have experienced in the midst of a global pandemic alongside social unrest and inequalities, our alumni contributed their time, wisdom and philanthropy to the School of Medicine, even as they tackled these same concerns in their own hospitals and communities.

“Their tremendous commitment to the success of future generations is an inspiration to us all and a reminder to me of what I most value about the MCV Campus.”

The COVID-19 Bolus: A burst of knowledge

When Alan W. Dow, M.D., M.S.H.A., H’04, hosted the first “COVID-19 Bolus: Rapid Advice for These Critical Times” on April 1, 2020, the webinar series had one goal: to deliver expert opinion and advice to clinical care teams on the front lines as quickly as possible.

The World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic only three weeks earlier. Physicians, nurses, pharmacists and the health care community as a whole couldn’t wait for the standard continuing education format of daylong conferences that take years to plan. They needed to learn everything there was to know about the novel coronavirus — now.

PHD93 Denise Toney

Denise M. Toney, PHD’93 (MICR), an alumni guest speaker for The Bolus series

“What the time needed was short, high-impact bursts of high value education to help the patients right in front of you,” says Dow, a VCU Department of Internal Medicine professor who also has an appointment in the Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences as assistant vice president of health sciences for interprofessional education and collaborative care.

The 30-minute sessions did just that — bringing the audience up to speed on the latest advances in diagnosis and treatments in COVID-19 as well as the knowledge needed to provide holistic, high-quality care for patients. Held at the same time each day, the live webinars became appointment viewing for many in the early days of the pandemic.

“Inpatient nurses would go to a breakroom at 3 p.m., and whoever could make it would listen,” Dow says. “That’s tremendous to know that it was helping across professions.”

Created with a Virginia audience in mind, the popularity of The Bolus series — named for the single, large-dose administration of medicine — ultimately reached 800 unique participants representing 18 states. Overall, it garnered more than 14,000 viewer interactions through the live and recorded webinars.

Dozens of alumni served as speakers for the series, from experts at VCU Health to others who could provide viewpoints beyond the MCV Campus. Guests included Danny T. Avula, M’04, H’07, who temporarily left his position as director for the Richmond City and Henrico County Health Departments to lead Virginia’s vaccination efforts, and Denise M. Toney, PHD’93 (MICR), who received a 2020 Governor’s Honor Award for her work as director for the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services.

“It was helpful to get that state and regional perspective from outside of our academic medical center, and it was very well-received,” Dow says.

Infectious disease expert Richard P. Wenzel, M.D., professor emeritus and former chair of internal medicine, spoke multiple times and proved to be among the most popular speakers. “He spends his life thinking about pandemics,” Dow says.

In June, Wenzel served as the final speaker for the 14-month series’ initial run, which had transitioned from five days a week of COVID-19 education to periodic sessions covering a variety of health topics. It drew nearly half of its audience from outside VCU Health, including School of Medicine alumni. The Bolus series returned at the end of the summer for a limited run.

The information is timely and helpful, even for a retired physician, as everyone looks to you for ‘the real scientific’ information,” Mary Dianne (Meyer) Murphy, M’71, wrote to Dow in May 2020. “As an MCV graduate, this experience has made me very proud of my alma mater and is very encouraging that good medicine is still being taught.”

In honor of the series, she made an unplanned gift to the VCU Health COVID-19 Response Fund. Retired family medicine physician David C. Whitehead Jr., M’73, H’76, also was so inspired by the series and Dow’s leadership that he made a gift to continuing education on the MCV Campus.

An archive of The Bolus series is available online.

‘I know how hard it is’

M19 Tonie-Marie Chandler

Toni-Marie Chandler, M'19, "Lift Every Voice — Black Alumni Across the Industries” speaker

“Medicine will be too hard for you.”
“A 4.0 isn’t good enough.”
“You’re taking someone else’s spot just because you’re Black.”
“You don’t deserve to be here.”
“You’re not going to match.”

The words Toni-Marie Chandler, M’19, heard throughout her college and medical school journey still stick with her. So when VCU Alumni asked her to speak in a February webinar to kick off its “Lift Every Voice — Black Alumni Across the Industries” Panel Series to celebrate Black History Month, she didn’t hesitate.

“I always want to give back to my community and alma mater,” says Chandler, now a third-year internal medicine resident at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. “I enjoy telling my story, especially to minority students, because I know how hard it is. If I can help someone else on their journey and make their transition a little easier, that’s my goal.”

More than 160 attendees representing 11 states, Canada and the Caribbean tuned in to hear Chandler and other university alumni share their successes and lessons learned as they navigate their careers in health care, science and research, and how their race and ethnicity have played a role in their professional journeys.

A mentor since she began her undergraduate career at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, Chandler knows how hearing the struggles and ultimate success of alumni can inspire students to persevere — especially when the journey becomes difficult. “Don’t let one misstep prevent you from reaching your goal,” she says.

“It was so motivating as a student to see Black professionals in fields that I want to enter,” wrote one attendee in a post-webinar survey. “The advice and sharing of their stories were very real and relatable.”

M02 Eric Freeman

Eric B. Freeman, M’02, "Amplifying Voices: Experiences in Health Sciences Education and Clinical Practice" panelist

Eric B. Freeman, M’02, received similar praise when he served as a panelist for “Amplifying Voices: Experiences in Health Sciences Education and Clinical Practice.” Offered in conjunction with April’s MCV Campus Virtual Reunion Weekend, the panel discussion was the second installment in the VCU Health series “History and Health: Racial Equity.” A Richmond, Virginia, pediatrician, Freeman and other panelists shared their stories and experiences as students and practitioners, reflecting on the strategies they’ve used to thrive as health care professionals in spite of racial inequities.

“Dr. Freeman’s points were well-taken,” wrote one of 62 attendees who represented 14 states. “I remembered how important to me the presence of male role models as professors and instructors was.” Another called the session “eyeopening, vulnerable and personable.”

Four alumni also answered the call to join the inaugural School of Medicine Inclusion Council, which brings together key stakeholders in the school and community to create and sustain a structure for dialogue on issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion:

  • McKenzie Lee, M’19, general surgery resident, VCU Health
  • Priscilla M. Mpasi, M’14, attending physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
  • Riley North, M’21, emergency medicine resident, VCU Health
  • Randy Vince Jr., H’18, urologic oncology fellow, University of Michigan

“Alumni bring knowledge of the university and what it was like when they were here,” says Donna H. Jackson, Ed.D., council co-chair and assistant dean for admissions and director of student outreach in the VCU School of Medicine. “They’ve seen our growth and want to assist in making that growth more consistent.”

Their service on the council ranges from participating in discussions and raising pertinent questions to helping create an “OUTlist” resource to support LGBTQIA+ faculty and staff. “They ask, ‘Are current medical students and residents going to experience the same things I did, or are things different?’ Their reflections help us move that line forward and create a better experience for the current School of Medicine community,” Jackson says.

Commissioned in August 2020, the council serves as a sounding board for School of Medicine community members and brings actionable ideas and initiatives to leadership for implementation. “We are inclusion advocates,” Jackson says. “While we want to hear about problems and concerns, we also want to hear about innovative ideas or suggestions so we can address those or put them in place.”

‘Imagine being in medical school during this time'

Match Day 2021 collage

Members of the Class of 2021 pack celebration boxes for their classmates to open on Match Day, held virtually in March. The boxes included personal notes and well wishes from alumni who gave their time to write a congratulatory message to the graduating class. Photography by DeAudrea ‘Sha’ Rich

In an unpredictable world, consistency is more meaningful than ever. The third Friday of March still marked Match Day for the Class of 2021 as they learned their residency destinations. While this year’s annual rite of passage took place virtually, the spirit and excitement remained high — in part thanks to alumni who joined the celebration.

The School of Medicine provided each graduating student with a celebration box to open on Match Day to mark the occasion. The boxes included personal notes from alumni who shared messages of encouragement, best wishes and stories about their early days of residency.

“We really wanted these students to have a special and unforgettable Match Day experience, just like all of us had,” says Nicole M. Deiorio, M.D., associate dean of student affairs and professor of emergency medicine. “I am so grateful to alumni who were willing to reach out and welcome the students to the profession of medicine.”

Among the Match Day note-writers was Mack T. Ruffin IV, M’84, professor and chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Penn State Health, Hershey Medical Center. He knows emotions can run high on Match Day — from recalling his own match to his work now in academic medicine — and even more so this year.

“Think how difficult it has been for your kids or grandkids in elementary or middle school,” Ruffin says. “Even as health care providers, we’re still challenged with uncertainty. Now imagine being in medical school during this time. Match Day is already anxiety-provoking. That’s what motivated me to reach out and let them know they have an excellent foundation from the VCU School of Medicine. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”

Alumni from coast to coast also responded to a Match Day 2021 crowdfunding campaign that raised 246 gifts for medical student scholarships — surpassing a goal of 206 that was set to honor each graduating student – and unlocking $50,000 for equity scholarships.

The matching gifts were directed to the Dean’s Equity Scholarship, which helps eliminate barriers to access for students of all backgrounds, cultures and socioeconomic status. The matching program also inspired nearly 400 alumni to support the Annual Fund in November and December, raising more than $193,000 in medical student scholarships and unlocking an additional $150,000 for Dean’s Equity Scholarships.

That generosity has already been put to use. The Class of 2025 includes 40 students who are receiving partial tuition scholarships made possible by the Annual Fund. And for the first time ever, the incoming class includes six Dean’s Equity Scholars. Read more about the Dean’s Equity Scholarship and one of the students who benefits from the fund.

A sense of connection

Normally students have abundant opportunities to shadow and interact informally with practicing physicians. But during the 2020-21 school year, possibilities were limited due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Enter “Who We Are,” a new alumni speaker series offering a behind-the-scenes look at accomplished alumni, their achievements in the field and their extracurricular pastimes. It’s a way to bolster experiential learning via virtual conversations with successful physicians whose career paths were launched from the MCV Campus.

M99 Eduardo Rodriguez

Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M’99, "Who We Are" alumni series speaker

Among the speakers have been VCU Department of Radiology Chair Ann S. Fulcher, M’87, H’91; COVID vaccine researcher and 1918 influenza pandemic expert Jeffery Taubenberger, M’86, PHD’87 (ANAT), who is chief of the viral pathogenesis and evolution section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M’99, a plastic surgeon with NYU Langone who led the team that performed the world’s first successful face and double hand transplant.

“To hear extremely accomplished physicians share their stories — even struggles with imposter syndrome — is incredibly invaluable,” says Waleed Ahmad, Class of 2024 president who spearheaded the formation of a new student interest group, Alumni Connect. “It’s so rare for students to get that access. It shows us what’s possible in the end.”

Fellow classmates shared with Ahmad how much it meant to hear from alumni speakers in a conversational setting. “We look to role models and mentors to help determine who we want to be … the tools they have used, the skills they have learned and their passions outside medicine. You learn from people who’ve gone ahead of you.”

Discovering how many accomplished physicians and researchers are School of Medicine alumni adds a “wow” factor and a sense of pride for students, he says.

And, he notes, going virtual has an unexpected benefit: “Now we have access to alumni from across the country. They don’t have to jump on a plane to be here.” Nor do remote discussions prohibit networking; speakers have been encouraging listeners to contact them directly with questions or comments.

“Our alumni have been so gracious with their time, knowledge and experiences,” Ahmad says. “The way we’ve been able to convert our virtual learning platforms to broader professional experiences has been such a great resource and tool. We’ll continue using it as long as we can.”

Consider whether you, too, might participate via VCU Link, an online platform where alumni can connect with medical and pre-med students who’re looking for advice and mentorship on their path to medical and science careers.

Cynthia McMullen contributed to this story.

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