“We are so proud to see the ways our alumni are stepping up to serve their communities around the country,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D.
Right here on the MCV Campus, Ralph “Ron” Clark III, M’87, H’90, David Lanning, M’95, PhD’00 (ANAT), H’02, and Heather Masters, M’03, H’06, have pooled their expertise and insight to lead VCU Health’s response to the pandemic. And housestaff alumnus Arun Sanyal, M.D., F’90, who’s now on faculty in the Department of Internal Medicine, is leading our participation as a key site in two COVID-19 clinical trials.
Alumni are contributing their skills and expertise from coast-to-coast – literally – with, for example, an emergency medicine physician on the front lines in New York City and an infectious disease specialist in San Francisco helping her academic medical center write its COVID-19 policies.
“From public health physicians, to emergency medicine, primary care and infectious disease doctors, to researchers working to increase our understanding and treatment of the new virus, our graduates are making a difference in the nation’s response. On behalf of your alma mater, I thank you.”
- Thomas Ehrlich, M.D., H’93, and Samuel Jones, M’79, served as co-authors on a paper published in the Annals of Family Medicine that describes how primary care providers can reinvent their practice to address COVID-19. The paper recommends several actions for primary care providers at each stage of the outbreak, including early and widespread testing done in the primary care setting and a virtual-first approach to triaging patient care to determine who needs to be seen in person.
Molly O’Dell, M’80, was called out of retirement in March 2020 to become director of communicable disease control for Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts — essentially, she would manage all things COVID-19 for the Roanoke, Virginia, area. O’Dell had retired as director of the New River Health District in 2016, reports “The Roanoker,” but quickly became the face of the coronavirus fight. “Molly won’t rest until everybody is safe and sound. It’s not enough to treat one person. She needs the entire community to be whole.”
Somaya Albhaisi, M.D., H’19, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, has created a COVID-19 registry to answer scientists’ questions about the disease. The registry is a biobank for future research, a collection of blood samples from COVID-19 patients, linked to a database that stores a wide array of information about those patients. Her work was supported by an internal funding award designed to help faculty quickly pivot or expand their work to address the impact of the pandemic on the health system and the community.
- Steven Woolf, M.D., M.P.H., H’93, served as lead author on a Journal of the American Medical Association study that shows 35 percent of excess deaths during the pandemic’s early months are tied to causes other than COVID-19. “People who never had the virus may have died from other causes because of the spillover effects of the pandemic, such as delayed medical care, economic hardship or emotional distress,” says Woolf, director emeritus of the VCU Center on Society and Health and professor in the Department of Family Medicine.
- Christopher Johnson, M’05, a pediatric emergency medicine physician, is using his camera to document work life during the pandemic. His monochrome portraits have spotlighted environmental service workers, food service employees and patient-access team members. “Especially in the emergency department, it’s all a team effort,” Johnson said in an interview with his undergraduate alma mater. “None of us can function without each other. But I noticed there wasn’t really a lot of recognition for some of the people you don’t necessarily think of as being really, really vital to what’s going on. The service workers are all at risk, too, just by being in the hospital. We couldn’t do what we do without all of them.”
- Christopher Leffler, M.D., M.P.H., H’03, now an associate professor in the Department of Ophthalmology, led a study showing that in countries where face masks were recommended early, the COVID-19 death rate was more than 100 times lower than projected for those countries. “If you really want to know all of the benefit, you have to look at a whole population,” Leffler told Fast Company. “If I wear a mask, it protects you. If you wear a mask, it protects me. So in the countries where 95% or more of the people wear a mask, the other 5% still got benefits, because they were in a country where the virus just couldn’t spread."
- Lorna Breen, M'99, an emergency medicine physician in New York City, served on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 before her passing in April. She was chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital. The Class of 1999 has banded together to create the Lorna M. Breen, M.D. Memorial Scholarship with the blessing of Dr. Breen’s family. Classmates invite those who knew Dr. Breen to join them in honoring her memory.
- Eric Edwards, M'13, is co-founder of Phlow Corp, a Richmond company that has been awarded a $354 million federal contract to make ingredients for COVID-19 drugs. Phlow is partnering with VCU's Medicines for All Institute, housed in the College of Engineering, to bring manufacturing of vulnerable pharmaceuticals and their ingredients back to the U.S. The Medicines for All Institute was founded in 2017 to reduce the high costs of pharmaceutical products and has since won nearly $40 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
- Danny Avula, M'04, H'07, spoke with PBS NewsHour about why American nursing homes have been hit so hard by coronavirus. He is director for the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, where his staff is trying to contain the virus in more than two dozen different long-term care facilities.
- Priscilla Mpasi, M’14, is contributing to the national discussion around COVID-19 and its impact on the black community. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pediatrician and co-chair of the Women’s Physician’s Council of the National Medical Association participated in a panel hosted by a Pennsylvania state senator and spoke to Essence magazine about the disproportionate numbers of Black Americans dying from COVID-19. “We know that white patients’ pain is interpreted far more often as true pain, as opposed to black patients’ pain. We can surmise that that kind of discrimination may also be true with patients who present at a hospital with respiratory distress. Black patients’ distress may not be perceived as severe, causing delayed treatment.”
- K. Drew Baker, M’90, a pediatrician in Greenville, North Carolina, says the best gift caregivers can give children during the coronavirus pandemic is to be honest and not pretend as if everything is the same. “First ask them what they know, and what they’ve heard, and then respond to their questions,” Baker said in an interview with the local NBC affiliate where he shared his advice for explaining COVID-19 to children.
- Aditi Sharma, M'17, now a dermatology resident at the University of California Irvine, is working with a fabric cutting business to produce thousands of face masks for hospital workers from a material used to sterilize surgical equipment. The sterilization wraps can be used in masks that filter up to 87 percent of particles, which is almost as effective as N95 masks, which have a filtration efficiency of 95 percent. Sharma and other physicians worked with engineering groups on campus to design three mask prototypes. “We are in the same situation as most of the country, if we don’t start thinking about these reusable, innovative options, we are all going to be in a crunch,” Sharma told the L.A. Times.
- Halleh Akbarnia, H'03, penned an op-ed in the L.A. Times detailing the first COVID-19 patient she treated in her role as an emergency medicine physician in Chicago. His kindness inspired her, and she made a point to reintroduce herself to him once he was out of ICU in the COVID stepdown unit. “What he didn’t know is that, at that moment, I realized that the reason we do what we do is for people like him, for moments like these. His strength, his kindness, his calming words meant everything to me. At that moment, my heart (which had been beating at more than 100 bpm since this pandemic began) finally slowed down.”
- Seth Forman, M'02, H'06, a dermatologist in Tampa, Florida, talks with the local NBC affiliate about the dangers of removing moles and skin tags at home during quarantine. Doing so can lead to infection or prevent doctors from detecting underlying skin issues such as cancer. He encouraged patients to continue to contact their doctors to schedule an appointment, whether virtual or in-person.
- Jeffrey Donowitz, H’13, F’17, an infectious diseases specialist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, is leading efforts to administer convalescent plasma to COVID-19 positive patients. VCU Health was approved under Mayo Clinic’s Expanded Access Program to administer antibody-rich convalescent plasma for the treatment of COVID-19. Patients are transfused with the donor’s plasma in hopes that it will help the patient’s own immune system attack the virus and help the patient recover faster. The targeted antibodies could help boost the immune system of someone fighting COVID-19 until their body can produce antibodies on its own, according to Donowitz. Anyone who has recovered from COVID-19 can join the confidential COVID-19 registry to donate plasma.
- Christopher Colenda, M’77, writes of the financial stress test COVID-19 is placing on academic medical centers in this invited commentary for the journal of the AAMC. With his co-authors, he describes how the CARES Act and policy changes can provide relief to safety net hospitals. The president emeritus of West Virginia University Health System and dean emeritus of Texas A&M’s College of Medicine, Colenda now consults with academic medical centers and institutions of higher education.
- Virginia Wells, H’89, F’92, serves as chief medical officer, director of medical service and team physician for William & Mary athletics. When COVID-19 canceled spring college sports, she drew on her training in infectious disease to educate essential on-campus workers about how to do their jobs safely. She also continues to keep in touch with her MCV Campus colleagues. “We’re all just fascinated by this. And not at all surprised.”
- Vibin Roy, M’10, a primary care physician on the front lines in Fort Worth, Texas, knew he was at risk for potentially contracting COVID-19. So in early March when he developed a low-grade fever, muscle aches, fatigue and a headache, his first priorities were to protect his 30-week pregnant wife and 4-year-old son — and to find a place where he could obtain testing. Being under quarantine while recovering from COVID-19 gave him time for reflection, and he recently shared his perspective as a physician who has experienced the effects of COVID-19 first-hand. Roy is returning to full health and now has returned to his work as associate regional medical officer at CareMore Health, caring for medically underserved populations in Texas.
- Benjamin Nicholson, M'15, now an EMS fellow on the MCV Campus, had an idea to prepare for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients who may need ventilators: what if he could take a manual resuscitator, the bag valve mask used by first responders, and automate it? His idea set in motion several projects across VCU’s health sciences, engineering and art programs, where researchers are collaborating to create blueprints for ventilators that health systems could build from scratch using a 3D printer and a few simple tools.
- Jeffrey Brown, M’89, H’95; Drew G. Jones IV, M.D., H’01, F’05; and Alpha “Berry” Fowler, M.D., H’79, F’82, found themselves in the fight against COVID-19 — together. Jones was treating Brown for COVID-19 when he applied a theory he had developed as a fellow in Fowler’s MCV Campus lab to disable the body’s inflammatory response to such a virus. The results were dramatic, and likely helped save Brown’s life. “It’s like the puzzle you’ve been working on all your life and you finally get all the pieces and they fall into place,” Jones told the Richmond-Times Dispatch. “Which is amazing to me.” In addition, Jones called on Internal Medicine Professor Fowler, who recommended also using intravenous vitamin C to treat Brown. Fowler’s findings published last October in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested patients with sepsis and septic lung injury could have a better chance of survival with vitamin C infusions, and he hopes to begin testing the method on COVID-19 patients in clinical trials.
- Laura Burijon, M’02; John Cornett, MS’95 (BIOC), M’01, H’04; and Gregory Leghart, H’93, are embracing virtual patient visits in light of the coronavirus pandemic, showcasing their ingenuity and flexibility in incorporating telehealth into their practices in an article with Richmond Magazine. Patients seem to appreciate telehealth, Leghart says, and predicts there will be a groundswell of support for its use post-pandemic as they become more familiar with it. “I see this as a potential silver lining of the COVID crisis.”
- Joseph P. Sherman, M’85, H’88, an expert in physician wellness, weighs in on the importance of health care providers caring for themselves by caring for one another. “What if all health providers had someone we could turn to for support? What if we were all looking out for each other, allowing each other to be openly afraid and angry? What if we could let our guards down and admit to each other that we don’t want to be heroes, but just want to help, while still caring for ourselves and our families?” In an article for the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, he offers six ideas for physicians to do just that.
- Zarah Panaguiton, MPH ’10, works as a project manager for Gilead Sciences Inc., which manufactures parenteral drug products like AmBisome and Remdesivir, the investigational drug therapy VCU School of Medicine researchers are testing in COVID-19 clinical trials. “My cross-functional projects support commercial product lifecycle management, which includes new product launches and significant post-regulatory approval changes. As a matter of fact, my M.P.H. coursework was my first deep-dive into public health policies and the regulatory agencies that enforce them.”
- Denise Toney, PhD’93 (MICR), is director for the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, one of three public health labs in the country to begin sequencing samples of the virus that causes COVID-19. Comparing viral sequences can help experts determine which mutations are responsible for outbreaks and which seem to respond to containment measures. “We want to determine what are the similarities and what are the differences between what Virginia has and what they’re seeing in European countries, for example, versus southeast Asia versus Washington state,” she told Virginia Mercury.
- Jonathan Perlin, M’90, PhD’91, H’96, MSHA’97, president of clinical services and chief medical officer of HCA Healthcare, spoke with the Federation of American Hospitals podcast, Hospitals in Focus, about coronavirus and its impact on hospitals. “The privilege of scale in a system like HCA Healthcare with 2,200 sites of care is really the ability to learn at speed,” Perlin says. “As we look at what’s going on around the country, COVID is surfacing, but not in all places at all times. Pockets in Northern California and a suburb of Atlanta were the first sites in which we, at HCA Healthcare, saw patients with COVID. And we were able to learn from the experiences and take those learnings and broadcast them out to the rest of the system.”
- Sarah Jacobs-Helber, PhD’94 (MICR), is lab director for GENETWORx, a Richmond company that has now begun testing for COVID-19 with a capacity to test 800-1,000 samples per day. “At a time when a lot of people are staying home, the people on my team are here doing important work,” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We are really proud to serve Virginia and help our patients. We will get through this together.” In a video interview, she explains how a COVID-19 machine works.
- Esther M. Johnston, M’11, spoke with National Public Radio about how her community health center, HealthPoint, in Auburn, Washington, is modifying its practice in response to COVID-19. Safety net clinics like HealthPoint, which provide care to low-income and uninsured patients, are to receive $100 million in supplemental funding from the federal government to support the response to the coronavirus pandemic. While a student, Johnston participated in I2CRP, the medical school’s four-year program that fosters the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to provide high-quality, compassionate care to underserved populations urban, rural, or international settings.
- Jeanine Guidry, PhD’17 (HCPR), who’s now an assistant professor of public relations in VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, is leading a new online course designed to help businesses or institutions effectively communicate with the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Open to employees as well as professionals in the community, the course will explore digital media strategies for nonprofit messaging and campaigns.
- N. Stuart Harris, M’99, is an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital where, The Boston Globe reported, health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Read his Q&A with Harvard Magazine.
- Jeffery Taubenberger, M’86, PhD’87 (ANAT), is contributing to the medical community’s understanding of the new virus from his vantage point as chief of the viral pathogenesis and evolution section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He’s co-authored a Perspectives piece in the Feb. 26 New England Journal of Medicine as well as spoken with news outlets including the Washington Post and Fortune magazine.