Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

You inspire me on even the toughest days

Even when you are fortunate enough to have a job you love at a place you love, you just have those days. Days where nothing seems to go right and you start to feel a bit over it. I had one of those days this week. Then I read the proofs of the next issue of MCG Medicine magazine, which should be in our hands in early January. It really put a smile back on my face, because I held in my hands a black and white and colorful reminder of you, our amazing faculty, staff, students, residents and fellows, and of course our invaluable alumni. It even has a picture of Neurosurgery Chair Dr. Fernando Vale’s family with “Mama” the queen of his goat family. How could anyone be over that? Thank you all yet again for the work you do, for the way you do it, for the kind of people you are, for the better world you deliver.

Students in the Pandemic Medicine Education Club help educate our community about COVID

This is what I am talking about. Second-year student Joseph Elengickal went to high school in Alpharetta, but was born in the tiny township of Horsham, Pennsylvania not far from Philadelphia. Joseph, hope you share my enthusiasm for the Phillies but you are probably too wise for that. Early in the pandemic, Joseph started the Pandemic Medicine Education Club, whose members created a website as a way to help keep all of us here at MCG and in our community updated, educated and safe. As the pandemic persists and cases are now spiking again, the club has expanded their reach with a YouTube channel.  Club members also are doing focused research, like looking at the impact of the pandemic on at-risk populations. Students Elena Diller and Krishna Shah are serving as vice presidents and handle the website. Amanda Delgado and Reese Land are vice presidents helping create the YouTube channel. Now both first- and second-years are members of this educational effort, and Dr. Kathryn Martin, associate dean for regional campus coordination, who came to us a dozen years ago with a public health background, is their adviser. Like so much of what all of you do here, this extra effort by our students speaks for itself. I thank them for stepping up in these unprecedented times. I am betting their early, clear commitment to educating us all about our health bodes well for the doctors they are becoming. Please check out their efforts and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same and to stay safe.

Department of Neuroscience, Regenerative Medicine growing strategically

We have talked recently about how amid this long, often frustrating and scary year of 2020, MCG has continued to thrive and grow in new directions thanks to the determination of individuals like Joseph, Elena, Krishna, Amanda and Reese. And like Dr. Xin-Yun Lu, who became chair of our Department of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine in July 2019. Dr. Lu is an energetic, focused, motivating scientist and leader who also has emerged as an amazing recruiter. In her spare time, she is also writing the great Chinese novel (stay tuned). In the last handful of months, Dr. Lu has brought on board Dr. Hedong Li, a molecular neuroscientist from Penn State University. His work is focused on the role and potential of microRNAs in the development and repair of our central nervous system, with helping spinal cord injury patients recover as one of his long-term goals. Dr. Danielle Mor came to us in October after completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University. Her focus is neurodegeneration with an emphasis on Parkinson’s disease, her target the abnormal α-synuclein protein collecting in the central nervous system and her model the nematode worm, or C. elegans. Growing up in New York City, Dr. Mor never had to worry about driving a car, so watch out for her on the road.

Neuroscience Chair Dr. Xin-Yun Lu doing a great job recruiting

Dr. Ferenc “Frank” Deak came to our Department of Neuroscience from the Reynolds Oklahoma Center on Aging at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center with a focus on the communication inside our brain that goes awry in common problems like Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy and how and why aging puts us at risk for Alzheimer’s. Dr. Chung Sub Kim came to us from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also completed his PhD and postdoctoral fellowship. Dr. Kim’s focus is the cellular and molecular mechanisms of also-common problems like depression and PTSD. Joining us in February from the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville is ALS investigator and cell biologist Dr. Eric Vitriol. We are fortunate that his wife, Dr. Tracy-Ann Read, whose research focus includes better understanding and treating brain tumors, earned her PhD at the University of Bergen, Norway and directed the Pediatric Neuro-oncology Laboratory at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, also will be joining us. Please join me in welcoming this strong group of scientists. I know we will be hearing good things from all of them.

Dr. Kris Dhandapani awarded $1.9 million NIH grant for hemorrhagic stroke studies

Just one building down on Laney Walker Boulevard neuroscientist Dr. Kris Dhandapani, who is in our Department of Neurosurgery, is also focused on the brain, working to find ways to improve outcomes from intracerebral hemorrhage, a type of stroke without effective treatment. He recently received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to find out whether a simple, inexpensive and low-risk technique, called remote ischemic conditioning, where we repeatedly inflate and deflate a blood pressure cuff on the arm or leg, can aid recovery from brain hemorrhage. We have evidence that RIC can reduce inflammation, which can be destructive when it lasts too long in either a hemorrhagic or the more common ischemic stroke. With his new grant, Dr. Dhandapani is further exploring RIC’s potential, which he has evidence also helps accelerate clearing and resolution of the blood clot, helps lay down new blood vessels in the damaged area and delivers trophic factors and nutrients to the site. In fact, RIC is the only device in a national, head-on comparison of potential new stroke therapies the NIH is also funding and on which Dr. Dhandapani and I are collaborators. He, like so many of you, is a straight-talking individual who you can tell is excited about his work from looking at his success and from just talking to him. He is also excited about the Connecticut Huskies, which you can tell from looking at his wardrobe. Congratulations.

Alumni step up to share their primary care practice experience with our students

Science is not the only dynamic around here. When the medical school’s curriculum was being redesigned for 3+, Dr. Andria Thomas, senior associate dean for evaluation, accreditation and CQI, and Dr. Jennifer Tucker, a 1997 graduate, emergency medicine physician, fourth-year class dean and assistant dean for career advising, knew they wanted more mentoring opportunities for our students that could help them even better prepare for the primary care future they were considering. To answer questions like: What is it like to be a pediatrician in a smaller town? So they reached out to Scott Henson, associate vice president for alumni affairs, for help. Scott then reached out to alumni working in primary care across the state and asked them to serve on a virtual panel discussion with our first- and second-year students. The first session in October, expertly emceed by first-year student Natalie Zink, got rave reviews from students and alumni alike.

Second alumni mentor panel set for Tuesday

That first group of mentors included Dr. Price Corr, a 1977 graduate and general surgeon in Albany; Dr. Scott Bohlke, a 1992 MCG graduate and family medicine physician in Brooklet; and Dr. Kaylar Howard, a classmate of Dr. Bohlke and an OB/GYN in Tifton. Also, Dr. Anil Puri, a 2005 graduate and internist in Milledgeville; Dr. Matt Rudy, a 2010  graduate and emergency medicine physician here at University Hospital; and 2012 MCG graduate and Augusta pediatrician Dr. George Lazari. Our alumni provided insight on everything from work/life balance to the logistics of private practice like billing and medical coding to how involved private practice physicians can be in organized medicine. The next panel is set for this coming Tuesday and will again feature Drs. Howard, Rudy and Puri, along with Dr. Katie McCutcheon, a 2015 graduate and Augusta pediatrician; Dr. Derek Heard, a 1999 MCG graduate practicing family medicine in Albany; and 2013 graduate Dr. Alicia Register, a general surgeon from Cordele. See what I mean by invaluable alumni. Thanks so much to everyone. We could not educate the next generation of physicians without you.

Crystal Watts featured on NPR providing insight on dealing with life amid the pandemic

We would not want to do it without Crystal Watts either. She is our director of academic support, a smiling but fierce advocate for our students who helps ensure our students get the help they need with essentials like tutoring. Crystal was recently among women across the globe sharing their real life insight with NPR on how to deal with life amid the pandemic. Crystal’s husband would lose his job early on and shortly after she would learn she had cancer, even still she reminds us that this pandemic will not last and that we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other while acknowledging that, at least at this moment, everything is not the same. Thank you Crystal and our thoughts are with you and your family.

Bone Marrow Transplant Program pushes past 100 cases annually 

Finally today, and speaking of dynamics, diligence and cancer, this week our bone marrow transplant program broke the 100 transplants per year threshold. Dr. Anand P. Jillella, chief of our Division of Hematology/Oncology, started our program in 1996 when he first joined the faculty after completing his internal medicine residency followed by a fellowship at Yale. Dr. Vamsi Kota, who also did his residency with us and came back to us in 2018 from Emory University, is now director of the Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program.  Hematologist/Oncologist Dr. Locke Bryan also is key to the team, as well as Kerrie Harmon, nurse manager of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, along with a huge group of other health care professionals and the HLA typing lab, our Pharmacy and Blood Bank. I congratulate and thank this great group for their commitment to offering this lifesaving treatment to more patients. Now this group has become a Novartis-certified center for CAR T-cell therapy, where a patient’s own T-cells are modified to better attack cancer. Great going. 

Please continue to take good care out there and “mask up”.

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