Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

COVID vaccine provides opportunity to protect ourselves and others

Happy new year. I hope those of you who could be away from campus had a safe and happy holiday break despite the necessary restrictions we all continue to live with as we work to get this pandemic behind us. With record numbers of patients now at our hospital and elsewhere in our community and beyond, I know many of you have not had a break for too long now. So please let me thank you again and again, our frontline physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, clerks and others who have continued to step up to take care of each other and of our community. To ensure that each of us is doing our part to eradicate this virus that has now sickened and killed so many, I ask that each of you continue to be diligent in washing your hands, in social distancing and in wearing a mask. Now that we are fortunate to have vaccines available, I ask that you also take advantage of one of the greatest medical triumphs of our time. The unprecedented, rapid development of these mRNA vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19, affords each of us the opportunity to help protect ourselves, our family and our community. Please join me in taking this stand.

Leadership at our Health System, Campuses statewide help ensure our students and you can get the vaccine

Please also join me in thanking our Health System CMO (and MCG graduate) Dr. Phillip Coule and Dr. Joshua Wyche, director of pharmacy, for their leadership in making the vaccine available here, including ensuring that our medical students get vaccinated. In fact, most of them are now vaccinated! The leadership of our statewide campus network also always ensure that our students are taken care of — from great clinical experiences to housing — and, like so many of you, have stepped that up a notch during this pandemic. This includes our campus deans, Drs. Shelley Nuss, Leonard Reeves, Wayne Rentz and Doug Patten. It also includes our essential affiliate hospitals/partners across our state, including Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany; St. Joseph’s/Candler, based in Savannah and Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick; Floyd Medical Center in Rome; Hamilton Health Care System based in Dalton; and St. Mary’s Health Care System and Piedmont Athens Regional in Athens. Georgia IS MCG’s campus and I could not be more proud.

MCG graduate Dr. Steven Kitchen retires as CMO of Phoebe Putney

You know in this now nearly year-old battle, few have been a stronger frontline than 1985 MCG graduate Dr. Steven Kitchen. Dr. Kitchen retired Dec. 31 from his post as CMO of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, home base of our first regional campus, the Southwest Campus, after serving that part of our state for more than 30 years. We talked about the recent brave work of Dr. Kitchen along with his (and our) Albany colleagues back in March, as this South Georgia community emerged as an epicenter for COVID. Please join me now in thanking him again and congratulating him on his retirement. You can read more about Dr. Kitchen along with Dr. Charles Ruis, a 1986 MCG graduate and director of the Southwest Public Health District, in the next issue of MCG Medicine magazine, which should be in our hands and online late next week. In the great tradition of MCG graduates, I am pleased to also share that 1998 graduate and internist Dr. Kathy Hudson is now CMO of Phoebe. Dr. Hudson already has served as regional medical director for Phoebe’s Hospitalist Group and president of the hospital’s Medical Executive Committee. I thank each of them, as I thank each of you, for their steadfast commitment to the profession of medicine and to the people and the state we serve.

Pooling strategy is finalist in global rapid COVID testing competition

Speaking of frontline in the war on COVID, our Georgia Esoteric and Molecular (GEM) Laboratory team, under the leadership of Dr. Ravi Kolhe, are finalists for a $6 million prize in the open innovation category of the international XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing competition. XPRIZE is a global effort focused on problem solving, and the GEM Lab team, in collaboration with Moreya Biomedical, have fine-tuned a “pooling” strategy for SARS-CoV-2 testing that enables, as the name indicates, multiple samples to be tested at one time. If this group test turns up negative, no further testing is needed of these individuals; if positive, individual tests will be done. This is obviously a time and resource saver for a test whose demand is still growing. Great strategy and fingers crossed on the win, but either way the benefit is clear. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center tells us our state’s positivity rate since this all started is nearly 11%. It also tells us there are 713,840 confirmed cases as of yesterday, 11,165 deaths and 123,030 doses of vaccine given. Hopefully vaccine doses given is the only number that will grow from here.

Dr. Caprice Greenberg of the University of Wisconsin named surgery chair

It is also my pleasure to share with you a great new MCG leader who has joined us. Dr. Caprice Greenberg, surgical oncologist and Morgridge Distinguished Chair in Health Services Research in the Department of Surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, arrives in May as chair of our Department of Surgery. Like many of you, her bottom-line commitment is to patients and she has worked throughout her career to improve the quality and safety of surgical care. She has taken a hard look in the operating room at how care is given both by the team and by individuals. She is principal investigator of a $2 million National Cancer Institute T32 grant to better train the next generation of surgical oncologists, and on another $2 million grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to develop a teaching tool that enables postop review of ventral hernia repairs with the goal of making them better. She has worked with the NCI and the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology to develop Cancer Care Delivery Research and worked with surgeons and hospitals across Wisconsin to develop a structure that improves outcomes. She plans to do this kind of work here in Georgia, including establishing a health services research program in the Department of Surgery. Health services research is a research area we have not previously developed here and this will be a wonderful opportunity for our surgical faculty, residents and medical students to be involved in this very practical research. Dr. Greenberg is past president of the Association for Academic Surgery and the Surgical Outcomes Club, a graduate of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine with a master’s of public health from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. She completed her general surgery training at Brigham and Women’s and the Fineberg fellowship in surgical oncology at the Dana-Farber/Mass General Brigham Cancer Center.

Dr. Jake Greenberg, minimally invasive, bariatric surgeon, will direct a Comprehensive Hernia Center

I am happy that Dr. Greenberg will soon join us, and also happy that with her, we win twice as we get Jake, her husband too. Dr. Jake Greenberg is a minimally invasive and bariatric surgeon, who directs the Comprehensive Hernia Center in Wisconsin and will establish a Comprehensive Hernia Center here, direct the Surgery Center of Columbia County and be an assistant dean in the area of surgical education. Dr. Jake Greenberg also has a master’s degree in education and is program director for surgery up in Wisconsin. Dr. Rene Hilton, MCG graduate, chief of Minimally Invasive Surgery and director of Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery here, is ecstatic he is coming. Dr. Jake Greenberg grew up in the Philadelphia area, and is an Eagles fan. He showed me a picture of himself and his brother at Super Bowl 2018, which the Eagles won! Gotta love the guy! Both Dr. Greenbergs were so excited to join us that they already bought a house over the holidays in Forest Hills. They have already met Dr. Bob and Mary Gail Nesbit and their three kids Kathryn Michaela, Maya Marie and Brecker William ate pizza with the Nesbit children and grandchildren and already feel at home here. I want to call out Dr. Steve Holsten, the interim chair of Surgery who has been a rock for the Department and a rock for MCG and our health system through the pandemic. Like so many others, Dr. Holsten stood up, and his trauma and surgical critical care team have taken care of lot of COVID patients in addition to their other heavy responsibilities. I know why we call Dr. Holsten “full metal jacket.”

Dr. Nagendra Singh gets $2.25 million NIH grant to further explore antibody production

Our work never stops and shouldn’t because we always want to analyze, tweak and ensure that what we do, from academics to patient care to science, is the best possible approach. For almost a year now we’ve all been hearing more than usual about viruses and the antibodies we naturally make — and that vaccines help prompt us make — to fight them. Dr. Nagendra Singh, immunologist in our Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is an expert on how immune cells called B cells quickly become the plasma cells that make antibodies to target invaders. I am pleased to share that Dr. Singh recently received a $2.25 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to further explore this natural process with the long-term goals of designing small molecules, drugs, and potentially using the gene editing technology CRISPR to improve a less than optimal response. He says these kind of tweaks to turn it up can further enhance vaccine efficacy, while turning it down can help those with autoimmune disease. While his specific studies are looking at the influenza virus, the process is widely applicable to invaders, including SARS-CoV-2. Great, timely work Dr. Singh. Keep us posted.

Dr. Sunny Patel, MCG Class of 2020, passes Finally today, I must share the heartbreaking news of the loss of Dr. Sunny Patel, a member of our Class of 2020. Dr. Patel, the 27-year-old son of Rita and Jitu Patel of Lawrenceville, Georgia, died Dec. 13. In November, Academic Affairs leaders Drs. Doug Miller, Kim Loomer, Jennifer Tucker and I traveled to Atlanta to do an MCG hooding ceremony for Dr. Patel and his family and friends, since his illness preempted him participating in the virtual one for his entire class. All of us were moved to tears of sorrow and joy. Dr. Patel was academically and spiritually excellent, and in his short time with us was already exploring the important complexities of health disparities and taking some first steps against it by working in the student-run homeless clinic. I understand that it was Dr. Patel’s own experience with illness that inspired his too-short career and as a medical student he was already working with children to help them understand the care they need. The loss of Dr. Patel and his no-doubt boundless potential is one his medical school will not forget.

Please continue to take good care out there, wear a mask and get vaccinated.

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