November 11, 2022

Tales of a great medical school

As dean, I am privileged to know and to work with so many gifted and committed individuals here at the Medical College of Georgia. People who want to better investigate the basic science of disease and develop new treatments. People who are skilled clinicians providing the best medical care possible now and working to find better options for the future. People who are passionate about educating the next generation of physicians and physician scientists who will move this work ever forward. People like you. Just this week, I was so proud of our clinical team as I saw their magic play out in a colleague and friend who needed such exemplary, innovative care, and the skill of Dr. Dan-Victor Giurgiutiu, interventional neurologist, who can pull a clot from our middle cerebral artery and save our brain from a devastating stroke and disability. Last week, Vera Langston, a newborn from Columbia, S.C., came to our Children’s Hospital of Georgia as a last hope measure for survival because she could not breathe on her own and needed the extraordinary measures of ECMO and the exceptional care of our Neonatal Intensive Care team. For a variety of reasons, that care was not available to her anywhere else and she would not have survived otherwise. Dr. Brian Stansfield, neonatologist and am I happy to add a 2004 MCG graduate, took the call for help and the baby, and he and Dr. Robyn Hatley, pediatric surgeon and inspirational human and speaker, put the baby on ECMO, an extraordinary measure that can support the work of our heart and lungs and give these vital organs and us time to recover. Vera and her family went home on Halloween. When Jeff Flowers, director of spiritual care at our Health System, was talking about Vera recently, he noted how her story helps tell our story so well. So does he. 

Jeff Flowers, director of spiritual care for nearly three decades, retires at the end of this month

Jeff Flowers has been integral to our story and mission since he came to us from Baylor University Medical Center in 1994. He has been there for patients and families, as well as for those of us who are privileged to care for them since that day. He is funny and reverent, he can laugh and joke with the best of us and cry with us and a family because a patient’s story or ours did not end as we had hoped. Three times in the last year, when dear colleagues died, Jeff showed up and calmed all of us and brought us a sense of peace. Jeff is also the guy who in the morning I could talk to about the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who opposed Hitler and paid for it with his life, and in the afternoon the National League playoff series between his beloved Cardinals and my Phillies. “Every person has a story,” Jeff reminds us, and Jeff is gifted at learning our patients’ stories, even in the middle of the urgent situations that often bring them to us, like baby Vera’s. “Can we keep the body functioning? Can we help this person continue to write their story?” he asks, knowing these can be two very different things. He has known for years that he wanted to help answer those questions. He remembers walking into Labor and Delivery at Baylor as a young man and meeting an also young couple expecting a beautiful, healthy baby and instead their child was born with profound health problems. He stayed by their side for the one hour and 12 minutes their baby lived and realized then that there was no deeper spiritual place in the world. Like so many of you, Jeff has been happy and really compelled to share what he has experienced and learned with our students, teaching a palliative care intersession as our students move into their clinical years to help them understand how some patients, like that baby in Texas, cannot benefit from further medical intervention but still need our care to move toward the end of their life. “We can do so much with technology, but how do we know when we have done too much or not enough,” he says. That takes us back to knowing our patients and their stories. 

He has taught all of us much about living and dying well

Many of our students also shadow our chaplains. “We want them to see the other side of health care,” Jeff says, and a tradeoff of the modernization of health systems is that can be hard to do. Patients and families invite us into their sacred space, expect us to do good and we should, he says. But sometimes that means knowing that we cannot help cure them, but that we can and should still provide care. These important professional and life lessons are one of the many reasons why it is critical for medical schools to have a close alignment with their teaching hospitals and for us to have Jeff Flowers. It saddens me to share that Jeff will be officially retiring from his post at the end of this month, noting that he is ready to have “six Saturdays and a Sunday” for a while. But the news also makes me happy because he deserves more peace for all the solace and joy he has brought to so many. He says he will keep teaching if we want him to. I say: “We do!” He also wants to keep working with patients and families dealing with Parkinson’s disease, and serving the underserved. Great going Jeff. You are one of my all-time favorite people and friends. You are a role model for life well lived and belong in the MCG Hall of Fame. And, by the way, someone owes someone lunch for the Phillies-Cardinals and Phillies-Braves series outcomes.

Dr. Waaqo Daddacha, cancer biologist, finds a new weak point in glioblastoma

The reality is that sometimes we cannot help a patient regain their health, which in that moment means providing the care Jeff talked about, but it also leads to your continued striving to learn more so we can do more. That includes individuals like Dr. Waaqo Daddacha, cancer biologist who joined our Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2019 after finishing up postdoctoral studies at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. Dr. Daddacha’s formidable foe is glioblastoma, and he recently published some fascinating work showing how a protein called SAMHD1 that can help protect us from viral infections appears to be a logical target against glioblastoma. Like some vaccines today, including some of the COVID vaccines, he makes use of viruses’ adeptness at infecting a cell as a way to target SAMHD1 in the cancer cells. This is complex, basic science work but SAMHD1 works to protect us from viruses by destroying an essential building block of DNA, which viruses, healthy cells and cancer cells need to replicate. An odd turn here is that Dr. Daddacha has learned SAMHD1 also can repair double-strand breaks in DNA, which can kill even a cancer cell. Please check out more here on the twists and turns he’s uncovering. But important bottom lines for this work are that reducing SAMHD1 appears to make this aggressive brain tumor, which is known for becoming treatment resistant, more vulnerable to standard treatments, like the chemotherapy drug veliparib. In their mouse model of glioblastoma with human brain tumor cells, reducing SAMHD1 slowed tumor growth and when they totally knocked it out, survival improved. Glioblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor and is considered stage 4 at diagnosis. Thank you Dr. Daddacha for your diligence in finding and targeting this cancer’s vulnerability. 

Dr. Matt Lyon, Lauren Hopkins to lead new Center for Telehealth

Sometimes distance from our patients also is a problem in providing the care we want to provide, and that is a problem we have been working on for a while. President Emeritus Dr. Francis J. Tedesco was a true pioneer in using telemedicine to help improve access to care in more rural regions of our expansive state. He and MCG brought telemedicine to our state in 1991 with an initial connection between our hospital and Dodge County Hospital in Eastman, and the inaugural MCG Telemedicine Center helped establish a statewide network of clinics, health departments, hospitals and state prison facilities. Five years later, he and others worked with Georgia Tech to develop an “electronic house call” system for the home. This early telemedicine system was based on an intricate network of transmission lines connecting our state back before the days that the Internet made wireless connections widely available. Our Neurology Department became pioneers of sorts as well with the later development of the REACH system, which utilizes the Internet to enable us to work with health care providers and patients across the state to provide timely diagnosis and treatment of stroke. The COVID pandemic made all of us more reliant on the use of this type of technology to see patients, even those closer to home. Now under the leadership of Dr. Matt Lyon, emergency medicine physician and an expert in experiential (learn by doing) learning, and Lauren Hopkins, AVP for virtual care and community engagement at AU Health, we have established the new Center for Telehealth to centralize, support and strategically grow telehealth. Dr. Lyon is director and Lauren the new center’s assistant director for clinical operations. Additionally, Dr. Lyon, a 1999 MCG graduate who already has a lot of jobs, including associate dean for experiential learning, executive director of the Center for Ultrasound Education and vice chair of academic programs and research for our Department of Emergency Medicine, has been named J. Harold Harrison MD Distinguished Chair in Telehealth. Like Dr. Tedesco, our focus is the more rural regions of our great state and our center will have a large educational component that will utilize our large (and growing) statewide campus network. I want to thank Dr. Tedesco for his innovation, Dr. Lyon and Lauren for their collaborative leadership in making this new center happen and the physicians and hospitals across Georgia for making these connections possible.  

Dr. Larry Lutcher, longtime hematology/oncology chief, passes

Finally today, we also thank and celebrate Dr. Larry Lutcher, the longtime chief of our Section of Hematology/Oncology. While I did not have the pleasure of knowing Dr. Lutcher, I clearly missed out on another opportunity to experience an outstanding physician, leader and individual. Dr. Lutcher was a native of Baker, Oregon, and spent some of his early childhood in rural Montana. He would become a sprinter and a broad jumper in high school and later a halfback for his undergraduate alma mater, Whitman College, a liberal arts institution in Walla Walla Valley, Washington. He would graduate from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Lutcher would come to MCG in 1970 and was named chief a few years later. He was, I am told a true gentleman, who cared for patients with hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the way we all want to be treated and in a way that would make Jeff Flowers proud. He was with us 30 years. Our thoughts are with his family and many colleagues and friends.  

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving and please always know that I am ever thankful for each of you.

Upcoming Events

Nov 18 – MCG Faculty Senate Meeting, noon, Natalie and Lansing B. Lee Jr. Auditorium

Dec 02 – Southeast Community Engagement and Research Conference, 8:30 a.m., MCG Southeast Regional Campus Savannah