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New directorship honors Boehm’s devotion to patients

Dec. 13, 2018, 9:34 AM

Frank Boehm, MD, and his wife, Julie, reflect on his time at Vanderbilt and the new VUMC directorship created to honor Boehm’s contributions to maternal-fetal medicine. (photo by Joe Howell)

by Paul Govern

In 1938, Frank Boehm’s parents fled Nazi Germany, where relatives on his father’s side would later be rounded up and sent to the death camps, never to return. “Fortunately, my dad had the vision and foresight to get out of Germany while he still could,” Boehm said.

Boehm was born in 1940 in Nashville, where his parents had immigrated, his father working in a clothing store owned by a cousin.

“I was an only child and had a very close relationship with both my mother and father. I was a very lucky boy,” Boehm said, adding with gentle self-mockery, “They always told me I was wonderful, and you know, eventually I started to believe it.”

When Boehm hints at having a sizable ego, you’re inclined to believe him. But in talking with him and others about his long career, you also come to appreciate that he must have long ago made it his steadfast duty to place whatever talents he has in the service of his patients, students and community. His devotion is apparent on all counts.

Boehm was moved, according to his wife, Julie, when she and a friend from Vanderbilt University Medical Center Development revealed to him in a meeting at the Boehm residence one afternoon last spring that a grateful patient wanted to make a financial contribution to show his appreciation.

Thus an endowed directorship fund was created, to be named the Frank H. Boehm, MD, Directorship in Maternal-Fetal Medicine in his honor after he retires in May 2019 after 47 years on the Vanderbilt faculty.

“Frank, of course, teared up. It was just so very meaningful for him because Vanderbilt and maternal-fetal medicine have been his whole life,” Julie said.

VUMC directorships are awarded to outstanding leaders to recognize and further their work. Since 2016, donors have funded seven directorships.

Adding to that initial gift, contributions to the Boehm directorship fund have come from the Boehms, their friends and colleagues, former residents and fellows, grateful patients and others.

Nashville-based private capital investment manager Douglas Joyce counts himself a grateful husband and father. Twenty-one years ago, his wife, Sue’s, complex pregnancy was successfully managed by Boehm. (Today, the Joyce’s twin daughters are college students.) Douglas, a member of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Board of Overseers, volunteered to write letters of appeal that have gone out to prospective donors to the endowment fund.

“A gift of two children is pretty hard to put a value on. If it were not for Frank Boehm’s expert care, our girls would not be here. People like Frank are treasures within Nashville, and somebody who has excelled within their field as he has is, to me, somebody who should be remembered,” Douglas said.

The Joyces were instrumental in the creation of the directorship with the initial gift.

On the topic of Boehm’s impact over a long career, Joyce is seconded by Ronald Alvarez, MD, MBA, Betty and Lonnie S. Burnett Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and chair of the department.

“His contribution has been immeasurable. He developed the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at a time when that subspecialty was just beginning, and obviously he had a huge leadership role in Nashville and across Tennessee with regard to improving perinatal care and outcomes.

“He introduced electronic fetal monitoring here, and he’s investigated a number of high-risk pregnancy issues. He’s also been a great role model to all of us about how we should represent our institution and our specialty,” Alvarez said.

Boehm entered Vanderbilt as an undergraduate in 1958, finished medical school here in 1965, and joined the faculty in 1972 after five years’ training at Yale in obstetrics and gynecology and a stint in the U.S. Navy. He co-founded the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine in 1978 and became its director in 1980, followed by vice-chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2008.

His academic titles include professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, associate professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences and adjunct professor of Nursing.

Maternal-fetal medicine specialists serve as consultants during normal pregnancies and as the primary obstetrician for especially high-risk pregnancies. The division Boehm led for 29 years has grown to include 12 specialists. The directorship that will be in his name will help support in perpetuity the division’s mission of patient care, training and research.

When Boehm recounts his reaction to being told about plans for the directorship, you hear candor laced with self-deprecating humor. “My ego, of course, said ‘that’s great.’”

Boehm cherished training the next generation of health care leaders.

“When I’m teaching a student of medicine how to look at a fetal monitor tracing — this means this, and this means that — it doesn’t sound like a big deal. But somewhere along the line that student will use that information to save five, 10, 20 newborn lives. I find that exciting. I think I’m happiest when I’m teaching — I get energized. To me it’s somewhat a sacred event, to impart knowledge to someone else so that they can go out and do something good with that information.”

In 2000, Boehm became the first recipient of the Vanderbilt Faculty Award for Teaching Medical Students, Residents, and/or Fellows in the Clinical Setting, and it remains the career award of which he’s most proud. He was also a recipient of the teaching award for continuing medical education, an award that’s now named in his honor and given to deserving faculty every two years.

As a specialist, he’s been party to tremendous advances in technology and medical evidence.

“The whole field of modern obstetrics became a viable process starting in the early 1970s,” Boehm said. “We were able to do so many wonderful things, reducing maternal and infant mortality with electronic monitoring, ultrasonography and amniocentesis. I got a private source grant that allowed us to become the first hospital in the world to electronically monitor all babies and mothers in labor.”

And Boehm’s recruitment of Joseph Bruner, MD, led to VUMC becoming first in the world to perform in utero repair for spina bifida.

As a clinician-scientist, Boehm has to his credit more than 130 research papers; a 1990 textbook on fetal assessment; a score of chapters for other textbooks; more than 55 abstracts; and a book on diabetes and pregnancy for healthcare consumers.

In 1992, Boehm was engaged by The Tennessean to contribute a weekly op-ed column, Healing Words (soon picked up also by other newspapers around the country), and he and rheumatologist John Sergent, MD, professor of Medicine, wound up alternating in this weekly column for 18 years. Two selections of Boehm’s essays have come out in book form — “Doctors Cry, Too” and “Building Patient/Doctor Trust.”

“I’m a good writer at about 800 words, but after 800 words I tend to fall apart. I’m writing a book now on the definition of a successful life and I’m struggling with it, but it’s coming along,” he said.

Retire already! — Boehm has been hearing this from friends for years, and now he agrees it’s time. “I’ve held to this dictum I learned from someone: never retire from something, always retire to something,” he said.

When fundraising for the directorship is concluded, the Boehms will have contributed well over half the $1 million needed. Boehm said he is humbled and honored with the generosity of others who are helping to fully fund the endowment.

Julie Boehm said, “The one thing that’s really been important to me is that people understand it’s not about the dollar amount of the donation but about showing support for a life’s work and devotion to patients, teaching and research.” The Boehms are very active in both Nashville’s Jewish community and in the city’s cultural life, and Julie, also a Nashville native, has long been a community volunteer.

The Boehms will continue to reside in Nashville and will also keep their longtime second home in Boca Raton. They have three children and nine grandchildren.

To make a gift toward the Frank H. Boehm, MD, Directorship in Maternal-Fetal Medicine, contact VUMC Development at 615-936-0230 or visit VanderbiltHealth.com/BoehmDirectorship.

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