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Family’s experience spurs creation of fellowship

Nov. 29, 2012, 8:44 AM

Charles and Carol Ann Gavin, front, with, from left, Addison May, M.D., Bradley Dennis, M.D., and Richard Miller, M.D. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Carol Ann Gavin became critically ill on Super Bowl Sunday in 2010 while vacationing in Florida. But after two surgeries for a bowel obstruction at a Florida hospital, her husband, Charles Gavin III, asked that she be flown home to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he knew she would get unequaled health care at one of finest medical centers in the country.

The decision, which may have saved her life, led to a close friendship with the critical care surgeon who treated her, and resulted in a generous Gavin family donation to Vanderbilt’s surgical critical care and acute care surgery fellowship program.

As his wife continued to weaken during February in Florida, Charles Gavin consulted with a family friend who recommended that she be transferred to Vanderbilt.

She developed an enterocutaneous fistula, an abnormal opening that allows the contents of the stomach or intestines to leak through to the skin, and needed immediate attention. Flown to Vanderbilt early on Easter morning 2010, the Wartrace, Tenn., couple knew she would be in skilled hands.

An added bonus was the empathy and kindness exhibited by her physician, Richard Miller, M.D., professor of Surgery and chief of Vanderbilt’s Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care.

After a year as Miller’s patient, Carol Ann and Charles Gavin, chairman of the board of MFG Chemical Inc. in Dalton, Ga., have pledged philanthropic support for the fellowship program for funding continuing education for a second-year acute care surgery fellow who is training to treat complex critically ill patients.

In addition to being skilled, the Gavins have asked that the fellow selected to benefit from the support best embody the traits of empathy and kindness — the traits they most admire in Miller.

The fellow was selected this year by a committee consisting of Miller, fellowship director Addison May, M.D., professor of Surgery, and associate director Mickey Ott, M.D., assistant professor of Surgery.

Carol Ann recalls her first encounter with Miller after she was flown to VUMC. “He said, ‘I just read your file and I’m going to get you well.’ And I said, ‘I believe you.’ He was truly fantastic. When he’s with you, you think you’re the only patient he’s got.”

Miller, who completed his trauma and surgical critical care fellowship at Vanderbilt in 1992, said that critically ill patients like Carol Ann, and their families, “become part of the Vanderbilt family during their long and complex medical management.”

Carol Ann has returned to her normal activities, and is “as energetic as ever,” Miller said. She and Charles recently returned to Vanderbilt on a fall morning to hear Miller deliver a Surgical Grand Rounds on her case, “The Management and Prevention of Enterocutaneous Fistula,” then gathered for a breakfast where they were thanked for their donation. They also were Miller’s invited guests at the Vanderbilt-Auburn football game. “Her enthusiasm is contagious,” Miller said.

Attending the breakfast was the first recipient of the Gavin Family fellowship, Bradley Dennis, M.D., who said he hopes to use a portion of the award to attend a national trauma meeting like the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma (EAST), an organization that encourages the involvement of its younger members.

Giving is not unusual for the Gavins. They fund several College of Engineering scholarships at Auburn University.

“Education and training are terribly important,” Carol Ann said. “I hope Vanderbilt doctors are taught from day one to be smiling, friendly and uplifting for their patients. If I have to be in the hospital I want to be cared for by someone positive, someone like Dr. Miller,” she said. “We wanted to help other doctors, thinking that maybe, when they can, they’ll turn around and help a future generation.”

Dennis said he’s honored to have been chosen as the first recipient of the Gavin’s generosity.

“Kindness and empathy are extremely important in what I do,” Dennis said. “Most of my patients, be they trauma, general surgery or ICU patients, didn’t choose to be in their current situation. As a result, they can understandably be frustrated with their condition and their hospitalization. Because of this, kindness and empathy play a significant role in dealing with these patients.”

Miller said the philanthropic support will allow the fellow to take a breather from the day-to-day stress of dealing with critically ill patients. It’s common for trauma and critical care physicians to experience “compassion fatigue” when dealing with patients and their families who are suffering, he said.

“Some surgeons try to suppress it; some try to depersonalize it. It’s not a good thing to do. It accumulates and can lead to burnout if you don’t have a way of dealing with the problem of seeing someone die every day. It’s difficult.

“It’s true that some surgeons just like to get the job done — fix it and move on ”— but I’m not just a technician,” Miller said. “Because we follow some patients, like Carol Ann, for some time, empathy becomes such an integral part of what we do.”

Carol Ann said she had never visited VUMC before her hospitalization, even though it’s only a little more than an hour from her home. “I tell people all the time that I hope they never have to go to the hospital, but if they do, Vanderbilt is a wonderful place.”

“Carol Ann is back to working in her gardens, traveling with her husband and enjoying life to the fullest,” Miller said.

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