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New Neurology residency program director brings global perspective

Dec. 13, 2012, 8:43 AM

Heather Koons, M.D., is the new program director of the Department of Neurology’s residency program, succeeding David Charles, M.D. (photo by Joe Howell)

After a decade of growth in the Department of Neurology’s residency program, Heather Koons, M.D., is stepping into the role of program director and brings a uniquely international perspective.

With experience educating and practicing in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and India, Koons hopes to provide similar experiences for Vanderbilt’s Neurology trainees and impart a more global outlook.

“Knowing how it works differently in other places gives you a unique perspective on how our system works in the U.S., and I think it helps you get a better perspective on your own practice, home life and balance between the two,” Koons said. “Plus, it’s just fun to practice different medicine and see different pathology. It really tests your history and exam skills when you don’t have all the resources at your fingertips.”

Koons succeeds David Charles, M.D., professor and vice-chair of Neurology, who, along with Department Chair Robert Macdonald, M.D., Ph.D., led the program through an era of growth beginning in 2001. Adult Neurology residents increased from three to six, and Pediatric Neurology residents increased from one to three during that period. This paralleled the growth in faculty as the ranks tripled.

“David Charles has done an outstanding job as residency director for over a decade during dramatic growth in size and scope of the residency and in the quality and aptitude of our residents,” Macdonald said.

“I expect Heather Koons to continue providing outstanding leadership and continued improvement in our residency program. Heather brings an infectious enthusiasm and outstanding interpersonal and clinical skills to the position. Our residents are really going to enjoy working with her.”

Charles, chief medical officer of Vanderbilt’s Clinical Neuroscience Institute, has been named medical director for telemedicine and will continue to support Koons and the other program directors in Neurology.

Heather Koons, M.D., and her husband, Don Koons, M.D., were among the first specialists to practice at this new hospital in Gaborone, Botswana.

“Heather is incredibly optimistic and efficient and brings fresh ideas to the table. As a graduate of the program, including serving as chief resident, she has proximity to the training, enthusiasm for medical education and outstanding leadership skills,” Charles said.

While at Yale, Koons had her first taste of medical education and the impact it can have internationally. She spent three months in South Africa putting on an HIV workshop for high school students.

“That was when I first saw that if you drop in, do clinical work and then leave, you’re not providing any long-term benefit. I realized that education was preferred in international work as the best way to provide a sustained benefit,” she said.

That led her and another Vanderbilt resident, Lisa Hermann, M.D., (now a Neurology faculty member) to University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, where they taught the entire neuroscience curriculum to medical students in August 2008.

“It was a fun challenge because we were not only creating our first lecture series but also having to adapt it to their situation — a constantly broken CT scanner, limited labs and no MRI, EEG or EMG.”

When she and her husband, Don Koons, M.D., an emergency medicine physician now in private practice, first matched at Vanderbilt for residency, they vowed to take a year at the end of their training to live abroad. They called it their “bonus year,” and ended up in Gaborone, Botswana, as some of the country’s first specialists at a new private hospital.

“Previously, anytime someone needed a neurologist, they were shipped to South Africa at great expense and the family couldn’t go with them,” Koons said.

“Even though we could now treat them in their home country, the patients couldn’t afford a lot of things. They would save for a month to pay for a scan, so they were very invested in what I ordered, and I had to think about what tests would actually matter.”

Living in Botswana taught the Koons how to make do with limited resources and appreciate nature.

They had a thatched-roof house with a troop of 30 monkeys living in a tree in the front yard, shared a car and cell phone and managed through very spotty electrical service.

“My favorite days in Botswana were the days we had no power, because that meant all we could do was sit around, spend time together and watch the monkeys,” Koons said.

After returning to the United States, Koons took on an assistant role in the residency program and was named director this fall. She has plans to revamp the evaluation system, revisit how the various neurology services are staffed, explore ways to improve the recruitment process and implement a month-long international elective for residents.

“Working internationally is profoundly enriching, both for me and I think for the people I was teaching or caring for. I think anyone can benefit from seeing how medicine works in a different country,” she said.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a neurologist. Over the last 10 or 20 years our offerings just exploded, and I think it will continue growing by leaps and bounds. It’s a very dynamic field to be practicing in.”

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