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Fleming embraces role as medical students’ advocate

Dec. 11, 2014, 9:19 AM

Amy Fleming, M.D., is Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s new associate dean for Medical Student Affairs. (photo by Joe Howell)

Twenty-one years ago while seated at a small group gathering at the home of University of Virginia Medical School’s dean for student affairs, Amy Fleming, M.D., saw her future.

It wasn’t a shout-it-from-the-mountaintop revelation. But that night in 1993, as a first-year medical student, Fleming got a glimpse of what her life could look like.

“I can remember sitting there, looking around and engaging in the conversation, but all the while thinking — this is what I want — the combination of medicine, teaching and mentoring,” recalled Fleming, associate professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt.

On Dec.1 Fleming’s long-ago epiphany was realized as she stepped into her role as Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s new associate dean for Medical Student Affairs.

“I have been walking in the clouds since Bonnie Miller told me,” beamed Fleming. “I am honored and humbled to be offered the responsibility.

“As a doctor you get to be a part of people’s lives in the best moments and the worst moments. I think it is the same thing I have been offered here — to be a part of the students’ lives during their best and worst moments and all the moments in between.”

Fleming succeeds Scott Rodgers, M.D., who served as the primary student advocate and held the post responsible for programs that meet the needs of individual medical students.

“With Dr. Fleming we are fortunate to have someone already in our midst so skilled and passionate about impacting the lives of our students. I know Amy will bring her own special perspectives to this historic role in our medical school, one that our students will appreciate as she supports and enhances their educational experience,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

Fleming said she is looking forward to building on the established programs that are in place to support students. But foremost on her to-do list is taking care of the needs of the fourth-year students in the midst of residency interviews and on the verge of graduating.

“The most important thing right now, in this transition, is making sure that things are stable and consistent for the students who are graduating in May,” said Fleming.

“It is important for them to understand that there is a person who knows them and who is going to advocate for them. There is someone who knows the system, knows the curriculum and knows the context in which they are working. Because all students have rotated through the pediatric clerkship, a course I have directed, I know them all.”

Fleming, one of the three original college mentors of the advisory college program and one of the faculty mentors for the careers in medicine program, is well-suited for her new role, said Bonnie Miller, M.D., associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs and senior associate dean for Health Sciences Education.

Amy Fleming, M.D., receives the School of Medicine Shovel award for teaching in 2011 from VUSM student Aaron Dawes. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“We are delighted to have Amy taking on this role,” Miller said. “Her deep expertise as a mentor, a teacher and a leader will be tremendous assets to her.”

Raised in Oregon, Fleming attended the University of Virginia. It wasn’t until her junior year in college that she decided to pursue a career in medicine.

As she was applying to medical schools, she joined the U.S. Air Force, following in the footsteps of her father, uncle and grandfathers, who all served in various branches of the military. She completed her pediatric residency at Wilford Hall Medical Center.

After nearly 12 years, she retired from the Air Force and joined the staff of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan and was a core member of the team responsible for inpatient education of medical students and pediatric residents.

Fleming’s arrival at Vanderbilt in 2007 was very intentional, she said.

After her husband, Geoffrey, completed his pediatric intensive care fellowship in Michigan, the pair began looking for a permanent place for their family of five.

During the search, Fleming interviewed for a position at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, where she was introduced to the learning community models at the School of Medicine.

She met with both Rodgers and Miller to learn more about the advisory colleges, student wellness and careers in medicine programs.

She was drawn to the value the school placed on the whole person during the entire medical school process.

“My first two years of medical school were so dedicated to studying that I felt like I lost two years of my life,” said Fleming. “It is because of those two challenging years that I was so interested in coming to Vanderbilt.
“The programs here really resonated with me. I did not have this as a medical student and I think I would have been a much happier, more well-balanced student if someone had guided me through that period.”

Fleming, a clinician educator in the Department of Pediatrics, has made an impact during her tenure at Vanderbilt. As the co-chair of VUSM’s Gabbe Advisory College, director of Medical Student Education for the Department of Pediatrics, chair of the Portfolio and Personalized Learning Plan Program and chair of Core Clinical Year, she has become very involved in the lives of medical students.

In 2010 she received the Thomas E. Brittingham Clinical Teaching Award followed by the Shovel Award in 2011, which is the highest teaching award from the School of Medicine.

Her reward for that honor was reading each student’s name at graduation — a task that both thrilled and terrified her.

“There were some complicated names in that group so I had all the students call my voice mail and say their names three times. I recorded it onto my MP3 player and every night I listened to and pronounced the names over and over and over again.

“One of the students came up to me and told me that it was the first time his name had been pronounced correctly at a graduation and his mother was so excited.”

Fleming, said she has always loved the combination of working with people, helping people and being in a role where her primary job is to serve others.

“We are delighted for Amy. She is the epitome of a medical educator and I know of no one more devoted to medical student education,” said Steven A. Webber, MBChB, James C. Overall Professor and chair of Pediatrics and Pediatrician-in-Chief for Children’s Hospital. “I have no doubt that she will thrive in her new role while still remaining a pediatrician at heart.”

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