November 4, 2020

Hidden Figures event shines spotlight on unsung VUMC heroes

Honorees at Monday’s VUMC Hidden Figures event included, from left, Ed Mitchel, Shirley Holland and Gladys Smith.
Honorees at Monday’s VUMC Hidden Figures event included, from left, Ed Mitchel, Shirley Holland and Gladys Smith. (photo by Donn Jones)

The Vanderbilt University Medical Center Office of Diversity Affairs held its fourth annual Hidden VUMC Figures event on Nov. 2, honoring four employees for their decades-long, behind-the scenes service to the Medical Center.

André Churchwell, MD, Chief Diversity Officer, welcomed those watching the ceremony via Zoom and the honorees who were invited to attend in person in 208 Light Hall.

“When we started this event, we intensely labored to find our hidden figures. Now, with the whole Medical Center aware of this event, we receive a host of names that we gladly research,” Churchwell said. “It occurred to us that given the size of VUMC and its long history dating back to 1925, that countless anonymous souls had a hand in building this great institution.”

Lula Tucker, who was not able to attend the event, was an undergraduate at Tennessee State University when she saw an advertisement on a bulletin board for a babysitter. In 1950, she began to babysit part-time for Beverly Towery, MD, chief of Endocrinology at Vanderbilt. She worked weekends as a glass washer for his laboratory. She eventually started to work in his laboratory measuring protein-bound iodine (the forerunner for the Free T4 thyroid test). As an undergraduate, she centrifuged blood to separate the plasma for this measurement.

She became a full-time laboratory technician in the late 1950s in the Endocrinology Laboratory (which was measuring both research and clinical samples) and continued when it transitioned to the Department of Pathology.

She was expert in measuring Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) using a bioassay before the development of the radioimmunoassay. This test was done by collecting urine for 24 hours, concentrating that and injecting this concentrate into a mouse and then examining the mouse ovary and fallopian tubes.

Tucker worked at Vanderbilt for more than 45 years as a key member of the Endocrinology Laboratory. After her retirement, she continued her Vanderbilt association by volunteering in the Vanderbilt Credit Union for another 25 years.

“The research by Drs. Grant Liddle, David Orth and David Rabin and their fellows in endocrinology was totally dependent on measurement of hormones by technicians like Lula Tucker. This research catapulted Vanderbilt to international recognition for major discoveries in hormone secretion and regulation of physiology,” said Alvin Powers, MD, Joe C. Davis Professor Biomedical Science, professor of Medicine, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and director of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center.

Ed Mitchel is the database administrator in the Department of Health Policy, where he has been employed for 35 years. All told, he has worked at VUMC for 51 years.

Mitchel has excelled in his contributions to multiple research projects dealing with medication use and safety using large linked databases. He has worked with multiple investigators both within and outside Health Policy due to his expertise in the use and management of the complex TennCare and Medicaid family of databases.

Mitchel implements research protocols by designing programs to extract and organize data and make it accessible to his colleagues. He develops a comprehensive data documentation book for each project, which epitomizes good research practice and assures that findings are reproducible.

A unique component of Mitchel’s work is the design, refinement and maintenance of algorithms that link individual database records with their corresponding birth or death certificates. He uses vital status data, provided by the state of Tennessee, to complement records available from Medicaid or other sources, enabling the longitudinal follow-up of subjects over time, and the study of exposures to medications and vaccines during pregnancy and their potential consequences on babies.

“Ed has superb organizational skills, is innovative, attentive to details and thrives on solving difficult problems. In addition, he works extremely hard, has excellent interpersonal skills, and an invariably positive attitude,” said Marie Griffin, MD, MPH, professor of Health Policy.

In her five decades of service to Vanderbilt, most of it in the News and Communications department, Gladys Smith has been integral to telling the story of VUMC to the world.

“She has supported the department and its people in ways large and small,” said her colleague Wayne Wood, executive director of New Media and Electronic Publications.

When major news breaks involving the Medical Center, Smith is often the first person a reporter or producer from a national or international news organization encounters when they contact News and Communications. During her time at Vanderbilt, she has also worked to inform employees about important events at the Medical Center, and for many years edited the calendar that was published in the VUMC Reporter newspaper.

“Her encyclopedic knowledge of the departmental budget and the organization’s budgetary protocols has been a support to every departmental director as well as to the writers, editors and media relations people who work in the department,” Wood said.

Smith also serves as the department archivist, overseeing a backlog of publications and other research material and has provided this material to the Medical Center Archives so that the historical record of VUMC can be maintained. She is also an invaluable repository of institutional memory and is the heart of the office. Before she came to News and Communications (then called News and Public Affairs), Smith worked several other jobs at Vanderbilt, including a time in Medical Records in the early 1970s where she registered the births of babies with the state.

Shirley Holland (Ms. Shirley) graduated LPN school in 1969 and was hired at Vanderbilt two days later. She began her career in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), providing manual ventilation for newborns, and was an original nurse for the Angel Transport team.

Over the past decade, Holland has served in numerous nursing roles in the Department of Pediatrics, connecting her many skills to the patients’ needs. Holland was one of a team of LPNs trained by Mildred Stahlman, MD, to deliver the highest quality care in the NICU. A lot of the work Holland and her colleagues did pre-dated modern ventilators, so she would spend her entire shift using a bag to ventilate the tiny premature infants in her care by hand — for an entire shift.

“These nurses saved lives with their hands and the love they provided to those critically ill babies,” said William Cooper, MD, MPH, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Pediatrics and professor of Health Policy.

As her career progressed to the newborn nursery, Holland was one of those nurses who instantly knew which babies were sick and which were not, Cooper said.

“If Ms. Shirley told me she was worried about a baby, you can be sure I was worried too. She has taken care of generations of children and gone about her work in a humble manner that is truly inspiring.”

After the NICU, Holland worked in the Newborn Nursery for many years before transferring to the Pediatric Primary Care Clinic. She has worked for VUMC for 51 years.

“We all stand on the shoulders of giants and these are some of our giants, some of our hidden heroes. This to me is the most exciting thing I do every year,” Churchwell said. “As we hand out the plaques and flowers to our honorees, I want to thank you all for coming and hopefully next year we can do this live and gather here for our fifth annual Hidden VUMC Figures event.”

Go here to view the 2020 Hidden VUMC Figures event.