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Churchwell looking forward to transition, new challenges

May. 19, 2021, 4:41 PM

André Churchwell, MD, is stepping down from his administrative duties at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to focus on his roles as Vanderbilt University’s Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer.
Andre Churchwell, MD poses for a photo on May 11, 2021. Photos by Donn Jones/Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

by Kathy Whitney

André Churchwell, MD, has worn many hats — literally and figuratively — during his 30-year association with Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Known for his keen sense of style, tailor-made suits and complementary chapeaus, Churchwell, Levi Watkins Jr. MD Professor of Medicine, and professor of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology and Radiologic Sciences, has led the Medical Center’s diversity and inclusion efforts serving as senior associate dean for Diversity Affairs and VUMC’s Chief Diversity Officer for the past 12 years.

In 2020 he was named Vanderbilt University’s Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer after serving on an interim basis since 2019.

Like a well-loved accessory, some of his VUMC titles will be packed away as he steps down from his administrative duties to focus solely on his University role while continuing to see patients in his cardiology practice at Vanderbilt Heart.

It’s a transition he says he is looking forward to.

“It’s almost impossible to do two large jobs like that simultaneously forever,” Churchwell said of his duties at both the Medical Center and the University. “I always like a challenge. It’s a broader reach and a different platform, a different set of challenges, similar to the Medical School but different.”

Born and raised in East Nashville, Churchwell is one of five children of Robert and Mary Churchwell. Their father was the first Black reporter for a major southern metropolitan newspaper, The Nashville Banner. Their mother taught for 30 years in the Nashville public school system.

Two children followed in their mother’s footsteps and chose education for their careers. Churchwell, and his younger twin brothers, Keith Churchwell, MD, president of Yale New Haven Hospital, and Kevin Churchwell, MD, president and CEO of Boston Children’s, chose medicine.

Churchwell graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1975 with a degree in Biomedical Engineering and later graduated from Harvard Medical School.

“Being a native Nashvillian and Vanderbilt alumnus allowed Dr. Churchwell to bring a unique perspective to his efforts to advance diversity and inclusion for the Medical Center and School of Medicine, helping us see more clearly that we should always strive to do more. His insights have helped lead the way, setting a strong foundation to build on these efforts,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer for VUMC and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Churchwell completed his internship, residency and cardiology fellowship in Atlanta at Emory University, where, in 1984, he was the first African American named as chief resident of medicine at Grady Memorial Hospital. After completing his training, he joined the faculty at Emory.

Churchwell left Atlanta to join the Page-Campbell Cardiology Group in Nashville in 1991, which began his affiliation with Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute. He joined Vanderbilt Heart full time in 2006.

His commitment to excellence in patient care is well known. It’s a characteristic on which he prides himself and will continue to build on as he cares for his patients. He likens the practice of medicine as “the root of the tree” that has borne his academic and administrative careers.

“While Dr. Churchwell may be changing administrative roles, we continue to be incredibly fortunate to have him on our clinical staff. He is beloved by colleagues and patients alike. He is a superb patient-oriented clinician and a great role model as a teacher. I express my gratitude and admiration to André for his countless efforts to make our clinical environment more welcoming and inclusive for the patients we serve,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Health System Officer for VUMC.

“Dr. Churchwell is a treasured colleague, advisor and friend. He has for me, and for Vanderbilt Nursing, been a role model in patient care, compassion, diversity and inclusion and professionalism. His shadow, as he leaves his VUMC role, will wrap around us in inspiration and hopes for our work going forward,” said Executive Chief Nursing Officer Marilyn Dubree, MSN, RN.

As VUMC’s Chief Diversity Officer and senior associate dean, Churchwell organized the Hidden Figures event that pays tribute to those who work behind the scenes, the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., commemorative lecture, the Levi Watkins Jr., MD lecture, the unveiling of portraits of important contributors to VUMC’s legacy, many of whom are underrepresented minorities, and the organization of the United Voices of Vanderbilt choir, among myriad other culture-shifting initiatives.

“Dr. Churchwell sets the standard for Chief Diversity Officer at academic medical centers. His passion, imagination and commitment to his work has galvanized our VUMC community and has led to dramatic improvements in diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels over the past decade. In addition to his wonderful legacy at VUMC, many institutions across the country have taken notice and are emulating his work to the great benefit of their medical centers,” said John McPherson, MD, Drs. Sol and Marvin Rosenblum Professor of Medicine.

What Churchwell is most proud of regarding diversity and inclusion initiatives is the change in culture across VUMC.

“You can’t do anything without leadership support every step of the way. To make significant advances in diversity and inclusion at a large institution takes at least five years of effort. Having a strategic direction that says “Making Diversity and Inclusion Intentional” is really important, and we’ve actually acted on it. I haven’t done it solely. It’s a journey that others have joined us on,” Churchwell said.

Reed Omary, MD, Carol D. and Henry P. Pendergrass Professor and chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, is one of many colleagues who have embraced and carried forth Churchwell’s mission.

“I have been lucky to learn from and partner with Dr. Churchwell on many rewarding programs across the Medical Center. These include diversity, the Strategic Directions, and the Medical Innovators Development Program. His creative mind is right out of the Renaissance, inspiring us to innovate using empathy, engineering, design and our right brains. His impact has been truly seismic,” Omary said.

In Dr. Churchwell’s free time, he sings with a jazz group, is a talented writer, and enjoys sketching comic book illustrations as well as portraits.

He and his wife, Doreatha, a retired nurse educator at Vanderbilt, have been married for more than 30 years. They met at Grady Memorial Hospital where he was the chief medical resident, and she was a medical emergency room charge nurse. They live in Brentwood and have two children, Crystal Churchwell Evans and André L. Churchwell Jr.; and a new grandson, Victor Evans Jr.

Churchwell gives his parents all the credit for shaping him and his siblings, mentoring them, and supporting them.

“Their vision of the importance of the life of the mind drives a lot of what we do. Recognizing that it’s not just the math, the engineering, the science and physics, but it’s the breadth of humanities, which help us sustain and maintain a commitment to humanism.

“Our mom and dad both were very committed to service, and we’d discuss that around our dinner table. They wanted us to have an impact in the world and be in roles that help a lot of other people.”

As Vanderbilt University’s Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, Churchwell is dedicated to actualizing an all-embracing Vanderbilt community. His current efforts center on expanding the reaches of the University Diversity Council, which he implemented last year along with William Robinson, Vanderbilt’s Executive Director of the Provost’s Office for Inclusive Excellence.

When asked to reflect on his 12 years leading diversity and inclusion efforts at VUMC, Churchwell said, “This is the end of the beginning to another beginning. I’ll be working with colleagues in the Medical Center, and I look forward to that. This is part of the extended journey, broader in scope.”

Fortunately, Churchwell will still be a visible presence on the medical campus. He will be easy to spot as he strides across campus between his University office in Kirkland Hall to his clinic in Medical Center East. His friends and colleagues need look no farther than his well-made suits … minus a couple of hats.

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