April 20, 2023

Global research scholarship named in honor of O’Neill

The American Pediatric Surgical Association has recognized Vanderbilt’s James O’Neill, MD, by naming a new global research scholarship in his honor.

James O’Neill, MD

by Jill Clendening

The American Pediatric Surgical Association (APSA) has recognized James O’Neill, MD, professor of Surgery, emeritus, and former chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, by naming a new global research scholarship in his honor.

The James A. O’Neill Jr. Global Pediatric Surgery Scholarship was established by the APSA to support pediatric surgeons practicing in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) throughout the world who are pursuing research into pediatric surgical disease and care.

“Many, many pediatric surgeons do overseas work,” said David Powell, MD, president-elect of APSA. “For most, this involves personally traveling to resource limited environments to share their individual expertise in direct patient care. Although Dr. O’Neill has helped untold patients in this way, he has done much more. Dr. O’Neill has also been dedicated to training and developing an untold number of low- and middle-income country pediatric surgeons who will continue to care for many more children into the future.

“It is in this spirit that the American Pediatric Surgical Association and the APSA Foundation are excited to announce the James O’Neill global pediatric surgery research scholarship. The scholarship is specifically designed to meet the needs of children, trainees and pediatric surgeons in LMICs. Because the resources available in Nashville may not be available in Nairobi, it offers funding and APSA member partnerships to create a body of medical evidence that uniquely works to improve the quality of care for children in these environments,” he said.

“This tremendous honor commemorates Dr. O’Neill’s remarkable commitment to the care of children around the world,” said Seth Karp, MD, H. William Scott Jr. Professor and chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences. “We are so grateful that Dr. O’Neill continues to support the growing efforts in global surgery of both the APSA and the Section of Surgical Sciences.”

O’Neill joined VUMC in 1971, serving as chair of Pediatric Surgery until 1981, when he left to become surgeon-in-chief at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the C.E. Koop Professor of Pediatric Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He returned to VUMC in 1995, serving as chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and surgeon-in-chief at VUMC and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt through 2002. He was honored with the title of professor emeritus in 2002.

O’Neill’s initial experiences with international medical service were in Guatemala, where he provided pediatric surgical care, and in China with Project Hope, where he helped establish a children’s hospital in Shanghai. After stepping down as chair of the Section of Surgical Services, O’Neill dedicated more time to the development of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance and to international humanitarian medical work.

He became active in the American College of Surgeon’s Operation Giving Back Program, an initiative supporting the global humanitarian efforts of surgeons of all specialties. He was also a key player in both the clinical arena as a pediatric surgeon and in the education of surgical residents at two hospitals in Kenya — the Naivasha District Hospital and AIC Kijabe Hospital. For more than two decades, O’Neill and his wife, Susan, have traveled to Kenya annually to provide humanitarian and medical support.

“While I’m grateful and honored to have an award named after me, this is much more of an endorsement of our surgical program and of Vanderbilt, which has long backed our efforts to support surgical programs overseas,” O’Neill said. “One of our goals has been to expand the surgical workforce in areas such as underserved regions of Africa, and we’re doing that in a fashion that mirrors how we train surgical residents in the United States. But one area of this that has only been partially developed is research.”

In their Global Surgery 2030 report, the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery stated, “Research collaborations between well-resourced academic institutions with research skills and clinicians in low-resource settings with high clinical loads and important research questions can be a powerful aspect of global health partnerships.”

This is a growing emphasis at VUMC, and particularly of the Section of Surgical Sciences, O’Neill said.

“In the last three or four years, we’ve been more heavily involved in promoting research as a valid and necessary component of global resident education. Efforts such as this scholarship to support surgical providers in low- and middle-income countries as they learn research methodology and conduct investigations will further advance evidence-based surgical practice in these regions.”

O’Neill said he is especially proud of VUMC’s involvement in “train the trainer” efforts in both clinical practice and surgical research in spaces such as Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi and at AIC Kijabe Hospital, in partnership with VUMC’s Department of Anesthesiology and Mark Newton, MD, professor of Anesthesiology.

Collaborations which pair surgical partners overseas with VUMC investigators to conduct research are also invaluable, he said. An example is research by Harold Lovvorn III, MD, assistant professor of Pediatric Surgery, to examine samples of Wilms tumor provided by Kenyan pediatric surgeons to better understand the genetics behind the kidney cancer that disproportionately impacts Black children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The APSA is the nation’s largest professional organization dedicated to the pediatric surgical specialty. The group’s mission is to ensure optimal pediatric surgical care of patients and their families, to promote excellence in the field and to foster a vibrant and viable community of pediatric surgeons.

Learn more about the James A. O’Neill, Jr. Global Pediatric Surgery Scholarship: https://apsapedsurg.org/apsa-info/apsa-foundation/global-research-scholarship/.