Emergency & Trauma

June 20, 2024

Renowned Emergency Medicine educator, clinician Keith Wrenn mourned

Dr. Wrenn’s clinical skill inspired awe. He taught by example, and his patience, compassion and focus on patient-centered care leaves an indelible impression on trainees and colleagues.

Longtime faculty member Keith Wrenn, MD, professor of Emergency Medicine, emeritus, died June 12 after a long illness. He was 73.

Keith Wrenn, MD

Dr. Wrenn, who was born and raised in Colón, Panama, was a highly esteemed clinician and a nationally renowned educator. He joined VUMC in 1992 as the first director of the residency program in the Department of Emergency Medicine, staying in the role for the next 25 years. Dr. Wrenn retired from VUMC in 2019.

“He had a real gift for imparting medical knowledge in a format and with humor in a way that would stick in your head,” said Stephan Russ, MD, a resident under Dr. Wrenn and now associate professor of Emergency Medicine and associate chief of staff at Vanderbilt University Hospital. “He was a giant clinician, really highly esteemed by people in emergency medicine across the country.

“When we had his retirement party at the Frist Art Museum, a huge percentage of the residents he had trained flew in to attend from all over the country, because he’d been such a meaningful part of all our lives. Once you got to know him, it really set the compass for true north in terms of clinical care,” Russ said.

Dr. Wrenn graduated from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in 1976 and trained in internal medicine at Emory and Grady hospitals in Atlanta. He was board certified in emergency medicine and internal medicine and, and for a time, also in critical care medicine. He spent two years in the National Health Service Corps, and, after a brief stint as a primary care provider, began his academic career at Grady Memorial Hospital, where he became assistant director of the Medical Emergency Department and the Medical Intensive Care Unit.

“Keith was my partner for more than 40 years,” said Corey Slovis, MD, professor and chair emeritus of EmergencyMedicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The two had trained together, worked together at Grady Memorial Hospital in the early ’80s, and came to Vanderbilt in 1992 to develop the emergency medicine program.

“He was a gifted physician and had an encyclopedic knowledge of medicine,” Slovis said. “Although at times he was irascible, when it involved a student or resident, he was the most compassionate, understanding and patient individual I have ever seen. Leaving aside his being an amazing physician, I could never get over how compassionate and understanding he was in times of need, whether it be a student, a resident or a faculty member, whether it be a family emergency, emotional turmoil or career questioning. You would never expect it from someone who at times when it didn’t matter might appear somewhat brusque, but he was just this warm, compassionate, giving person.”

Dr. Wrenn’s many academic accolades include being twice selected as best clinical professor at Vanderbilt, twice winning the School of Medicine’s prestigious Shovel Award, receiving the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Award, and receiving the 2016 Residency Director of the Year Award from the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.

“It was due to some of the interactions I had with Dr. Wrenn that I changed from internal medicine to the emergency medicine residency,” said Ian Jones, MD, associate professor of Emergency Medicine, who started residency at VUMC in 1993.

“He had an unbelievable fund of knowledge,” Jones said. “Having been here for 30 years, I’ve worked with a lot of clinicians, and he was at the absolute top. There was nothing that he didn’t know.

“And he had a really good way of helping others learn. But he taught by example, a very patient-centered physician. I think that many of the people that worked with him wanted to emulate the way he practiced — he was just so good.”

Dr. Wrenn was preceded in death by his parents, Maxine Elizabeth Luther Wrenn and Earl Walton Wrenn, and his brother, Dr. Christopher Jay Wrenn. He is survived by his wife, Melissa Arnold Wrenn, and children, Dr. Amy Wrenn (Sathya Chinnadurai) with grandchildren Helena and Rosalind, Vanderbilt’s Dr. Jesse Wrenn (Audrey) with grandchildren William, Christopher, and Maxine, Henry Wrenn (Valerie Charrel, with a grandchild due soon), and Joseph Wrenn (Emily) with a grandchild, Adam.

There will be a private service for Dr. Wrenn. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Southern Poverty Law Center or any charity fostering peace, equality and compassion.