Employee Spotlight

July 3, 2024

Couple’s legacy of giving results in transformative change in endocrinology at Vanderbilt

“As I worked at Vanderbilt, I became so attached to the division, and when I had the ability to do it, I wanted to give back.”

David Orth, MD, and his wife, Linda D’Errico, enjoy spending time together in their in-home pottery studio where Orth creates his distinctively shaped and glazed vessels. (photo by Susan Urmy)

When David Orth, MD, emeritus director of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, retired in 1997, he and his wife, Linda D’Errico, were already exploring ways to give back to both the institution and medical specialty he had come to view as family.

Orth graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 1962 and completed his residency on the Osler Medical Service at Johns Hopkins. He returned to Vanderbilt in 1965 to join the faculty as a postdoctoral fellow in clinical endocrinology with an invaluable mentor, Grant W. Liddle, MD. Liddle was a pioneer in the field of clinical endocrinology who served as chief of Endocrinology and later as chair of the Department of Medicine at VUMC.

“I had thought I would only train for two years with Dr. Liddle and move on. I just never managed to leave,” Orth laughed. “I was fortunate to have a mentor who provided me with a laboratory and an income so I could do my postdoctoral training. Then, I just stayed on because I enjoyed it so much. I never saw a place I wanted to live more or an institution I thought would provide me more opportunities in my profession. Vanderbilt is very much in my heart.”

Orth built a remarkable career in endocrinology at Vanderbilt, gaining a reputation as an exemplary educator, clinician and researcher.

From 1968 to 1981, he was joint director of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism and director from 1984 until he retired in 1997. He was also a scholar-in-residence at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Italy and was a noted investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Orth is a past president of the Endocrine Society, the largest professional association devoted to all aspects of endocrinology.

Orth hired D’Errico for a secretarial role in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism in 1973. It proved to be one of his best hires, as they were married in 1979. D’Errico, who built her own career as an administrative officer for the division, followed her husband in retirement in 1998.

“After I retired, every other morning I would wake up and think I was absolutely out of my mind,” D’Errico said. “I was giving up my job, which I loved. But it was definitely the right thing for us to do so we could have that time together.”

The couple has had no problem finding fulfilling endeavors during retirement. Orth returned to his early love of art, and he paints and sculpts expressive figures. He and D’Errico also work together in a large pottery studio they added to their Forest Hills home, complete with a potter’s wheel, kilns and rows upon rows of uniquely shaped and glazed vessels. D’Errico also began spending more time volunteering. In recent years the Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville’s work assisting refugees in resettling in the area has been close to her heart.

Orth and D’Errico have remained in close touch with friend and colleague Alvin C. Powers, MD, whom Orth recruited to VUMC in 1988. Powers is now the director of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism and director of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research Center. The couple let him know they were looking for ways to give back to the division.

“As I worked at Vanderbilt, I became so attached to the division, and when I had the ability to do it, I wanted to give back.”

David Orth

“We’ve always lived within our means, and we’ve saved throughout our careers, so we were comfortable when we retired. We had some resources that we wanted to use in a meaningful way.”

In 2019 the David N. Orth Lectureship in Endocrinology was established to bring speakers in the specialty to the Medical Center. The David Orth Award was also founded in Orth’s honor and presented by the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism and the Endocrine Society to a graduating medical student who has had outstanding performance in clinical or research endocrinology.

In early 2023, the couple went a step further and established the David Orth and Linda D’Errico Fund to support the division’s work. Their gift includes lifetime support for high-priority needs, as identified by the division director, and will include a bequest from their estate upon their passing.

“Originally, the idea was that we would endow a directorship, but we don’t feel comfortable doing that at this point,” Orth said. “We decided to start contributing to a fund for that purpose. Then, at the point of both of our deaths, we have Vanderbilt University Medical Center in our will to establish that directorship.”

But the couple said they were uncomfortable with waiting around “until the final event” to do substantial good for their academic family.

Powers began working with the couple to identify opportunities where their targeted giving would make an immediate difference in research and practice related to endocrinology at VUMC.

“It has been remarkable to watch the fruits of their giving,” said Powers. “Through their philanthropy, young investigators and clinicians from many different backgrounds and career paths have been positively influenced by their kindness and actions. It is due to individuals like David Orth and Linda D’Errico that science and patient care are advanced on a personal level.”

The following are just a few examples of their generosity in action.

David Orth Award

David Orth, MD, emeritus director of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and his wife, Linda D’Errico, center, have directly impacted the careers of young investigators and clinicians through their compassion and philanthropy. A few beneficiaries of their generosity include, left to right, Nike Izmaylov, MD; Justin Gregory, MD, MSCI; Naweed Akbar; Mona Mashayekhi, MD, PhD; and Bilgünay İlkin Safa, MD. Alvin C. Powers, MD, director of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism and the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research Center, has made these connections possible.

In 2023, Nike Izmaylov, MD, now an intern in internal medicine at VUMC, received the David Orth Award, an honor established in Orth’s name that she said has helped set her future path. “I found myself amazed and humbled to have received such an award,” Izmaylov said. “I certainly was not expecting it, but to have the institution recognize contributions and value efforts solidified my desire to stay at Vanderbilt to continue research.”

Izmaylov said that in college one of her best friends shared that she was transgender and that she struggled to obtain respectful medical care. Now, one of Izmaylov’s goals as a physician is to step in to improve the course of health care for individuals such as her friend.

“As an endocrinologist, wielding a deeper understanding of how hormones can affect tissues and organ systems from head to toe, I will be poised to explore these domains, question long-held assumptions, and start to fill in the blanks.”

Nike Izmaylov

“I aim to address some of these unknowns and to set precedent for more thoughtful and deliberate care for our transgender patients, but also our cisgender patients who may not fit the molds presumed by ‘averages,’ as well as our intersex patients.

“Accomplishing this will require many different paths: the research to gather information; the clinical time spent with the patients I want to help; the mentorship at an academic center so that I can teach and be taught by peers, by elders, by students, and by patients. To me, the Orth Award represents a step forward in my efforts in endocrinology.”

Supporting a Fresh Start in a New Country

It was D’Errico’s efforts with refugee resettlement through Catholic Charities that led to their next outreach of the heart with connections to VUMC. The couple had watched the national news as the United States military was withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2021 and the Taliban retook control. Chaotic evacuations of Afghan citizens who worked with American forces, many serving as interpreters, began.

She and a friend stepped up to support a young Afghan family, a couple with two young boys, as they arrived in Nashville. The man had been working on a U.S. military base, so the family was evacuated quickly from imminent danger.

D’Errico and her friend helped the family settle into their new apartment, access social services, find job leads and much more. They learned that the man’s brother — a physician who had completed his first year of residency in Kabul — had also been working as an interpreter and was waiting for his paperwork to be processed so his family could be brought to the United States.

After living in hiding for nearly a year, Naweed Akbar and his wife made it to the safety of Qatar in 2022, where his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter. There they waited to be cleared to enter the United States. D’Errico was determined to reunite the brothers and their families in Nashville.

“I had been very optimistic about the future for myself, my family and my country,” said Akbar. “Residency is very tough in my country. About 10,000 people apply and take the exam, but only about 250 or 300 people are selected. I was among those selected, and I passed my residency test in infectious diseases. I was in the second year of my residency when my country fell. Everything was messed up. I was thinking, ‘I don’t have anyone to support me. I don’t have anyone to hold my hands.’”

To better support his family financially — and with the hopes of earning a Special Immigrant Visa to come to the U.S. — Akbar had also been working as an interpreter. His wife was a dentist in Afghanistan, and they watched freedoms for women disappear as the Taliban gained power. They soon went into hiding and feared for their lives.

“It was all very complicated, but eventually we were able to facilitate his name being pushed up on the list of people who were going to be flown out.”

Linda D’Errico

“He was doing residency training in infectious diseases in Kabul. We thought it would be wonderful if we could find him a job at Vanderbilt. We talked to Al Powers. He felt so much compassion for this man that he went above and beyond in talking to people and finding out if there were any possibilities.”

Powers contacted Justin Gregory, MD, MSCI, a pediatric endocrinologist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, and told him about Akbar. Gregory’s research looks at insulin sensitivity and endothelial function — cardiovascular risk in individuals with Type 1 diabetes. He aims to translate his findings into therapeutic strategies.

Gregory needed assistance in his lab, and a training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) could be used to fund a postdoctoral research fellowship trainee position. This training grant, which has been at Vanderbilt for more than 40 years, is currently led by Kevin Niswender, MD, PhD. The grant supports people who have completed their MD or PhD and allows them to build the skills needed to conduct research on their own. Amazingly, Orth had helped oversee this training grant when he was the division director in the 1980s and 1990s.

In Kabul, Akbar had no opportunities to conduct research, and Gregory was willing to see if he was a good fit for his lab so he could gain that experience.

“Naweed had written a personal statement I read through, and he had even made a video of him teaching medical students in Afghanistan,” Gregory said. “What came across was that Naweed was a very enthusiastic person and a hard worker. I’ll bend over backwards for someone who wants to work hard to reach their career goals.”

Naweed is now working in Gregory’s lab as a research fellow, analyzing patient samples obtained through a past study directed by Niswender at VUMC’s Clinical Research Center. He is examining proteins circulating in the bloodstream to determine whether those proteins play a role in the risk for cardiovascular disease in individuals with Type 1 diabetes. He’s working with two proteins — cellular repressor of E1A-stimulated genes-1 (CREG1) and insulin-like growth factor binding protein-1 (IGFBP1), with most of his effort focused on IGFBP1.

“I’ve tasked him with investigating whether or not that protein or insulin’s relationship with that protein is what drives cardiovascular risk in Type 1 diabetes, or at least a portion of cardiovascular risk in Type 1 diabetes,” Gregory said.

Akbar is eager to learn all he can about conducting clinical research and is grateful for the opportunity to conduct meaningful investigations at VUMC.

“I’ve examined 52 samples for two proteins (IGFBP1 and CREG1) across three cohorts; control, T1DM and MODY-2 [a form of maturity-onset diabetes of the young caused by mutations in the glucokinase gene],” said Akbar.

And he’s grateful to not only Orth and D’Errico, whom he now considers to be beloved family members, but also to Powers, Gregory and the VUMC community for being so welcoming and supportive. His future goals are to complete his residency and an endocrinology fellowship so he can then conduct independent research and care for patients.

“I’m working at a very great hospital, in a great community with great people,” Akbar said. “This has been a big transition in my life and in my family’s life. I’m happy. I want to pave the way for my daughter, my son and also for my wife. I want them to be impressive people in the future, to help this country, to be good citizens, and to help others.”

Supporting Young Researchers

The couple wanted to do more to support endocrinology research, especially for young investigators beginning their careers. Orth remembered how challenging it had been establishing a lab and finding support needed to complete investigations. Powers let the couple know about a young clinical investigator who is passionate about discovering the cause of inflammation in metabolic diseases and finding therapeutics to prevent adverse outcomes caused by this inflammation.

Mona Mashayekhi, MD, PhD, is an Iranian immigrant who came to the United States when she was 9. Her belief in the promise of the American Dream and the freedom to pursue your passions fueled her life. She graduated from the University of Chicago, then attended Washington University in St. Louis for her MD/PhD. She came to VUMC in 2013 for an internal medicine residency, followed by an endocrinology fellowship. Now she’s a physician-scientist and an assistant professor in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism.

“I first met Dr. David Orth and Linda in my role as the director of the Endocrine Grand Rounds seminar series,” she said. “During the annual Orth Lecture, we invite a prominent visiting researcher who embodies Dr. Orth’s philosophy to present to our faculty. As the director of this series, I have the privilege of hosting Linda and David.

“I’ve also had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Orth about my research and share my long-term goals. When I was promoted to assistant professor in the division, I learned that part of my promotion package was generously donated by the Orths.”

Mona Mashayekhi

The Orths’ gift enabled her to hire a postdoctoral fellow and launch her independent research program.

“As a translational researcher who conducts human clinical studies, I need someone who is versatile enough to both interact with patients and run experiments at the bench. The ideal candidate for this type of work is an MD graduate who is conducting research before going on to complete residency training.

“The number of such candidates is limited, and international graduates cannot be hired on NIH training grants. With the gift from the Orths, I was able to find the perfect first hire, Bilgünay İlkin Safa, an MD graduate from Turkey who will work with me for three years prior to applying for residency.”

Mashayakhi said the Orths’ gift has been transformative.

“As an early career physician-scientist, the support of mentors and sponsors is key to launching a successful career,” she said. “From learning which funding opportunities are the best fit, working with collaborators productively, and hiring trainees that match your research program, a mentor provides key input and guidance that is the best part of this career. Likewise, donors and former faculty can help promote the careers of junior faculty through their sponsorship. I hope to honor the Orths’ support for the next generation of trainees and faculty in my own career.”

“David and Linda are truly inspiring,” Powers said. “They have built a community through their generosity — whether it is at Vanderbilt to support medical students and early career faculty, or in the Nashville and global community to support refugees. I hope their ongoing philanthropy and community involvement will inspire others as it has inspired so many of us.”