June 4, 2004

Band of Brothers

Featured Image

Left to right: Brothers Keith, André, and Kevin Churchwell are all doctors at Vanderbilt. Photo by Dana Johnson

Band of Brothers

From left, Crystal, André Sr., Doreatha, and André Jr.  Photo by Micael Renee

From left, Crystal, André Sr., Doreatha, and André Jr. Photo by Micael Renee

Leslie Douglas-Churchwell, M.D., Keith Churchwell, and their daughter Lauren. Photo by Dana Johnson

Leslie Douglas-Churchwell, M.D., Keith Churchwell, and their daughter Lauren. Photo by Dana Johnson

From left to right: Gloria, Katherine, 11, John, 5, (sitting on lap in front), Kevin, Alexandria, 9, and Arthur, 7. Photo by Dana Johnson

From left to right: Gloria, Katherine, 11, John, 5, (sitting on lap in front), Kevin, Alexandria, 9, and Arthur, 7. Photo by Dana Johnson

Robert and Mary Churchwell expected only one thing from their five children — the best. And they got it.

The Churchwell children — Robert Jr., André, Marisa, Kevin and Keith — learned by example. 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.

Excellence is all in a day’s work for this family. It’s not a motto, but rather a trait evident in the Churchwell lineage.

Two children followed in their mother’s footsteps and chose education for their careers. Robert Jr. is an assistant principal of Jere Baxter Middle School in Nashville, and Marisa Churchwell Smith is a special education teacher in Augusta, Ga.

Three chose medicine and Vanderbilt — André L. Churchwell, M.D., assistant clinical professor of Medicine; Kevin B. Churchwell, M.D., associate professor of Pediatrics and Anesthesiology and Keith B. Churchwell, M.D., assistant clinical professor of Medicine.

André was the first to come to Vanderbilt in 1991, followed by twins Kevin in 1995 and Keith in 1998.

Born and raised in East Nashville, where their parents still reside, the Churchwells share the same backgrounds and have similar interests. But how they decided to go into medicine is very different. The path each took and continues to follow is a tributes, they acknowledge, to the incredible job their parents did in raising them.

“It’s funny, everybody thinks their parents are the best,” says Keith, who also serves as the medical director of the Page-Campbell Heart Institute at Vanderbilt. “But my parents really are the best parents. Their ability to raise five children the way they did and provide the opportunities they did for us, when I look back on it, it’s just mind-boggling.

“[It was] the mixture of love and firmness … the rigidity yet flexibility of allowing us to explore was, for me, a great environment to grow up in,” he says.

All three Churchwells play an instrument — André and Keith play the trumpet, while Kevin plays the clarinet. All three are quick-witted, play tennis, are movie buffs (particularly vintage films) and still attend their boyhood church, Seay-Hubbard United Methodist Church, where both Kevin and Keith served as acolytes. Recently, the three were named among the “Best Doctors in America” for 2003-04, a peer-selected group of physicians. Andre’ has made the list since 1996.

Footsteps to follow

André was the first to jump into the medical profession. Graduating third out of 310 from East High School, he went on to graduate magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Biomedical Engineering and later graduated from Harvard Medical School.

“Growing up in a family of educators and professional people, education was greatly emphasized,” André says. “As I got into my studies, I realized that the best combination for me as a vocation was probably something that included science and humanities. I did not want a purely scientific career, but one that involved some interaction with people, so medicine seemed to be a natural fit.”

André remembers the point in his life when medicine became a certainty.

“What spurred my interest was when my mother’s oldest sister became ill,” he says. “It was probably ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This led me to do a lot of reading, searching, combing through books. It was a presumptive diagnosis, but through that I became convinced of what was wrong. I think that experience was a trigger for me.”

As a biomedical engineering major, there were two tracks André could take — either medical school or bioengineering research to design equipment or systems in medicine such as EKG machines or kidney dialysis machines. Although he briefly considered taking the latter, he admits that he was firmly rooted in medicine.

“I will say, having an engineering background basically roots you in the fundamental principles. Engineers like to have things explained by equations that are understood in a very mechanical or electrical way. The cardiovascular system is a true hydraulic system, being a system of fluids and pumps and tubes — albeit biological. At some level, this really appealed to that side of my intellect. In cardiology, there are some firm rules on how things work, and I became wedded to cardiology.”

André 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, conducting basic research, seeing patients, teaching students, running the ECHO lab and creating and directing the office of minority affairs. All the while, he spearheaded the creation of the Emory-Georgia Tech Biomedical Technology Research Center and received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Faculty Development award.

He left Atlanta to join the Page-Campbell Cardiology Group. During his early years with the practice he served as managing partner, but is now a senior partner.

“Wow,” he says when asked to talk about his accomplishments. “That’s a lot of stuff. It’s hard to talk about yourself. I didn’t realize I had done that much during that period of time. I was young, active and driven to do as much as I could. When given a challenge, I wanted to see if I could do it. I felt like I could and I did.”

But as a child, his voice was not as loud. He admits that at the core, he’s shy. By default he served as a main influence for his twin brothers, who are eight years younger. He recalls summers spent teaching baseball and football, riding bikes and the like, which drew him out of his shell. But the most memorable activity was art.

“We were really big into pop art, particularly giant comic book blow ups,” he says. “We’d spend entire summers doing giant murals or paintings. I started drawing and the kids saw me. So when those little guys saw that, they picked it up too.

“We’d plaster them all over the house and the ones mama says we couldn’t keep, we’d give away. We picked up the drawing from dad.”

As children, their father would sketch Mighty Mouse, Roy Rogers and Superman.

“André loved Superman,” chuckles his mother, Mary. “And come to think of it, he’ll stop to help anyone in need.”

Always the high achiever, André continues to strive for the best. His commitment to excellence in patient care is well known. It’s a characteristic on which he prides himself.

“When I’m long gone, I hope people remember that I tried to take care of my patients like they were members of my own family.”

It’s his dedication to his patients that was a huge attraction for his wife. The pair, married 22 years, met working with a patient who suffered a cardiac arrest in the Emergency Room of Grady Hospital. He was the chief resident; she was the charge nurse.

After their initial meeting, it took André four months to officially ask her out.

“He claims he was working up his nerve,” Doreatha Churchwell says. “I knew I liked him because he showed so much concern about his patients. His mother taught him to treat his patients like he would want to be treated or more importantly, how he would want her to be treated.

“He’s up at 5 [a.m.] every day to make rounds by 6 [a.m.]. He makes rounds twice. He gets to know his patients and their families. He gets to know the whole family and sometimes, so do we.”

The “we” would include their 19-year-old daughter Crystal, a rising sophomore at Wellesley College where their 16-year-old son André Jr., a rising junior at University School of Nashville.

Crystal is quick to call her father a Renaissance Man, who can speak to many topics and can engage most anyone in a conversation.

“There are just so many things that speak to his personality,” Crystal says. “He can be silly. He’s fun. He guides me without letting me know it. He’s typically right. I see him as dad. But when I see him with his patients … they love him. I mean, he is my dad and I love him, but for others to feel that way …”

Dressed fit for a king

André’s desire for excellence reaches beyond his professional career and resonates in all he does. Even down to the clothes he wears.

“He has always been clothes-conscious,” she says. “What’s funny is, I never realized other fathers were not. That’s all I ever saw. He is an impeccable dresser.”

His interest in clothing goes beyond being noted as the “best dresser” among colleagues. His knowledge of the history of men’s clothing has garnered him speaking engagements and appearances in national publications and magazines. His suits are made by an English tailor in New York.

“My dad, being a professional man, told us it was important to be sure you didn’t look like a bum when you go out to work,” André says. “It’s not that we’re looking to become peacocks or that clothes make a man, but they do help proclaim and help you make your statement in life and in learning. It has now become an intellectual interest. As I get into things, the more I like to learn about it. But I can also say that it’s my passion.”

Known as the “King” by his family in terms of being the connoisseur of clothing,

André has a library on the history of men’s dress. Although he’d rather not dance, he has been known to “tap dance in the foyer,” has admired the likes of Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong since childhood. He has been affectionately called “Freddy” by one of his best friend’s grandsons.

“In walks this tall black gentleman and my grandson Jake looked up and says ‘Freddy!” recalled Peter Rauch, a fellow clothes aficionado in Manhattan. “We speak two to three times a week. He describes the outfits that he wears and I’m the only one captivated by it and crazy enough to enjoy the conversation.”

“In the four to five years of knowing André, I have come to find he is a dream doctor, concerned about his patients’ welfare, loves people and has a very sunny personality. And that he has a keen eye, and colors just leap out to him.”

He admits that had he not gone into medicine or even biomedical engineering, the most logical career choice would have been a medical school administrator or teacher. The zaniest potential — a men’s clothing designer.

“I believe that life is in five acts and I haven’t chosen my fifth act yet,” he says.

Second in line

Keith Churchwell was in the ninth grade at East Junior High School when he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Keith felt it was an opportune time to devise a plan for his life — he would attend Harvard and become a doctor.

“I’m a big believer in planning,” he chuckles. “My family had honed the point that academic accomplishment was very important, and that ultimately public service was an excellent idea in terms of trying to fulfill your objectives.”

With an interest in math and science, the young Churchwell stuck with his agenda. After graduating from Harvard University in 1983 he attended Washington University School of Medicine where his interest in cardiovascular medicine was ultimately piqued. He later completed his training at Emory University School of Medicine and affiliated hospitals and was also chief resident at Grady Memorial Hospital. He came to Vanderbilt in 1998.

“For me, cardiology is No. 1,” Keith says. “I made a good decision to go into clinical cardiovascular medicine. It remains an extremely stimulating aspect of my work. It’s where the action is. For me in terms of a medical career, what you do can have such a significant impact both acutely and long term on your patients’ lives. It makes it quite rewarding. The relationship that you forge with your patients and the staff, the nursing staff and your peers, makes it easy to come to work.”

As the medical director of the Vanderbilt Page-Campbell Heart Institute, he must juggle both administrative duties as well as patient loads. It’s a position that is a fine fit.

“Keith is extremely collaborative and very all about others,” says Robin Steaban, administrative director for Cardiovascular and Inpatient Medicine Services at Vanderbilt. “His passion for Vanderbilt is awesome. You can watch him — his wheels are constantly turning, thinking of ways for improvement. Through his clinical practice, he is able to translate that experience to benefit him as a leader. He really loves what he does.”

But Keith has more on his plate than just medicine. He and his wife, Leslie Douglas-Churchwell, M.D., an internist with Nashville Medical Group, have an 8-year-old daughter, Lauren, a student at University School of Nashville.

Being an identical twin, Keith has had to forge his own identity since he was born. For 18 years, he says, he was mistaken for his brother. And once he began his training in Atlanta, he was often called Andre’, yet another sibling from which to distinguish himself.

“I was there seven years. From the very first day up until the day I left, someone called me Andre’. I was not bothered by that at all. Anytime someone would mention his name, they would say what a great physician he is, what an amazing person he is and what a fantastic individual he is.

“Now I was not humbled by that nor did I take it as a challenge,” Keith says. “I took it more as a responsibility to live up to. And to be honest with you, it was ideally the type of physician I would like to be remembered as by my patients. But don’t let [André] know, he’ll get a big head.”

The two cardiologists chat daily, whether it’s talking shop or clothes.

“You know, Andre’ is the dresser,” Keith says. “I only dress to make sure I’m not embarrassed when we are together. Andre’ says, ‘Keith has an interest, he just is smarter about it.’”

When asked about his hobbies, Keith quickly brushes off the question with the response — “I don’t have any hobbies.”

But once his mind starts churning, out comes the story about the boys’ comic book illustrations.

“Growing up, my hobby was drawing,” Keith says. “I find that it helped me concentrate and focus. Someone should be able to see a portrait and say ‘Yes!’ They should be able to see that it’s a full bodied person as opposed to a flat canvas. André is a wonderful draftsman. Kevin is remarkable. Of all of us, he has the most distinct style and has a great eye.”

The passion Keith uses to describe his boyhood art is the same way he talks about cardiovascular medicine today.

“I recently told a group of medical students, the importance of being a physician is that you have to understand and figure out that you have to enjoy what you do,” he says. “There are a lot of things that factor into that — where you live, your financial situation. But at the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work and if it doesn’t drive you to become a better person, then it’s not the field you want to go into or it’s not the specialty for you. If you find something that fulfills you, you are going to be a lot happier person, but you also are going to be a much better physician.”

Mary Churchwell says that happy is a perfect way to describe her fifth child. Even the babysitters noticed that he was always smiling.

“Keith is just friendly,” she says. “He has never met a stranger and is the most loving because he is so friendly and very caring. But he also knows how to get to the point and move on.”

An avid newspaper fan since he was 5, he does not like to read books or novels. He will do most anything to distance himself from dancing and is a self-described gourmand, which he admits is probably belaboring a touchy area with his wife. He absolutely adores his daughter, who he calls his “greatest accomplishment in life.” He plays the trumpet and gravitates to the old stuff like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, like André.

Perhaps his love of vintage pop stems from Saturday housecleaning duty — the task wasn’t so much a chore when done to the sounds of Broadway, classical and the like.

Had he not chosen the field of medicine, he says he would have explored being a historian or movie critic.

“I like history because it comes easy to me,” Keith says. “It teaches us about ourselves. My other choice, being a movie critic would have been the best job. I’m a big fan of the musicals and westerns. My family and I talk about films. We deconstruct them, talk about directors, talk about the music and the people in a particular film. I’d be extremely good at thumbs up or thumbs down.”

No argument from his wife Leslie.

“He is ethical and fair and tries to do the right thing,” she says. “In his practice, he also tends to treat patients as if they were family members. I think that was a direct influence from his mother. She was strict, and it paid off.”

Mary Churchwell doesn’t deny any of it. She knows she can hold her head high when it comes to folks talking about her children.

“They were all such good children,” she says. “They never gave us any problems. I think the fact that we made them a priority in our lives is what made the difference. They were my first priority, always.”

“I am so proud of my boys,” their father, Robert Jr., weighs in. “They are successful in their professions and are fine family men. We gave them total support and love, much, much love and we still love them very much. They always wanted to be somebody,” he adds.

Finding a calling

Kevin Churchwell knew what he didn’t want to be — a doctor. How ironic that now what he loves most, besides being a father, is taking care of critically ill children.

“The story is this. I attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a plan to become an engineer,” Kevin says. “Because my older brother was a doctor, I figured I didn’t have to do that and I didn’t want to be a doctor. So I went to MIT and found out what engineers do and realized that I didn’t want to be an engineer.

“I looked around to find out what I was really interested in and it turns out that being a physician was what I was interested in doing.”

After graduating from MIT in 1983, he attended medical school at Vanderbilt and went on to complete his residency and training programs at Children’s Hospital in Boston. His career at Vanderbilt began in 1995. He is now the associate director and fellowship director in the division of Pediatric Critical Care and medical director of Pediatric Critical Care Services.

During his clinical rotations, Kevin discovered a love for children.

“I got into pediatrics and discovered I had a knack for dealing with kids and found I enjoyed acute and critical situations, but not clinic.

“I had a recent opportunity to speak with a group of medical students and told them that I wake up most every morning and feel very lucky. I feel very fortunate to get to do what I do. I enjoy the interactions with the patient, the families, my colleagues, the nurses and all the other services that are involved in taking care of critically ill patients. I enjoy the academic environment of teaching residents and fellows and the actual learning that goes on for me personally.

“I appreciate, in a strange sense, the problems we are confronted with and feel it is extremely important to solve these problems.”

His wife of 14 years, Gloria, says her husband’s dedication to children and healing is remarkable.

“He truly is a natural with children,” she says. “He deals with very sick children and wants to get them well and allow them an opportunity at life. He is incredibly caring and it shows in all he does.

“I guess if we could have more Kevins in the world, it would be a better place. His heart is in the right place. He tries his best no matter the situation.”

Like when Kevin took her out on their first date.

“We met at an eatery in Boston,” she says. “I was taking a break from studying at Harvard. He was doing his residency at Boston Children’s. We talked for a little bit. Then after my exams were over, he took me out for dessert. He did that because he couldn’t afford to take me to dinner.

“He has always put in 110 percent and it’s always straight from the heart.”

Kevin, who is five minutes older than his twin Keith, has never been known to use the phrase “I’m older than you” to get his way. He is very supportive and even jumped in the last mile to run with his children in the Kids Country Music Marathon this past April. He and his wife Gloria write a family and practical advice column for a local monthly newspaper. He is known for being the calm in the eye of the storm both at work and at home.

“He is one of the reasons I chose to come here,” says Neal Patel, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology and Biomedical Informatics. “I just felt like he was a person who held himself to a very high standard.

“He has such a strong moral compass. He knows exactly what he wants, what is right and what is wrong. Integrity and honesty just exude from him.”

Father to Katherine, 11, Alexandria, 9, Arthur, 7 and John, 5, Kevin makes a point of sharing as much quality time with his children.

“There’s Dr. Churchwell and then there’s dad,” he says. “That’s me. That’s all I have time for. My main interest outside of work is family and all their activities. There’s ballet, Pee Wee football, intramural basketball and then there’s church.

“My most favorite time of the day is Saturday around 4 p.m. Things are usually calm and we are doing an activity that everyone is enjoying and the pager is not going off.”

His ideal profession, if medicine were not an option, would have been teaching history or to be involved in the motion picture industry because of his “love of reading and learning about history and cinema.”

Parental guidance

The brothers Churchwell are quick to point fingers — at their parents. They give them total credit for shaping them, mentoring them, supporting them.

“They are two very unique individuals who set the standard for us and we feel we are required to uphold,” Kevin says.

“The one thing that all of us share, and it’s what is most important, is our parents,” says André. “We have two great parents who stimulated us and pushed us and were great examples of how to be great parents and how to be great professional people.”

When asked to describe himself, André’s response was quick.

“First, I would hope that I’m the best of my parents,” he says. “Those qualities would include being humane, intelligent, thoughtful, inquisitive and tireless in terms of performing a task and looking after my patients. There are so many lessons I learned from my dad. One was that humor is so important. You can’t take yourself seriously, but you do have to take what you do seriously.”

And Keith agrees.

“My parents are fantastic people,” he says. “We were only asked to do our best. We were expected to do our best and that was from the beginning and it stayed with all of us.”

“You know, we never pushed them into any one direction or profession,” says their mother. “They made their own decisions about what they wanted to do and we supported them. It’s nice that at the end of the day, you can say we enjoy being their parents. They did their best and continue to. It’s all you can ask.

“And now that they are all grown, we just want them to stay healthy, happy and be good Christians.”