December 19, 1997

Top stories of 1997 reflect dynamic year

Top stories of 1997 reflect dynamic year

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Dr. Roscoe Robinson

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Dr. Harry Jacobson

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Vanderbilt's Lifeflight air ambulance service added a second helicopter during the year. Photo by Donna Jones Bailey

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Dr. Joseph Bruner looked on recently as Cory Meyer talked about the spina bifida procedure performed on her son, Daniel. Photo by Donna Jones Bailey

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[top] Pearl and Earl Dennis were among the inaugural class of VUMC's Mini Medical School.<BR>[bottom] Construction began this year on the School of Nursing's Frist Hall. Photos by Donna Jones Bailey

Editor's note: As 1997 comes to an end, the staff of the VUMC Reporter compiled a list of some of the top stories of the past year. The stories are recapped here in no particular order.

Change at the top

Nineteen-hundred-and-ninety-seven saw the end of one era of leadership at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the beginning of another.

In June, Dr. Roscoe R. "Ike" Robinson, Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs from 1981 to 1997 and architect of the medical center's greatest period of growth, stepped down. In September, Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, formerly Deputy Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs, was chosen as Robinson's successor.

During Robinson's watch, VUMC experienced phenomenal growth in its clinical and academic enterprises, its physical plant, and its financial strength.

The medical and nursing school faculties mushroomed from about 500 members in 1981 to more than 1,000 today.

The VUMC skyline also took on new dimensions with the construction of the multi-specialty Vanderbilt Clinic, Medical Research Building I, Medical Research Building II, the Eskind Biomedical Library, the Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, the Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt, Medical Center East, and the Kim Dayani Center.

The financial picture also flourished. The medical center's annual operating budget, nearly $160 million in 1981, is about $700 million today. Annual fundraising increased from $8 million to $37 million. The number of permanently endowed chairs underpinned by more than $1 million has risen from 10 to nearly 50.

Jacobson, a nephrologist, is no stranger to leadership. As deputy vice chancellor for Health Affairs since 1995, he worked closely with Robinson as VUMC initiated a number of changes to put the institution in a position of strength in the current and coming health care marketplace.

"I feel honored and I feel challenged," Jacobson said. "I think this is a great opportunity for me and for the exceptional team of physicians, researchers, and staff that we are building here at Vanderbilt," Jacobson said.

"There are enormous challenges for academic health centers today that must be met, and I want to be a part of meeting those challenges."

Jacobson said his goals and vision for VUMC are very much like Robinson's: to maintain and enhance VUMC's position as the leading health care provider in the region and among the very finest academic health centers in the world.

Life in the ER

Vanderbilt University Hospital's emergency room was thrust into the national spotlight after being featured on the popular cable television program "Trauma: Life in the E.R."

The program, which aired on The Learning Channel, seeks to show how the emergency medicine and trauma care delivery system operates in this country by focusing on real doctors, nurses and other health care workers as they go about their work. The program contained no simulated re-creations or staged footage.

Camera crews from the show camped out in the emergency room and followed the actions of faculty and staff the Department of Emergency Medicine and the Division of Trauma.

Synthetic blood

The trauma center began testing a new synthetic blood product on severely injured patients who are in shock due to excessive blood loss.

VUMC is one of 35 health care centers across the country testing the new product to determine if it is a viable alternative to saline infusion, the standard treatment.

The trial falls under recently adopted federal regulations giving research institutions the authority to treat gravely ill patients with investigational drugs or devices in some emergency situations without their consent.

Bill Wilkerson

VUMC and the Bill Wilkerson Center, one of the nation's leading treatment centers for communication disorders since 1951, merged to create a new center – the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences.

Vanderbilt and the Bill Wilkerson Center have maintained close ties for many years, and the new entity represents a consolidation of the private, not-for-profit center with VUMC's Department of Otolaryngology

The new partnership will be one of the nation's few communication disorders centers with expertise in clinical medicine, education and research, said Dr. Robert H. Ossoff, Guy M. Maness Professor and Chairman of Otolaryngology, director of the Vanderbilt Voice Center and director of the new center.

Spina bifida

VUMC surgeons performed a groundbreaking procedure to repair spina bifida, operating on a fetus while he was still in his mother's womb.

The first-of-its-kind surgical procedure involved opening the mother's abdomen and uterus, partially removing the fetus and sewing shut the opening over the fetus's spinal cord. Previous fetal surgery for spina bifida at VUMC and elsewhere had been performed endoscopically.

VUMC is one of only three medical centers in the United States doing open fetal surgery, and it is the only institution in the world performing such surgery to repair spina bifida lesions on a fetus still in its mother's womb.

Mini Med

Several hundred Middle Tennesseans became medical students for two months this fall when they became the inaugural class of VUMC's new Mini Medical School.

The innovative new program was designed to teach major principles of medicine to non-medical people. The eight-week program consisted of weekly two-hour sessions on medical subjects, with two topics covered each meeting.

Light Hall was jam-packed each Monday night as VUMC faculty and staff helped shed light on a variety of medical subjects ranging from the basics of routine physical examinations to everything from managing a heart attack to the biology of infectious diseases.

Plans for future sessions of the Mini Medical School have not yet been finalized, but organizers are looking toward next spring as the most likely time for the next session.

Lions Center

The Tennessee Lions Eye Center at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital celebrated its grand opening this summer, representing the culmination of a two-year, $4 million fund-raising effort on the part of the Lions Clubs of Tennessee to create the new children's vision center.

The Lions Clubs and VUMC have a 30-year history of collaborating to provide eye care to indigent adults through the Middle Tennessee Lions Sight Service as well as the Lions Eye Bank, which provides corneal tissue for transplantation.

The extension of this partnership to pediatric eye care was a natural progression, said Dr. Denis M. O'Day, George Weeks Hale professor and chair of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. The new clinic area is "child friendly," O'Day said. Examination and testing rooms are designed especially for children and are equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment.

Plans for the new center were announced in December 1995, when the Lions Clubs of Tennessee launched a statewide campaign to raise money to support the clinic.


VUMC unveiled the Asthma, Sinus, and Allergy Program (ASAP), a first-of-its-kind clinic devoted to the comprehensive treatment of nasal and airway disease.

The new clinic, located at 2611 West End Ave., is the first in the country to house asthma, sinus and allergy specialties under one roof for the evaluation and treatment of patients with airway disease and was created to help eliminate the moving of patients to different clinics to see different doctors.

The ASAP clinic is managed by BreatheAmerica Inc., which is partially owned by VUMC. The Vanderbilt ASAP clinic will serve as the flagship clinic of a national network of similar airways disease facilities.


The Vanderbilt Medical Group – the state's largest multi-specialty group physician practice and one of the largest in the Southeast – will eventually take over complete administrative and operational responsibilities of The Vanderbilt Clinic from Vanderbilt University Hospital.

Placing VUMC's outpatient clinic and its services under the direct control of the VMG is an operational move that makes sense at this time, said Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs.

"As it stands now, the physicians are practicing in the clinic, but don't run it. They should run it," he said.

Dr. John S. Sergent, chief medical officer of the VMG, agrees, adding that the move will be the culmination of a long-term plan for operating the clinics.

"This will empower the physicians to manage their own clinics and allow a greater number of people to be involved in the direction of The Vanderbilt Clinic."

Conway-Welch award

Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D., Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, was elected to the Institute of Medicine.

Election to the institute is granted only to about 20 health care professionals per year, and is based on service to the health care community. The Institute of Medicine includes 544 active members and 582 senior members worldwide.

With her election, Conway-Welch becomes the fourth member of the VUMC faculty to be inducted into the institute. She joins Dr. John A. Oates Jr., Thomas F. Frist Professor of Medicine; Dr. Mildred T. Stahlman, Professor of Pediatrics and Pathology; and Brigid L.M. Hogan, Ph.D., Hortense B. Ingram Professor of Molecular Oncology.

Conway-Welch holds a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University, a master's degree from Catholic University and a Ph.D. in nursing from New York University. She is a certified nurse-midwife and has served on numerous national councils, including President Reagan's commission on AIDS.

Frist Hall

Construction on VUSN's Patricia Champion Frist Hall began, with completion of the three-story brick building, which will house classrooms and office space, scheduled for the fall of 1998.

The new building will add approximately 25,000 square feet of space to the school, and will feature new classroom and laboratory space as well as an innovative 80-seat interactive teaching center/classroom.

The building is being made possible in part by a gift from Patricia Frist, BA '61, and her husband, Dr. Thomas Frist Jr., BA '61, Chief Executive Officer of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. and a former member of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust.


A pair of VUMC neurologists unveiled a promising new technology that uses magnets to treat chronic pain.

By generating focused and controlled magnetic fields and applying them to afflicted areas, researchers have been able to eliminate pain and also reduce swelling and promote healing in pilot studies and several large, placebo-controlled studies.

The technology, designed and developed by Dr. Robert R. Holcomb, assistant professor of Neurology, uses a unique, and patented, arrangement of four magnets to create a magnetic field that can be controlled and targeted to specific areas of the body. When applied, the magnetic field, in essence, blocks the transmission of pain signals.

"This is not alternative medicine," Holcomb said. "It's medicine. Even for people with severe pain, this is proving successful. We've treated more than 5,000 patients since we began studying this 10 years ago. This is an emerging medical technology with a strong scientific base."

Satisfied students

For the second year in a row, according to a national survey, students at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine are more pleased with their medical education than are students at the other 124 medical schools across the United States.

This information comes from the Association of American Medical Colleges' 1996 Graduation Questionnaire – known as the GQ – given to all graduating medical students in the country.

Dr. Deborah C. German, Associate Dean of Students at VUSM, said that students are satisfied because they feel they are important to the medical center and to the faculty.

"I think the Vanderbilt faculty and administration respect students as individuals and expect excellence in achievement from every student," German said.


VUMC investigators have found that adding antioxidants such as Vitamin E to the standard chemotherapy regimen used to treat colorectal cancer helps kill more cancer cells, both in tissue culture and in mice.

The research team's findings, published in the journal Nature Medicine, could lead to novel treatments of colorectal cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, said Dr. Robert J. Coffey Jr., professor of Medicine and Cell Biology and senior author of the study.

Antioxidants such as those used in this study – a water-soluble form of Vitamin E trolox and a dithiocarbanate, PDTC – appear to bypass a disabled p53 gene to induce p21, which, in combination with chemotherapy, leads to arrested tumor growth and apoptosis of tumor cells, but not normal cells.