Medical student thrives in ‘Jeopardy!’ appearances

Siddharth Hariharan with "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek.

Siddharth Hariharan with “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.

A week before moving to Richmond to start medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University, Siddharth Hariharan was in Los Angeles to test his knowledge in another high-stakes environment. The first-year VCU School of Medicine student competed on three episodes of “Jeopardy!” in July. The episodes aired in mid-September.

“For the first few days after it aired I felt like a celebrity on campus,” Hariharan said. “Now that everyone has seen the episodes they all greet me much more friendlily.”

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VCU researchers receive $1 million grant to test a diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease

The Michael J. Fox Foundation has awarded a $1 million grant to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Schools of Medicine and Engineering to test a diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease that was developed by university researchers.

The noninvasive eye-tracking device uses infrared light to follow a patient’s eye movement as the patient attempts to fix his or her gaze on a screen-displayed object. While normal eye movements are highly regulated and follow well-defined patterns, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease alter eye movements.

“One aim of the grant is to validate that we can use eye tracking to diagnose Parkinson’s disease with high accuracy,” said principal investigator Mark Baron, M.D., professor of neurology at the VCU School of Medicine and interim director of the VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center. “Another aim is to validate that we can diagnose Parkinson’s disease well before a patient displays outward symptoms.”

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VCU to host its first medical hackathon

Simone Gregor and Sina Mostaghimi.

Simone Gregor and Sina Mostaghimi.

Virginia Commonwealth University is hosting its first medical hackathon, called HealthHacks, in which students from VCU and other schools will spend 24 hours finding solutions to unmet medical needs.

During HealthHacks, which starts Saturday, Oct. 1, students will collaborate in interdisciplinary teams of up to four participants to address problems that will focus on three major categories: product design and improvement, hospital throughput, and patient experience. Problems will be pitched from patients, physicians, professors, health care clinicians, engineers and industry sponsors. Students are also encouraged to bring their own ideas to the event to work on in a supported environment.

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Trammell Cox has a vision: to help others see.

While studying at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine — and serving as president of the Class of 2018 — Cox runs a nonprofit organization that helps provide eyeglasses for patients overseas.

The organization, Seeing is Believing, began on a small scale with a few pairs of reading glasses. Six years and more than 19,000 pairs of glasses later, it’s still going strong, as Cox returned to Southeast Asia in August to continue what he started as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2008.

As he was teaching in Cambodia on that mission trip, he realized that some students weren’t participating.

“Often we’d ask people to read but they’d say they couldn’t,” said Cox. “For a while we assumed that it was that they never learned to read. But as we probed a little bit, we found out it was because they couldn’t see.”

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VCU School of Medicine student co-founds national medical student blog

Robin Kuriakose.

Robin Kuriakose.

Third-year Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine student Robin Kuriakose (B.S.’14/H&S) often writes in his journal to deal with the stress of medical school.

“I am by no means a great writer, but I have observed the therapeutic effect that writing has on me,” he said.

Last October, Kuriakose co-founded the blog WhiteCoated as a place to house his and other medical students’ inspirations, stories and thoughts. Today the site has more than 25 posts by medical students around the country with journal entry-style writings about everything from orientation week to emergency department rotations.

“The purpose of the site is to encourage self-reflection in the midst of ever-increasing medical school demands,” Kuriakose said.

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Medical students travel to Ecuador to help with emergent care

Second-year VCU medical student Elissa Trieu (right) helps suture an emergency room patient in Ecuador with an Ecuadorian hospital official.

Second-year VCU medical student Elissa Trieu (right) helps suture an emergency room patient in Ecuador with an Ecuadorian hospital official.

When dialing 911 in the United States, callers might easily assume a dispatcher can relay their needs to the appropriate responder, whether it is firefighters or the paramedics. But in Ecuador, it is not always that simple.

From June 27 to July 19 members of the VCU Health International Trauma System Development Program traveled to Cuenca, Ecuador to help enhance the country’s coordination between firefighters, ambulances, 911 call centers and hospitals. The work was part of a series of projects to determine why there is a breakdown in Ecuador’s pre-hospital communication, which starts when a person seeking emergency help contacts authorities and ends when they arrive at a hospital.

Mark Hopkins, a second-year student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, was one of three medical students who traveled to Ecuador with School of Medicine faculty. Though public health care is free in Ecuador, high patient volume and a lack of resources and proper education dilute the quality of that care, he said.

“Since we were kids, we’ve known there is one number to call [for medical help] and we know we can trust whoever shows up on our doorstep to be trained and qualified,” Hopkins said. “We have jobs solely dedicated in the hospital to making sure the right information comes through. In Ecuador, they are trying to replicate that system. That’s where we want to help.”

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For the second time, VCU Medical Center Medical Psychiatry Unit earns prestigious nursing award

VCU and VCU Health leaders pose for a photo at an Aug. 5 ceremony to celebrate the Medical Psychiatry Unit, which received a Beacon Award from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

VCU and VCU Health leaders pose for a photo at an Aug. 5 ceremony to celebrate the Medical Psychiatry Unit, which received a Beacon Award from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

The Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center Medical Psychiatry Unit is again the only one of its kind to earn national recognition for exemplary practices in patient care. The acknowledgment comes in the form of a silver-level Beacon Recognition for Excellence Award from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

For nurses, a Beacon Award signals a positive and supportive work environment with greater collaboration between colleagues and leaders, higher morale and lower turnover. For patients and families, the Beacon Award showcases exceptional care through improved outcomes, and teamwork that caters specifically to patients’ greatest and gravest needs.

At an Aug. 5 ceremony to commemorate the award, VCU and VCU Health System President Michael Rao, Ph.D., told department members, “You are a model for VCU and [the standard of] VCU care.”

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Patients’ quality of life restored after brain surgery

Kathryn Holloway was recently ranked the one of the most active deep brain stimulation surgeons in the nation by Medtronic, a Minnesota-based medical technology company.

Kathryn Holloway was recently ranked the one of the most active deep brain stimulation surgeons in the nation by Medtronic, a Minnesota-based medical technology company.

Eight years ago William Pappadake’s life and his lifestyle were interrupted.

Things he had done effortlessly, like golf, write, and carry his plate during an evening out at dinner, became a debilitating struggle because of a 2008 diagnosis of essential tremor. The disease, a nerve disorder that surfaces in different parts and different sides of the body, caused Pappadake’s hands to tremble uncontrollably. A practicing psychologist, Pappadake was losing his independence in a way that was frightening and progressive.

After his prescribed medication failed to control the tremor, Pappadake’s neurologist suggested he have deep brain stimulation surgery to more aggressively reduce his tremors. His surgery was performed in March by VCU Health neurosurgeon Kathryn Holloway, M.D., who was recently ranked the one of the most active deep brain stimulation surgeons in the nation by Medtronic, a Minnesota-based medical technology company.

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Professor’s research demonstrates link between gut bacteria and brain inflammation in chronic liver disease

Jasmohan Bajaj, M.D.

Jasmohan Bajaj, M.D., associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, had findings from his research on gut bacteria in cirrhosis published recently in the journals Hepatology and Scientific Reports.

The findings conclude that gut bacteria, found in the intestinal tract and stool, are associated with brain inflammation in cirrhotic patients and animals known as hepatic encephalopathy (HE). HE can lead to fatigue, the inability to concentrate, mental confusion and death.

“HE is an epidemic in patients with liver disease and cirrhosis,” said Bajaj, associate professor in the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in the VCU School of Medicine. “Bacteria can result in inflammation in the systemic circulation, which in turn could inflame the brain.”

His research published in Hepatology involved the study of germ-free and conventionally raised mice with cirrhosis. The researched shows that gut microbes are essential for brain inflammation in cirrhotic mice. The human study published in Scientific Reports shows that specific bacteria were associated with nerve cell or neuron damage, while others were associated with damage to supporting cells or astrocytes.

Further investigation must include HE treatment that targets particular gut bacterial populations and specific affected brain region that might be affected as a result, said Bajaj, who practices at both VCU Health and the McGuire VA Medical Center.

Despite treatment for HE using the current standard of care, patients still experience the progression to overt HE and residual brain damage, Bajaj said. Consequently, further treatment options must be researched and made available to patients, Bajaj said.

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Medical student hurdling toward Olympic Games qualifying


Mallory Abney

Many athletes have gone to medical school before or after the Olympic Games. Very few, however, try to pursue the two simultaneously.

Mallory Abney (Cert.’12/M), a 400-meter hurdler, has kept up world-class training during his time in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine. Abney, a member of the Class of 2017, will begin his fourth year of study later this summer — right around the time he hopes to be competing at the Olympic Games in Brazil.

But first Abney has got to get to the Olympic Team Trials. A few months ago, he would have automatically qualified as one of the top hurdlers in the country. But several athletes have since beat his qualifying time, pushing him down a notch and necessitating a faster finish before the end of June. He hopes to accomplish that this weekend in Maryland; otherwise, he’s got another chance later in the month.

While most of his competitors are training full time, Abney is tackling an acting internship in emergency medicine at VCU Health. “It’s been challenging,” he said. “It’s hard to get the rest you need. But it’s helped keep me focused and organized.”

“Mallory is tough,” said Leslie Young, his coach. “As hard as he works towards his medical degree, that’s how hard he works at his hurdling.”

On a typical day, Abney gets up around 4:45 a.m. and is out the door for an endurance run by 5:15. He spends the day on VCU’s MCV Campus, either in school or the hospital, then heads to Virginia State University for a track workout followed by a weightlifting session. He goes home to his (“very patient”) wife around 7 p.m., eats dinner, studies until almost midnight, and catches a few hours of sleep before starting it all over again.

It is a grueling schedule, but Abney says he appreciates the support he has gotten from medical faculty, staff and other students.

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