Continuing the Legacy: Class of 2024 Welcomed to Medical Profession at School of Medicine White Coat Ceremony

Cousins Jake and Emily Rienzo join their fathers and proud SGU graduates to accept their white coats at the Spring 2020 School of Medicine White Coat CeremonyFor the Rienzo family, practicing medicine seemed to run in their blood. Thus, it came as no surprise when cousins Jake and Emily Rienzo also decided to join the family business, taking their first steps into the medical profession at the Spring 2020 School of Medicine White Coat Ceremony.

Sharing the stage with them were their fathers and proud SGU graduates, Francis Rienzo, MD ’88, and his brother, Peter Rienzo, MD ’85, who had the honor of coating them. Emily, a CityDoctors Scholarship recipient, will also be the first female physician continuing the legacy in their family. Both she and Jake grew up being regaled with stories of SGU by their dads, who even carry their old SGU ID cards with them still to this day.

“I’m just so proud of my daughter; words can’t even express it,” said Dr. F. Rienzo, now an internist practicing in New Jersey. “Jake and Emily are going to be fourth-generation physicians following in both their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, and I couldn’t be more excited to be back in Grenada for their White Coat Ceremony.”

“I’m elated that they chose to follow in our footsteps and attend SGU,” added Dr. P Rienzo, an anesthesiologist also practicing in New Jersey. “It’s great to be back and see how far the University has come and how it continues to provide opportunities for success for so many people from different countries all over the world.”

The Rienzos weren’t the only alumni coming back to SGU to coat their loved ones. Altogether, this spring’s incoming SOM and SVM class welcomed backed five SGU graduates, including members of the Class of 1983, 1985, and 1988 to join in the special privilege of coating their children.

Among them was alumnus Abayomi Odubela, MD ’83, who also shared in that honor by coating his daughter, Ibironke. Since graduating over three decades ago, Dr. Odubela has been back to Grenada three times to visit the place where he began his medical career.

“Today I am so happy to see the tremendous growth and expansion of SGU,” praised Dr. Odubela. “I am extremely proud that she has chosen to take the same path as I did. SGU’s success rate and the high caliber of its faculty makes me feel confident that she’s in good hands.”

The 2024 Grenada class joined its fellow students from St. George’s University of Grenada School of Medicine/Northumbria University Four- and Five-Year Program, who began their journey two weeks earlier at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom. This spring, SGU also welcomed 277 Caribbean students, 94 of whom are aspiring physicians in the School of Medicine. The students represent 10 countries, including Grenada, Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, Dominica, Trinidad, British Virgin Islands, St. Lucia, Cayman Islands, and Guyana.

In his keynote address, current president and CEO of The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, Dr. Richard Levin shared the reason behind the creation of the White Coat Ceremony, explaining that it was a “modern invention to correct a modern problem.” The Ceremony was devised after recognizing a shift during the late ’70s and early ’80s of students being taught to move further away from the patients, both literally and figuratively. According to Dr. Levin, rounds moved from the bedside to the hallway and now to the screen. Doctors were spending more time with data than with their patients and it had become harder to remember that illness affected a family and a community as well as the patient in the bed.

“The White Coat Ceremony is designed to remind you, your faculty, and everyone who loves you that fundamentally medicine is a human interaction,” stated Dr. Levin. “Today’s ceremony is intended to emphasize the importance of that connection right from the beginning of your training.”

A highlight of Dr. Levin’s address was his endorsement of this year’s master of ceremonies and alumnus Cholene Espinoza, MD ’15. He called on Dr. Espinoza to share the podium with him as he completed his speech.

“An extraordinary example of humanistic practice is our master of ceremonies today, Dr. Cholene Espinoza,” extoled Dr. Levin.  “She has led a life that has put her in harm’s way: as a pilot in the US Air Force she has been shot at, she was an embedded radio journalist in the Iraq war, and she is now an OB/GYN who believes that humanistic practice is as important as scientific excellence. If any of us are an example for you as you start out on this pathway, I think it is Cholene Espinoza.”

After a resounding round of applause, Dr. Espinoza shared a few words of wisdom of her own with the Class of 2024.

“I want you to really focus today on what it means to be here—to enter this profession which I call a tribe, to wear this white coat, and the immense privilege it is to be able to be a part of this institution and enter into your patients’ lives,” she said. “It is also very important to acknowledge what you have achieved to this point. I know you’re probably nervous about whether or not you’ll make it to the end, but this is an enormous achievement and you need to do a victory lap with your family, who got you here.”

Additionally, the School of Medicine White Coat Ceremonies kicked off the first full day of activities of the University’s Beyond Spice Family Weekend. A customary element to each term in Grenada, students and family members soaked up nature and culture prior to attending the special ceremony that serves as a rite of passage for aspiring physicians. 

– Ray-Donna Peters

 

 

Grad Tackles Hem/Onc and Integrative Medicine Fellowships to Treat Patients’ “Whole Health”

Onyemaechi Okolo, MD ’15, dual fellow in hem/onc and integrative medicine

Onyemaechi Okolo, MD ’15, feels a strong affinity to the world of pathology.

“I love looking at cells under the microscope—they’re actually really beautiful,” said the Nigerian-born doctor, who is a dual hematology-oncology fellow at The University of Arizona Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, and an integrative medicine fellow at The University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.

But she admits it wasn’t until late in her clinical rotations while at St. George’s University that she had clarity on what type of doctor she wanted to be. “What I loved the most in basic sciences was pathophysiology and learning about normal and abnormal cells; I was particularly intrigued by how cancer cells hijack your body,” she said. “In the clinical setting, it was my experiences with the patients during my hematology-oncology rotation that connected the pathophysiology and clinical aspects of oncology for me. I actively looked forward to learning more every day.”

She furthered solidified her path to medicine while doing her internal medicine residency at The University of Arizona Medical Center. Dr. Okolo became interested in learning preventative health, meditation, and other forms of holistic medicine to further help patients with serious illnesses like cancer and blood disorders.

“I wanted to learn about not only how to treat patients, but how I can help them live better,” she said. “I really enjoy learning both traditional and holistic medicine so that I have a lot more tools in my toolbox to help my patients.”

By completing her fellowships concurrently—she is expected to be finished in the summer of 2021—her goal is to obtain the knowledge and tools necessary to assess and treat patients’ “whole health,” not just the symptoms that brought them to see her in the first place.

“When you tell people they have cancer, their first reaction is ‘I don’t want chemotherapy,’” said Dr. Okolo. “I want patients to know that they have an entire team working for them whose goal is to help heal their bodies, minds, and spirits.”

As a dual fellow, Dr. Okolo spends her days at the Arizona Cancer Center where she actively treats and manages patients with a variety of blood disorders, sickle-cell anemia and hemophilia, as well as tumors and blood cancer. As part of her Hem/Onc fellowship, she is learning how to utilize newer treatment methods, especially stem cell transplants and immunotherapy. That includes CAR T-cell therapy, which involves engineering a patient’s immune cells to recognize and attack specific cancer cells. Right now, Dr. Okolo said that the treatment is approved for use in acute lymphoblastic leukemia and diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. However, “it’s looking like CAR T-cell therapy is going to be translatable to a lot more cancers, so it’s really exciting that we’re also learning how to treat cancer with it.”

At night, she alternates between reviewing her patient cases or working on her integrative medicine nodules that, similar to an online classroom, include instructors and chapter assignments.

“Integrative medicine is more of a healthy philosophy,” she said. “It tends to be more individualized, and we use evidence-based medicine alongside complementary practices from a range of cultures such as following certain diets like the Mediterranean diet. We also stress the benefits of things like yoga, meditative movement, aerobic exercise, and herbal medicine.

“Integrative medicine is especially important in oncology because it’s important for physicians to know what supplements or practices patients should avoid when on certain cancer therapies due to interactions or lack of safety data,” Dr. Okolo added.

FINDING HER PATH TO BECOMING A DOCTOR

Dr. Okolo, who moved with her family to Texas from Nigeria when she was 9, was not always interested in medicine. She originally wanted to major in art, but as first-generation immigrants, her parents wanted her to enter a more traditional profession, such as a doctor, she said. Dr. Okolo graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s degree in cognitive sciences, but still needed a gap year in Spain where she taught English, to think about if she truly wanted to pursue medicine.

“It was probably the most illuminating year of my life,” she said. “I returned to the US and was ready to go to med school.”

However, by the time Dr. Okolo came back to US, she had missed the application cycle for US schools. She didn’t want to have to retake her MCATs, so family members suggested she look into SGU given its January and August admissions cycles.

“My SGU interviewer sealed the deal,” Dr. Okolo recalled. “She was an attending psychiatrist and she was honest and said ‘You’re going to a Caribbean med school. You have to be the person who determines if you will be successful. If you want to be a doctor and plan on working hard and want a little bit of adventure, then this is the school for you.’ For me, going to an international med school was exciting.”

CREATING MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS

As a physician, Dr. Okolo attributed honesty, courage, empathy, and resilience as the most important qualities of a good physician, especially in the field of oncology.

“You’re going to have to look someone in the eye and be able to tell them a lot of difficult news including ‘This is not a curable stage anymore.’ I’ve been in situations where you don’t want to extinguish hope, but you want to be able to prepare them for what is coming,” she said.

“It’s a hard field. You definitely share in their joys, but also their heartbreaks. You have to remember to go home and be present in your life and be with your own family,” added Dr. Okolo, who is recently married.

In order to be able to do both fellowships concurrently, Dr. Okolo formed a strong support system while at Arizona Cancer Center. Ravitharan Krishnadasan, MD, FACP, an associate professor of clinical medicine in the department of hematology and oncology at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, is one of Dr. Okolo’s mentors and an attending physician.

“Integrative medicine is one of the things that Onyema has a passion for,” said Dr. Krishnadasan, who is also an SGU graduate. “It makes her more of a comprehensive physician because she is not closed off to other treatments or medication to help decrease, for example, the anxiety that comes along with a diagnosis of cancer.”

Yet Dr. Krishnadasan noted that it is Dr. Okolo’s strong rapport with patients that will make her an excellent physician. “In oncology, you really do have the opportunity to have relationships that are so much deeper because a patient looks to you to really guide them to what they’re going to face in the future. If you handle it correctly, as a physician, it can make your life so much more rewarding,” he said.

Dr. Okolo credits her early experiences at SGU as helping her form a good patient-doctor bond.

“SGU really exposed me to variety,” she said. “When you go into St. George’s Hospital, there were some people who were incredibly grateful to have the students there and other patients who were there and you could feel the distress immediately. I definitely learned how to read a patient when you first walk into the room and understand where they are coming from. If you’re sensing distress and mistrust, it’s your job to help them understand you want the best for them. People can tell if you are being honest or not with them.”

– Laurie Chartorynsky

Grad Serves Her Country as US Air Force Physician and Flight Surgeon

Mayra Zapata, MD '15, US Air Force physician and flight surgeonDuring her time serving in active duty in the United States Air Force, Maj. Mayra Zapata, MD ’07, has participated in her fair share of humanitarian and disaster relief missions in places like Peru, West Africa, as well as across the US. But it is the people and cases she sees close to home as an internal medicine physician at the Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, and as a flight surgeon for the 911th AF Reserve unit in Pittsburgh, that make her proud to be a military doctor.

“As an officer in the Air Force, you have the opportunity to touch the lives of many young adults who need your guidance in a positive way. This is the reason why I love this job,” said Dr. Zapata. “I love being able to use my skills as a doctor to help someone understand what is going on with their health and what’s happening to their bodies.”

As an active duty internal medicine physician from August 2011 to August 2015, Dr. Zapata was stationed at Langley Air Force Base in the base’s clinic, where she treated those in service as well as their dependents for a variety of ailments and chronic illnesses.

In 2013, during a trip to Peru on a humanitarian mission with the Air Force, Maj. Zapata worked with a flight surgeon who asked her to join her team. She agreed and through the military she learned aerospace medicine and its effects on pilots and the flying crew.

“To be a flight surgeon, you need to understand the changes in physiology that occur when the flying crew are exposed to different environments, such as flying thousands of feet above ground,” Dr. Zapata said. “The job is important since we use our medical knowledge and knowledge about aerospace to decide if a military member is fit to fly or not.”

Added Dr. Zapata: “I have grounded pilots when they have a common cold for the simple reason that they might not be able to clear their airways when flying at high altitudes, which can cause oxygenation difficulties, trauma to their ears, and additional safety concerns.”

Today, as a civil services internist in the operational clinic at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, she serves the active duty population, doing what she loves. As a reservist, she travels to Pittsburgh once a month to fulfill her requirements, which gives her a more balanced lifestyle in order to take care of her four children while still serving the military in some capacity.

“As a reservist, I can get orders to deploy and serve my country any time, and I am up for the challenge,” she said. “I do not see a better way to thank the country which adopted me and has given me the opportunity to be who I am today as a doctor and as a human being.”

Col. Jennifer Brooks, USAF, MC, a family health flight commander at Joint Base Langley-Eustis and Dr. Zapata’s supervisor, echoed her dedication to her job. “Dr. Zapata is compassionate and thorough—she clearly cares about her patients and goes above and beyond to do the right thing for them,” she said. “She is always thinking about how a patient’s condition will affect his or her military duties and ability to deploy. She never loses this focus. This attribute is crucial to be an excellent military physician.”

PATH TO MEDICINE

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Dr. Zapata moved to the Bronx, NY, with her family when she was a teenager. She learned English and received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from nearby Lehman College. Having an interest in medicine, Dr. Zapata took pre-med classes at Columbia University, but put med school on hold after she got married and had her oldest two of four children. After working for a few years as an HIV case worker in the Bronx, she sought out advice from her student advisor at Columbia on how to get into med school. The advisor recommended she consider international med schools. She applied to St. George’s University and began in January 2003, bringing her children with her to Grenada.

“The school made me and my family feel welcomed, and SGU’s faculty, notably Dr. CV Rao and his wife, Dr. Vijaya Chellapilla, were very important in my success,” said Dr. Zapata.

Following her internal medicine residency at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, as she was contemplating her next step, Dr. Zapata came across an officer of the US Air Force who encouraged her to look into military medicine. Being in her late 30s, she was concerned she was too old to go into the military. However, there is no age limit to enter the military as a physician.

She contacted a medical recruiter for the USAF, and after a lengthy eight-month process and background check, Dr. Zapata was commissioned as a USAF medical officer. She took her medical boards in August 2011 and just days later left for basic training in Alabama. The experience has only strengthened her medical knowledge and skills.

“In the Air Force, I have worked with many doctors from Ivy League schools, and as a graduate from SGU, I do not see any difference,” she said. “As a doctor, I feel as competent and as effective. SGU was an amazing experience for me.”

 

–Laurie Chartorynsky

From the Navy to the OR: SGU Grad Trades Uniform for White Coat

A high-pressure environment. Critical problem solving. A wide array of challenges. The operating room was exactly the type of workplace atmosphere that Georgios Mihalopulos, MD ’18, set out to find when he began working toward a career in medicine. It also mirrored his life as an officer in the Canadian Navy, a position that he held before and during medical school.

“I always say I love stress and I hate sleep, so that’s why surgery is the perfect field for me,” said Mihalopulos, a second-year surgery resident at Waterbury Hospital in Connecticut. “It just seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to do.”

His military career began in 2008 when, while completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario in London, he joined the Canadian Navy Reserves, convinced by a friend that it would be “the greatest adventure of a lifetime.”

He wasn’t wrong.

“I thought this was something I would do just for two or three years while I was at university,” Mihalopulos said. “But after I graduated, I took an additional two years off and worked for the Navy full-time. I just fell in love with it—the atmosphere, the training commissions, and the unique opportunity that it was. It was a great experience and I think it was the one thing that prepared me the most for medical school.”

Dr. Mihalopulos joined the St. George’s University of Grenada School of Medicine/Northumbria University Four- and Five-Year Program, which offered him the opportunity to learn a new healthcare system, enjoy smaller class sizes, and immerse himself in European culture. As an added bonus, he was able to work with the British Navy, with a naval reserve unit only a 10-minute walk from the NU campus.

“Through our embassy and theirs, we were able to coordinate an exchange program where I got to work with British sailors, do a couple of exercises and learn how they do things, as well as show them how we do things in Canada,” he said.

Dr. Mihalopulos spent 10 years in the Navy, graduating to become a fully qualified naval warfare officer responsible for the day-to-day navigation of the ship, coordinating its activities, and managing inter-ship operations. He has drawn comparisons between the operating room and his military background in how they function day-to-day. The bridge of the ship and the operating room are a lot alike in gathering information, working with a team to coordinate the best course of action, and making critical decisions within a short space of time.

After residency, he will look to complete a fellowship in plastic surgery, and hopes to work with fellow surgeons and medical personnel to coordinate a multi-disciplinary approach to upper- and lower-lip trauma.

“What we’ve found in our research is that if you can have the best people from multiple disciplines approach a problem together you get better results,” he said. “It’s amazing to take muscle or bone from one part of the body and use it to reconstruct another part of the body. You really have the ability to change somebody’s life.

“There’s a saying: ‘the general surgeon can save your life while the plastic surgeon can give you your life back,’” he continued. “You see it especially with breast cancer, which is such a life-changing experience for the patient. I enjoy doing anything that helps get patients back to where they were and get their confidence back.”

–Ray-Donna Peters

 

 

SGU Year in Review: A Look Back at the New Stories that Defined Us in 2019

2019 was a monumental year for students, faculty, and alumni of St. George’s University. SGU became the second-largest source of doctors for the entire US workforce. We placed 979 graduates into US and Canadian residencies—our highest number to date.

But that’s not all.

The School of Veterinary Medicine received full accreditation by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), and is now one of the few schools in the world that is accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association in the United States and RCVS in the UK. The School of Arts and Sciences welcomed its first Caribbean national as dean.

SGU profiled many graduates who are making waves in human and animal healthcare industries—showcasing the diversity and reach of our global alumni—and how becoming a doctor (or veterinarian) has changed their lives and the lives of their patients.

These are the stories that underscore SGU’s strengths and define us as a University as we aim to enhance student success and grow the number of healthcare professionals around the world. Read on to see the top news stories of 2019 on SGU.edu.

Match Day 2019

On Match Day 2019, hundreds of SGU students secured first-year residency positions in the United States. Students matched into highly competitive positions in fields such as anesthesiology, child neurology, diagnostic radiology, emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, internal medicine/emergency medicine, internal medicine/pediatrics, neurology, obstetrics and gynecology, pathology, pediatrics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, psychiatry, surgery, urology, vascular surgery. They joined residency programs in 42 US states and the District of Columbia over the summer.

In addition, SGU students and graduates obtained first-year residency positions through the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS).

Profound Impact: SGU Educated Second-Most Licensed Physicians in US In 2018

For more than 40 years, St. George’s University has provided highly qualified physicians to the United States, and never before has its impact been more evident. According to a report published in the Journal of Medical Regulation, SGU educated the second-most licensed physicians in the United States in 2018.

SGU Commencement 2019

In June, the School of Medicine’s newest class of physicians convened together one last time in New York City for SGU’s annual commencement ceremonies. Family and friends gathered at Lincoln Center to watch the graduates join an alumni network of more than 17,000 physicians who have gone on to practice in all 50 United States and in over 50 countries worldwide.

In addition, animals of all shapes and sizes gained caretakers and advocates when the SGU School of Veterinary Medicine granted Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degrees to 83 new veterinarians in New York City. New veterinarians joined an alumni network of 1,670 veterinarians who built a foundation for their careers at SGU.

In Grenada, graduates from 31 countries were among the 2019 class that included more than 230 students from the School of Arts and Sciences, and 110 from the School of Graduate Studies, with one PhD graduate in attendance.

DVM Program Gains Full Accreditation from Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

Adding to its growing list of achievements, the St. George’s University’s School of Veterinary Medicine’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program received full accreditation from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), the organization that sets the standards of veterinary care in the United Kingdom, through 2024.

Grenada-Born SGU Alum Returns Home to Care for His Nation’s Heart

As a practicing cardiologist, Diego Humphrey, MD ’84, a native Grenadian, serves the retired men and women of the US Armed Forces at the Jack C. Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Muskogee, OK. Yet Dr. Humphrey, who never forgot his roots, returns each year to donate his time and expertise to the SGU-Physician Humanitarian Network.

Commonwealth Conference Focuses On Student Success

More than 350 educators from Grenada and around the world descended on SGU for the Council for Education in the Commonwealth (CEC) 2019 annual conference. The 2019 conference marked the first time that the CEC’s annual event had been held in the Caribbean region.

Mother’s Cancer Battle Motivates SGU Grad to Become Breast Surgeon

Joseph Di Como, MD '14

A doctor delivered the news—cancer, an aggressive form. Joseph Di Como’s mother, a cornerstone of the family, would have to undergo surgery and many months of treatment. Her struggle changed the course of his life forever. More than 15 years later, now a doctor, Joseph Di Como, MD ’14, is providing important care and instilling hope in patients as a breast surgical oncology fellow at Brown University, Women and Infants’ Hospital of Rhode Island.

Major Canadian Hospital Joins SGU’s Burgeoning Clinical Network

Adding to more than 70 clinical training locations across North America and the United Kingdom, St. George’s University finalized an agreement with Pembroke Regional Hospital in Ontario, Canada that will offer fourth-year students a range of disciplines to choose from for their clinical electives.

Eugene Becomes First Caribbean National to Lead SAS

As the new Dean of St. George’s University’s School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), Dr. Lucy Eugene is deeply committed to its growth. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, she is the first Caribbean national to become the school’s dean.

Equine Veterinarian Shares Path to Horse Country

When S. Heath Soignier, DVM ’12, CVMST, isn’t visiting his equine patients, one can usually find him practicing new holistic veterinary medicine techniques on his quarter horse, Margarita.

“To me horses and dogs are two of the best animals: if you trust them completely, they are most willing to reciprocate that trust. Not a lot of animals are like that,” Dr. Soignier said. “I love that I get to work with horses all day long.”

—Laurie Chartorynsky

SGU Physician Humanitarian Network Gives Back to Host Nation

Many SGU graduates feel a strong desire to give back to a nation that they credit as playing a major part in successfully achieving their dreams. Now in its 12th year, the St. George’s University Physician Humanitarian Network (SGU-PHuN) continues to allow them to do just that.

Over the years, the program’s visiting specialists have donated their time and expertise to providing much-needed healthcare services, pharmaceuticals, supplies, and other medical equipment to the Ministry of Health and Government of Grenada in efforts to facilitate substantial improvements to the island’s healthcare infrastructure. This year was no different.

“2019 has been another productive and impactful year for the SGU-PHuN in physician participation by our graduates and associates,” said Brendon La Grenade, vice provost for institutional advancement. “SGU-PHuN captures the community spirit of SGU in a very direct way. Our graduates continue to return to the island to deliver a vast array of voluntary specialty medical care including ophthalmology, cardiology, endocrinology, and neurology to name a few. The value in these programs is not measured in the millions of dollars in donations and services delivered but more so in the lives of the individuals we impact in a positive way.”

“For 2020, St. George’s University will continue to collaborate with the Government of Grenada and the Ministry of Health in tackling the most critical issues on our priority list,” added Dr. G. Richard Olds, president of SGU. “Working with our alumni and growing network of support, SGU-PHuN will continue assisting with the improvement of healthcare with the goal of ensuring that Grenada and our St. George’s family are given the level of healthcare that everyone expects, and everyone needs.”

With more than 25 visiting physicians, this year cardiology and ophthalmology continued to flourish as the flagship programs, benefitting more than 1,000 patients with 113 surgeries performed. Other specialty visits included OB/GYN, neurology, endocrinology, podiatry, and a first-time otolaryngology visit during which 81 patients were screened. These are all procedures that were once unavailable to the people of Grenada due to lack of access to specialists and the funds to attain these required surgeries.

Particularly noteworthy this year was the new collaboration with Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International, a non-profit organization that treats a variety of sight-impairing conditions around the world. The partnership spearheaded by the father-daughter duo of Orazio Giliberti, MD ’82, and Francesca Giliberti, MD ’10, performed a two-week clinic with six visiting surgeons who evaluated approximately 250 patients and performed 49 surgical procedures, including cataract surgery. Considerably the largest eye care event in Grenada’s history, the overall donation provided free of charge to the clinic, including airfare, shipping costs, patient visits, and ophthalmic surgeries, totaled over $750,000 USD.

“In an amazing outpouring of philanthropy, our team and SGU’s Division of Ophthalmology secured an additional operating scope, slit lamp, phaco machinery, and microinstruments, as well as, pharmaceutical donations to the SGU-PHuN clinic,” said Orazio Giliberti, MD ’82, FACS. “These machines and materials mimic a US-style operating room, which will allow future graduates, physicians, and SGU friends and guests to provide essential ophthalmic services.”

Interventional cardiologist, Mark Lanzieri, MD ’85, was also recognized this year for his 20 years of service, receiving an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for his selfless contributions of cardiology services free of charge to Grenadian citizens. As the founder of SGU-PHuN’s interventional cardiology program, Dr. Lanzieri and his team, which includes his wife, Annie; an X-ray technologist; and cardiovascular specialist, have seen a wide variety of patients since the program’s inception. The value of their time and the equipment donated has exceeded $1 million and resulted in countless lives saved.

“For many people, this is life changing, whether it is a single-chamber pacemaker, a stent, or simply something that allows them to go back to work or keeps them out of the hospital,” said Dr. Lanzieri, staff cardiologist, Steward Health Care in Massachusetts. “This work is important because there are immediate benefits conferred to patients who do not need to leave their family and social support networks. It is pure humanitarian medicine at its best and I love what I do.”

Highlights from this year also included, visits from two top-tier Grenadian-born physicians, endocrinologist Dwight Matthias, MD ‘92 and Diego Humphrey, MD ’84. The program also hosted a number of legacy visits, as several graduates returned with their children to participate in giving back to Grenada, such as interventional cardiologist Thomas Vazzana, MD ’85 and his daughter Virginia Vazzana, MD ’17, OB/GYN Philip Lahrmann, MD ’81 and his son Jeffrey Lahrmann, MD ’15, and ophthalmologist Dr. Fred Lambrou, whose stepson is currently a student in SGU’s School of Medicine.

According to Mr. La Grenade, 2019 saw tremendous growth both of the program and the University as a whole. With SGU grads now participating alongside their children, this highlights SGU-PHuN as an incredibly worthwhile venture and showcases the reach of SGU and the value it places on the Grenadian community. Continuing to build on the past 12 years of achievements, the program is poised to provide even greater improvements in the future, further strengthening its connection to Grenada’s medical community and reinforcing the bond between the University and its host country.

“SGU, through SGU-PHuN, is all about working with the Grenadian community toward improving access and expanding the range of available healthcare to its citizens,” Mr. La Grenade said.

–Ray-Donna Peters

Equine Veterinarian Shares Path to Horse Country

 

SGUSVM alumnus and equine practitioner Dr. Heath Soignier.

When S. Heath Soignier, DVM ’12, CVMST, isn’t visiting his equine patients, one can usually find him practicing new holistic veterinary medicine techniques on his quarter horse, Margarita.

“To me, horses and dogs are two of the best animals: if you trust them completely, they are most willing to reciprocate that trust. Not a lot of animals are like that,” Dr. Soignier said. “I love that I get to work with horses all day long.”

Growing up on a small farm in Bosco, LA, Dr. Soignier always had an affinity for animals, aspiring to be a mixed animal veterinarian. Yet his career path led him another way—and one nearly 700 miles from his hometown.

“During my third year at St. George’s University, I visited Lexington with some classmates,” he said. “You hear of the Kentucky Derby and how it’s the horse capital of the world, but it’s so different to experience it. My plans [after graduation] were to go back home and work in a mixed animal practice there, but I came here for a week and kind of fell in love with the place.”

Following graduation, Dr. Soignier accepted a one-year internship position at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, KY and was offered to stay on after his internship was completed. Today he is an ambulatory associate at Rood and Riddle, which is a full-service equine hospital with satellite offices in Saratoga, NY and Wellington, FL. The hospital treats all different breeds of equine, including racehorses, quarter horses, mini-ponies, and donkeys.

“Our surgeons even treated a baby giraffe,” he said. “It’s not just thoroughbreds.”

As an ambulatory associate, much of Dr. Soignier’s time is spent on the road, visiting local farms. “Fall is a much slower time compared to the spring, which is foaling and breeding season for thoroughbreds. I handle a lot of reproductive cases, dentistry, even veterinary spinal manipulative therapy (chiropractic) for my patients,” he said. “It’s a bit more of a demanding schedule and it can be a bit stressful in that regard, but I love it.”

“Horses can’t tell you what hurts—it’s our job to figure that out,” he added. “You have to be patient, but horses can really teach you about life and themselves. It’s very rewarding.”

From equipment to improving procedure techniques, even incorporating holistic methods of healing, Dr. Soignier is always looking at ways to impact a horse’s life in a positive way. For example, “within our practice we have digital radiograph machines that can take X-rays in the field. They’re wireless, which allows easier maneuverability and to be able to do that in the field with high-quality images is especially helpful,” Dr. Soignier said.

When not seeing patients, Dr. Soignier enjoys spending time with his wife and fellow SGU graduate Catherine Hercula-Soignier, DVM ’12, and his two young daughters on their 10-acre farm in Georgetown, KY. He is also an avid sports enthusiast and outdoorsman.

“I think the best thing about St. George’s is your classmates become your family,” and in Dr. Soignier’s case quite literally. “I joke that I left Grenada with a degree, a wife, and three dogs.”

Dr. Soignier’s wife is chief of staff at Banfield Pet Hospital, a small animal cooperate practice. He loves that he can ask for her opinion on particularly challenging cases.

“If you had told me 10 years ago this is where I would be, I would say you were crazy,” he acknowledged. “But I worked hard to get where I am today. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

–Laurie Chartorynsky

Doctors Making a Difference: SGU Grads Travel to Colombia for Medical Mission Trip

The days were long yet the need to provide medical care to thousands of Venezuelan refugees living in Colombia was never more critical. Graduates from St. George’s University were among doctors and medical staff who recently travelled to Bogota and Cucuta to provide free medical services to the refugees.

Nathalie Briones, MD ’18, an emergency medicine resident at NewYork Presbyterian-Queens Hospital, was one of three SGU alumni who volunteered for the medical mission trip. “We saw a lot of communicable diseases, people dehydrated from having poor sanitation, parasites in children, and severe malnutrition,” said Dr. Briones. This was her second medical mission trip with trip organizers, Centurion Medical Missions. “We didn’t expect how acutely ill so many patients would be when we got there. Many of them were suffering from diseases that we had only ever seen before in our textbooks.”

Despite the dire conditions of the refugees in Colombia, she added that the team left each day more humbled and grateful than ever before. “The hardest part was hearing their stories about having to leave their homes. Many educated people—including doctors, lawyers, and engineers—were diminished to cleaning toilets or selling candy on the streets just to keep their children alive. These people once had everything, and now they have nothing. Many of us had to hold back tears during patient interviews because we knew that there was nothing we could do to change their circumstances.”

Added Dr. Briones: “Some moments you knew that you saved someone’s life by being there to treat them, and other moments you just wished you could do more.”

 

 

As one of the largest humanitarian crises in recent histories, more than four million Venezuelans—approximately 13 percent of the country’s population—have fled the country due to political instability, poor living conditions, and high crime since the revolution began in 1999. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 1.3 million of those refugees have sought asylum in Colombia, leaving behind loved ones and most of their possessions to search for a better life.

However, once they arrive in Colombia, all is not what it seems. During a site visit this past spring, trip organizers visited one hotel where they encountered at least 100 refugees to a floor, with eight to nine people living in each room.

“All they have with them is what’s in their backpack,” said Gib Gerlach, vice president of humanitarian strategies for Centurion Medical Missions, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. “When they get to Colombia, their money is worthless. One of the greatest things they need is medical care and if they need it, they have no money to pay for it. We saw a great need to help out.”

The trip, which took place December 9 to 13, included Dr. Briones, Chelsea Hoenes, MD ’13, and Yalda Hazrat, MD ’16, as well as a local physician, an emergency medical technician, and support staff. Volunteers flew in on Sunday, December 8 and spent the next four days seeing approximately 1,000 patients. The clinic welcomed all comers, including those with high blood pressure, acute respiratory issues, open wounds, malnutrition, urinary tract infections, and pregnant women, among other cases. The group purchases all of its medicine in country to help the local economy and to help build relationships, Mr. Gerlach said.

Dr. Hoenes also shared her perspective of the trip: “On arriving in the heart of Bogota, it is easy to see how the Venezuelan people are suffering one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. Starvation and disease are their everyday reality. The medical care we provide is excellent but imperfect: the goal of our mission is to provide acute care, immediate access to imperative health resources, and hope, until permanent health infrastructure can be achieved for the growing refugee population.”

Centurion Medical Missions has previously performed medical clinics in La Vega, Dominican Republic. Of the six trips that Centurion Medical Missions has completed to La Vega since March 2018, 18 SGU doctors have so far travelled with the group, and many of them return for multiple trips. However, the need is so great in Colombia that the organization will be solely focusing on the country in 2020.

“We’re really happy to have to that relationship with SGU,” said Bill Honeycutt, founder of JET ICU, an air ambulance provider offering medical evacuation, medical repatriation, and other air medical transport services for patients worldwide and the parent company of Centurion Medical Missions. “It opens a lot of doors for the students and residents to build something down the road and eventually when they go into practice, they can continue to work to help thousands of people around the world.”

Dr. Briones said she hopes to inspire others to volunteer their services and training on future medical mission trips.

“I have always believed that every person in healthcare should try to do some kind of humanitarian work with underserved communities,” Dr. Briones said. “You really won’t know how much you can help until you go and see how much you actually do help.”

Visit SGU’s Instagram page for more images detailing the medical mission trip. 

– Laurie Chartorynsky

SGU Diagnostics Vet Protects the Health of Food Animals

Katie Woodard, DVM ’14Raised in Houston, Texas, Katie Woodard, DVM ’14, grew up raising show pigs for Future Farmers of America (FFA). Not only was it a big part of her childhood, the experience later fueled her interest in swine medicine, and eventually spurred her on toward a career in veterinary medicine.

Today, Dr. Woodard resides in rural Iowa with her husband and three children, working as a veterinary specialist at the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (ISU VDL). At one of the largest food animal diagnostic labs in the country, her job is to support food animal veterinarians in the field and provide quality service to the food animal agriculture industry.

“Growing up as I did, I never developed much interest in the small animal side of veterinary medicine,” said Dr. Woodard. “And I knew, even then, that I wanted to be involved in safeguarding the health of food animals, a role perhaps I was always destined for.”

Working at the VDL for the past five years, Dr. Woodard’s case load consists of about 85 percent swine—a reflection of the large swine industry located in Iowa and across the Midwest. On any given day, the diagnostics lab processes between 400 and 500 cases, making for a dynamic and ever-changing work environment. In her current role, she is responsible for all client outreach and education, where she assists her clients with disseminating information coming out of the lab, IT innovations, and retrieving diagnostic data from the lab.

“Our clients are veterinarians, and my job is all about making the diagnostic lab/client interaction as streamlined and straightforward as possible,” Dr. Woodard said. “My position helps to bridge that communication between lab and real life.”

Additionally, each summer she takes on a veterinary student intern to work on a project related to the lab and/or the swine industry. This could include anything from collecting samples in the field to developing better testing protocols or testing different swab types in the lab to make more informed recommendations to her clients in the field.

Continuing her tradition of educating future veterinarians, Dr. Woodard has also chosen to give back to her alma mater. Now, a visiting professor at SGU, she teaches the swine portion of the three-year veterinary students’ curriculum in the School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, she has interviewed students applying to the veterinary school for several years.

“St. George’s University was actually the only veterinary school I applied to,” stated Dr. Woodard. “Having worked at the Louisiana State University School Of Veterinary Medicine as a technician for two years, I was already familiar with the traditional US model, and wanted to see what other options were out there for schooling. This, combined with my impatience to get started, led me to choose SGU since it offered rolling admissions, a much-needed change of scenery, and a more hands-on approach to learning.”

According to Dr. Woodard, she looks forward to continuing to play her part in the training of young veterinary students and considers it a privilege to be able to introduce them to the work of swine medicine and all the industry has to offer. With her future interests turning toward biosecurity and transportation and the impact those practices have on the health of food animals, she still maintains her commitment to the education of food-animal-oriented veterinary students.

–Ray-Donna Peters

MD Alum Grants Early Holiday Wish for Ailing Teen

Through the Gift of Life program, Sean Levchuck, MD ’89, recently performed life-saving surgery on a Gambian teen suffering from a hole in his heart. Dr. Levchuck, the chairman of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis Hospital on Long Island, professed after the surgery that the young man “should be good to go.”

The patient and his father, Simon, will spend more than a month in the United States before returning to their home country. Newsday chronicled the family’s journey last month.