MESSAGE FROM THE DEAN
At SIU School of Medicine, we value diversity — of culture, ethnicity, gender and lifestyle. Above all, we value equity. Equity, diversity and inclusion are central strategies for SIU School of Medicine to meet its mission and to prepare the health care workforce of the future. We use our anti-racism task force, affinity groups, signature conferences and specific programs for global health, pipelines, broad-based inclusion and women in medicine to bring the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion to the forefront.
The impact of our investment in diversity programs is evident. Among all U.S. medical schools, SIU School of Medicine currently ranks in the 93rd percentile for graduates who are African American or Black, 88th percentile for female faculty members, and 48th percentile for all underrepresented groups in medicine. These are numbers, raw data and statistics, which reflect a degree of diversity. This information does not, however, reflect the relationships and systemic changes needed during this time of national reckoning for structural racism, misogyny and bias.
In this issue of Aspects, we invite you to discover the stories and strategies that motivate some of SIU’s equity leaders. Our feature story will lead you on the “Pathways to Equity” walked by our associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion, Dr. Wendi El-Amin. As you read this issue, you will be introduced to other individuals and groups that challenge the status quo and hold us all accountable on issues of equity. We are grateful for their leadership, advocacy and all the ways they teach us all to amplify marginalized voices in academic medicine. Join us.
Jerry Kruse, MD, MSPH
Dean and Provost, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine CEO, SIU Medicine
STELLAR: School receives top international award
An international medical education organization selected SIU School of Medicine to receive one of its inaugural awards for institutional excellence.
The Association for Medical Education in Europe (AMEE) presented the ASPIRE Stellar Award to the SIU School of Medicine in recognition of its commitment to excellence in a range of educational areas. AMEE promotes international excellence in education in the health care professions across the continuum of undergraduate, postgraduate and continuing education. It has members in more than 90 countries and across five continents.
“This is a tremendous honor,” said Jerry Kruse, dean and provost at SIU School of Medicine. “For our medical school, it’s like getting an early career lifetime achievement award. It is not an exaggeration to say our students receive a world-class education in Springfield and Carbondale.”
During the past decade, the School of Medicine has received five of AMEE’s ASPIRE to Excellence awards for facets of its educational program: in student assessment, student engagement, social accountability, medical simulation, and curriculum delivery and innovation. SIU is one of only two medical schools in the world to hold as many as five ASPIRE Awards.
Debra Klamen, MD, senior associate dean for education and curriculum, accepted the ASPIRE Stellar Award on behalf of the school at AMEE’s digital conference on September 8.
Farm Family Resource Initiative offers new helpline
Area farmers who need someone to talk to about the everyday stresses of farming and pandemic-related challenges now have a new resource. A helpline (1-833-FARM-SOS) will connect farmers to health professionals and services through the Farm Family Resource Initiative.
In addition to the helpline, the initiative offers ongoing outreach, education and training to rural partners working to improve the health and safety of farm families. Free webinars and trainings on psychological signs of stress and Mental Health First Aid offer program participants skill-building tools to meet the needs of rural clients and farmers.
“Small farms are the core of our state’s economy, and farmers are on the front lines to provide food for our communities. The reality of this pandemic is that a new layer of stress has been put on farmers and farm families,” said Senator Scott Bennett (D-Champaign). “The Farm Family Resource Initiative and helpline will give farmers additional support to help folks recognize and navigate these times.”
The Farm Family Resource Initiative is a joint pilot program of SIU School of Medicine and the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Sen. Bennett provided the legislative leadership. The SIU School of Medicine’s Center for Rural Health and Social Services Development is spearheading the effort to build a statewide network of support and resources for Illinois farm families, starting in six counties: Christian, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Morgan and Sangamon.
How will COVID affect Alzheimer’s patients?
Medical researchers at SIU School of Medicine’s Neuroscience Institute are studying how the novel coronavirus may accelerate the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The team’s data could help identify patients that are more susceptible to the disease’s cognitive and physical decline.
Erin Hascup, PhD, director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders (CADRD) and associate professor in the Departments of Neurology and Pharmacology at SIU School of Medicine, and Kevin Hascup, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology, Neuroscience Institute, are leading the laboratory investigations. Previously, the group had been awarded $6.7 million in grants from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how glutamate dysregulation, inflammation and cellular senescence within the brain affects the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease patients. The research may produce useful early biomarkers and therapeutic targets for fighting the disease.
The Hascups teamed up with Michael Olson, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology (MMICB), to conduct this COVID-19 research together. Andrew Wilber, PhD, associate professor in MMICB, and his lab staff are providing virological expertise for the project. A $368,750 supplementary NIA grant will support the work.
“COVID-19-positive patients have acute respiratory infection, but there is also evidence of inflammation in the brain that may accelerate brain aging and increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Kevin Hascup. “We hope that this research will help determine the effects of COVID-19 on the Alzheimer’s population, as well as if COVID-19 changes your susceptibility to, or progression of the disease.”
McNeese poetry short wins Mid-America Emmy
Dr. Wesley Robinson-McNeese, director of diversity initiatives for the SIU System, was featured in The Storyteller Studios production that won a 2020 Mid-America Emmy Award for short video. Dr. McNeese reads a poem he wrote, ‘Face To Face,’ from inside the remains of black-owned home that was burned in the 1908 race riots in Springfield. The short film bested five other entries.
Producer Chris Costello said the award win would not have been possible had it not been for Robinson-McNeese putting pen to paper and creating such a powerful piece of poetry. “It is an incredible honor to have our work recognized at this level, but it is more so to receive recognition for a project that has such historical significance not just here in Springfield but across the entire country,” he said.
“I am thankful to have been part of a project that unashamedly shed more light on the Springfield Race Pogrom of 1908 and its aftermath,” said Dr. McNeese, “especially calling attention to the transgenerational racial trauma most African Americans grapple with every day.”
Aspects of a LEARNER
Lucas Dominic Martinez
Physician Assistant Program - Class of 2022
Photography by Yenitza Melgoza
Where did you grow up? I was born in the Philippines just south of the capital, Manila. I am the youngest of three siblings and we were raised by a single mother. When I was 20, my sister and I moved to the U.S. so we could find jobs and help my mom back home. Our goal was to eventually become citizens and bring my mother and brother to the U.S
Where did you attend college? What degree(s) did you earn? I started off with an Associate’s Degree in Diagnostic Imaging from my local community college. I worked as an ultrasound technologist for five years while taking a few classes every semester. Eventually I was able to complete a Bachelor's of Science in Healthcare Leadership from the University of St. Francis. I am the first in my family to attend and finish college.
What inspired you to enter the physician assistant program? I absolutely loved my career as sonographer. But after five years in that role, it began to feel like I was handcuffed to my machine. I was willing to do so much more for my patients. That's when I knew it was the right time to advance my career and become a provider.
How did your challenges affect you? Being born and raised in a developing country truly gives you a unique perspective on life. Our family struggled to remain afloat. It was a huge challenge for my mother to provide for three kids on her own. As a kid, I remember studying for tests by candlelight because we were always late on our electric bill. Our house did not have running water so I would have to pump water from a well and fill buckets to haul back to our house. My sister and I both had to drop out of high school to help my mother make ends meet. I’ve been through a lot of setbacks in life, but I wear each one as a badge of honor. Despite growing up in poverty, my family and I never felt pity for ourselves. In fact, we were happy just being together. I am proud of my roots and my upbringing, and I believe this is what makes me diverse.
When I moved here, my sister and I worked humble jobsand learned life in America one day at a time. I worked as a dishwasher, a stock boy, a waiter, a sales associate, anything that would allow me to send money back home. On my third year as an immigrant, my mom was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer. Having not seen her in three years, I knew I had to drop everything and leave. I went back home to the Philippines to be with her.
What was truly painful about the situation was learning that my mom tried to hide her condition. She knew our family could not afford to treat her and she refused to leave her children in debt. She passed away a few days after I arrived. I spent the next few months blaming myself for not being there sooner and not knowing any better. It was a turning point in my life. It was the moment I decided to pursue healthcare as a career. I picked myself up and flew back to the U.S. with a fire within me, and a new goal in mind. I applied for college and eventually got accepted into an ultrasound program. I went to clinicals in the morning and worked at a restaurant at night. After completing my degree, I was finally able to start my career as an ultrasound technologist. And here I am today with a five-year career in sonography, halfway done with the didactic year of PA school. The fire still burns, and I can almost taste my end goal.
My older sister also returned to the U.S. She decided to pursue her dream of a career in the culinary industry. She worked her way up and I am super proud of her! Despite not having a culinary degree, she became a pastry sous chef at a Michelin star restaurant in New York City. She was even featured on a Filipino TV network. She now owns and operates her own pastry business in Manhattan. She and I became U.S. citizens in 2017, and we were able to petition for my brother and my nephew to come to America. In 2019 my brother and his son were able to get their green cards. Our family embodies the American dream, proving that people from all walks of life can find success in this country as long as they are determined and hard working.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future? I want to help someone beat cancer. I was 23 when I lost my mom to lung cancer. I still remember that feeling of being helpless. Our family couldn't afford to treat her, and my siblings and I lost the only parent we ever had. It was the darkest point of my life and I kept thinking how life could be so unfair. If there is one goal I want to accomplish in my entire career as a PA, it would be to tell a dedicated mother that her cancer is all gone.
What advice would you give to other young men and women who are faced with adversity because of poverty, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.? Never underestimate your own potential. All it takes is that one spark to ignite whatever passion is within you. Anytime I am struggling or stressed, I think back to where I came from and realize that I have come so far in life. Use your setbacks as coal to keep your flame burning. We are often stronger than we think.
PATHWAYS TO EQUITY
Wendi Wills El-Amin’s journey to the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
By Rikeesha Phelon | Photography by Sara Way
“I'm a third-generation healer. My father is a physician; my grandmother delivered babies. It's part of my path and I want to honor this legacy.”
Wendi Wills El-Amin, MD, is also a third-generation educator. Both her grandfather and mother were science teachers. Her work in academia is not only an extension of her father's work, but it also mirrors her mother's magnetic way of teaching neighborhood kids about the sciences.
She can remember asking many questions while she sat on her skateboard, surrounded by neighborhood boys who gathered for “science Saturdays.” Before STEM was in style, many Saturdays started with her mother going to a Houston fish market to buy fish for her and all the neighborhood kids to learn to dissect.
To a young Wendi, there was nothing exceptional about her mother's leadership in science or her father's leadership in medicine. “It was just my world, and that was my street, and that was my block,” she says.
When Wills El-Amin was nine, her father completed his internal medicine residency and the family moved to a new neighborhood with a predominantly white school. In the new environment, she remembers the first time she was called the n-word.
“At the time, I didn't even fully know what it meant,” she recalls. “But everything shifted.”
She didn't have as many friends after the move, but still did well in school even in her strange new environment. When her mother announced another move to yet another new school in the seventh grade, Wills El-Amin began to fully understand the sacrifice and investment that her parents were making toward her education.
Beyond assigning tremendous value to learning, Wills El-Amin's parents also modeled a community service ethic that she continues to embody today.
“My mother always included other children in our experiences. If we were going to the park, Mom would pick up three or four neighborhood kids to go with us. We learned to stay proximate to others who did not have the same opportunities we had. We understood that our purpose was to help others.”
Because of this, Wills El-Amin always envisioned herself as someone who was going to make an impact in society. However, it wasn't always clear that a busy medical career was the path.
Her father put in long hours as a physician in private practice, modeling a professional life that was honorable but full of sacrifice. A beloved aunt — also a doctor and the first black woman to attend the University of Southern California — mirrored that same busy image. Wills El-Amin didn’t see many images of woman physicians who were also mothers.
Unsure of her direction, Wills El-Amin began studying to become a psychologist before a passion for biology drew her to the sciences and down a path toward medicine.
DEVELOPING AS A PHYSICIAN
As her career was developing, Wills El-Amin considered joining her father in private practice and bolstering its women's health and children's services. But she enjoyed family medicine and wanted a practice that was comprehensive and community-focused.
Other Black physicians began to influence her direction. At Georgetown School of Medicine, family physician Dr. Darlene Underwood became a treasured role model. There was no patient Underwood couldn't treat, from babies to the elderly. “I wanted to be just like her and take care of everybody. She was just magic,” Wills El-Amin says. Family medicine offered an approach to care that was also grounded in social justice and equity.
While Wills El-Amin was at Georgetown, Washington D.C. communities were experiencing the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The medical school became a mecca of opportunity for community medicine. Wills El-Amin began hosting science fair projects through the Student National Medical Association, replicating the science Saturdays of her youth while emphasizing representation. She wanted to show other Black students that they too could become scientists and physicians, that diversity is possible across the spectrum of health care.
Wills El-Amin chose the University of Texas at Houston for residency. She wanted her training to be in an urban environment with a Federally Qualified Health Center. She returned to her original Houston neighborhood and became deeply embedded, becoming chief resident, and started working in correctional health.
She accepted a position to work in correctional medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville while nine months pregnant with the first of her three daughters. The experience was powerful and formative. Many of the women had never seen an African-American female physician. Wills El-Amin told them, “Yes. I'm your doctor, and I'm here to take care of you.”
With three children below the age of 5, she took a new position. While working in the Department of Family Medicine, she became
the director of Health Disparities Initiatives for the University of Virginia Cancer Center. She went on to become an assistant dean of medical education.
Recruited to SIU School of Medicine in 2014, she was aware of the school’s national reputation for medical education and its Medical/Dental Education Preparatory Program (MEDPREP) in Carbondale. The latter had launched some notable colleagues' medical careers. One was Wesley Robinson McNeese, MD.
OFFICE OF EQUITY DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
Wes McNeese, MD, was named the inaugural associate dean of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OEDI) in 2016. Prior to OEDI, McNeese joined SIU School of Medicine as faculty and founded the Office of Diversity, Multicultural and Minority Affairs in 2001. By establishing OEDI, SIU School of Medicine created the opportunity for equity issues to be part of the school's infrastructure. He is still instrumental in guiding the Physician Pipeline Preparatory Program (P4) and serves as an ombudsman to the SIU System as the executive director for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
Dr. McNeese also started the Alonzo Kenniebrew, MD Lecture and Forum. This annual event has allowed the OEDI the opportunity to bring national speakers to SIU to explore issues of race and health care justice. One of the speakers, Dana Matthews, is author of the book “Just Medicine.”
Matthew's presentation deepened Wills El-Amin's understanding of her new home, Springfield. She learned that the city where Abraham Lincoln lived was also the site of race riots in 1908, the catalyst for the creation of the NAACP. Springfield has a higher segregation index due to historical injustices and redlining, some of which still affect how people of color are accessing health care and education to this day.
When Wills El-Amin began as the institution's second associate dean after McNeese, she established a framework to build on the foundation that McNeese had laid. “I started looking at us as having an equity, diversity and inclusion ecosystem that includes six different elements that have an impact on our patients, learners, faculty, staff and our communities.” This ecosystem's elements are policies, educational assessments, global health, community outreach, pipeline programs and affinity groups.
Wills El-Amin approaches her work not only as a family physician who sees patients but also as an academic strategist working with the Department of Medical Education.
“I love this role because it allows me to work with minoritized students as well as all other students who need to enhance their academics.”
She keeps the equity ecosystem in mind as she works with people, regardless of race, sex or gender. She also checks to ensure the equity ecosystem is fully realized across the institution.
“I didn't want the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to be a silo,” she says. She thought long and hard about what strategies would allow the work to have a lasting impact and a reach inside each academic and clinical department. OEDI’s Equity Ambassador program was one strategy.
The Equity Ambassador program brings together individuals from various departments to share views on issues affecting equity in the workplace, while providing the ambassadors the support and tools to create change where it's needed.
“The Equity Ambassador program helps us to all understand and address areas of inequity that exist on campus and in our community,” says Michael Olson, PhD, an equity ambassador in Medical Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology. Olson helped establish a book club that explores social justice themes. “It’s increasing our understanding of these inequities and providing tools for productive dialogue, learning and the strength needed to result in positive change.”
Other equity ambassador initiatives include Emergency Medicine’s development of “upstander” training to make underrepresented groups feel welcomed in the ER, and Family Medicine’s series of trainings that include coaching on cultural humility.
LEADING AN ANTI-RACIST INSTITUTION
In 2019, Dean Jerry Kruse, MD, MSPH, declared that SIU School of Medicine would become an anti-racist institution. OEDI has been at the forefront of implementing this commitment across the entire organization. But in 2020, societal events pushed the need for this work into the foreground.
COVID-19 began to infect communities, taking a disproportionate toll on people of color. The data shined a bright light on health care disparities that have existed for centuries in the United States.
As families were isolating at home, two brutal deaths of African Americans occurred at the hands of local law enforcement. The uproar over police brutality and racial discrimination prompted marches, rioting and soul searching that transcended the nation’s typical short attention span. It forced many segments of society to hold bracing conversations about equity and justice. SIU School of Medicine had some groundwork in place.
“I was proud that Dean Kruse had the foresight to make opposition to racism a central tenet of our strategic plan,” says El-Amin. “It needs stating because it’s obviously important. It threatens public health.”
In 2020, SIU System President Dan Mahony also charged each campus to establish an anti-racism task force. For the School of Medicine, Kruse appointed 35 members to develop four focus areas: metrics, organizational analysis, policies and procedures, and training.
President Mahony also commissioned a series of “Conversations of Understanding” to create even more opportunities for equity work to be prioritized in the SIU System that includes Edwardsville and Carbondale’s campuses. Having the system office lead these discussions elevates their importance and underscores the need for OEDI in academic medicine.
While the system office's external support is instrumental, one of the reasons that OEDI's small team has been successful is because of its partnerships with other teams within the School of Medicine. Working with the Alliance of Women in Medicine and Science, the Department of Medical Humanities and the Center for Human and Organizational Potential (cHOP) has amplified the impact and helped share the burden of work as OEDI builds for the future.
“cHOP’s mission is to create an environment in which inclusive partnerships unleash the potential of our people and communities to learn, thrive and excel,” says Susan Hingle, MD, associate dean for cHOP. “This is simply not going to happen if we do not assist in creating a diverse, inclusive, equitable and just workplace. Our partnership with the OEDI is critical to the success of the school’s goals.”
A MORE EQUITABLE FUTURE
When Dr. Wills El-Amin thinks about what motivates her work at SIU, she recalls her formative years when a responsibility to others became engrained. She works hard to instill it in her daughters, and in the students and colleagues she encounters in the clinics and corridors at work.
She approaches each interaction as if it's not an accident. Each exchange has a purpose, possibility or potential waiting to be tapped.
“Being in academic medicine is an opportunity to have an impact on society, to give to the next generation of physicians. In 10 years, I hope that our graduates reflect the diversity of our society and the communities where they will practice. I hope that younger, underrepresented children can see themselves reflected in the professions of medicine. I hope our research is creating innovative solutions around race and health equity in communities.”
“We should honor other people’s lives,” she says, smiling. “Whether it’s in a patient room or an interaction with a student, every person has value.”
Out of Many, One
Student groups bond over adversities, diversity
by Steve Sandstrom | Photography by Sara Way
PHOTO: Tatiana Kelley, Roxana Moraga, Travis Fulk, Ihuoma Igbokwe, Alexander Worix
In the days following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in spring 2020, protests erupted across the United States. Though a pandemic made gatherings more difficult, citizens of all races and ages poured onto the streets to protest injustice and police brutality.
Within the School of Medicine, Dean and Provost Jerry Kruse, MD, and Wendi El-Amin, MD, associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion, wrote open letters expressing sorrow and outrage. Each affirmed the need to make SIU an anti-racist institution.
At the same time, medical students across SIU’s campuses were talking to each other, sharing their concerns within peer groups. Despite the groundswell of support, there was skepticism that much was going to change.
At a June meeting of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), fourth-year medical student Tatiana Kelley asked members if they were interested in creating a document that outlined initiatives for the school’s new anti-racist stance.
In a different discussion within the Sister 2 Sister group, founder Dr. Erica Maduakolam (’20) proposed a “needs assessment” to see where problems existed. Both S2S president Morgan Watts and president of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) Roxana Moraga suggested enlisting the support of each marginalized groups on campus within the process.
Alexander Worix, a Black man and officer in the SIU chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA), thought of a name for the group: the Marginalized Student Network. GLMA co-president Travis Fulk created its logo. Outreach to the students gathered momentum.
“It made sense to come together to support one another because we all had things in common,” Worix says.
The new Marginalized Student Network (MSN) is comprised of students from the GLMA, LMSA, SNMA, and two organizations for women: the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) and Sister to Sister (S2S), which supports minority women in medicine.
Each group has a national organization that helps coordinate its local chapters; some have regional boards, as well. The GLMA is the newest to campus, started in 2018. It advocates for LGBTQ+ members in health care and health professions. The oldest is the SNMA, the largest independent, student-run organization that focuses on the needs and concerns of Black and Latinx medical students in the United States.
Currently, ethnic minorities make up 40 percent of the U.S. population but are underrepresented in medicine. Approximately 7 percent of all medical school students are Black and 6 percent are Hispanic. About 11 percent of current practicing U.S. physicians and 9 percent of professors at medical schools are from underrepresented ethnic minorities.
Within SIU School of Medicine’s Policy and Plan for Diversity and Inclusion, the administration cites the benefits of diversity strategies for the continuing success of its missions:
A diverse and culturally competent student body cultivates student interest in caring for these populations. It increases patient satisfaction with health care, as patients who are ethnic minorities are more likely to see a doctor if he or she is of the same ethnic group and rate themselves as more satisfied with the care they receive. And it can help increase the number of underrepresented faculty.
Like classes that have gone before them, these students want to have a positive influence on the school’s direction. The MSN drafted a proposal that stated its case clearly to SIU’s institutional leadership: "We are here because this culture of complacency and silence has rendered us at a disadvantage for a long time, and since we now have a stance of anti-racism, it is time for purposeful action and policies to identify and rectify systems that have NOT been working for ALL students."
Among the network’s initial goals was establishing a White Coat for Black Lives (WC4BL) chapter at the School of Medicine.
The national organization seeks to dismantle racism in medicine and promote the health, well-being and self-determination of Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color. The group came together quickly in June.
The next challenge was to organize visible activism. The WC4BL march to protest racism and police brutality took place on June 18. More than 200 learners, faculty, staff and supporters from the school and its partners at Memorial Medical Center and HSHS St. John’s hospital gathered beside 801 North Rutledge in a show of solidarity. They listened to student speakers, observed an 8-minute, 46-second period of reflection and marched around the medical district, all the while following the then-new social distancing guidelines.
AMWA President Katie Lincoln took on a leadership role for the march. “I was raised to stand up for others, and to speak up when I see injustice,” she says. With about 70 members in SIU’s chapter, AMWA added people and passion to the event.
At MSN’s presentation that followed the march, institutional leadership attended in full force, Kelley says. “President Mahony, Chancellor Lane, Dean Kruse, Dr. Constance, Dr. Klamen, Dr. El-Amin, and several faculty mentors and allies came to support this meeting.”
Travis Fulk was also buoyed by the turnout. “It’s good because these aren’t just policies that affect people of color, they affect all of us,” he says. “The power of unity gives us a louder voice to urge the administration to fulfill its mission to become an anti-racist institution.”
As a result of the meeting, MSN students were placed on curriculum committees to help raise awareness about certain outcomes not in alignment with an anti-racist task. Curricular changes were made to PAC sessions. A Health Equity Week is planned for 2021, and the first-year library in Carbondale now has books related to anti-racism and social justice in medicine.
Outreach efforts are also being organized for the new year. Groups within the Marginalized Student Network want to better connect with local communities, bring health initiatives into local churches, assist with mobile clinics in areas with minority populations and initiate mentorship programs at UIS and SIU-C.
The work to combat institutional racism will be ongoing. “Racism is a public health threat,” Worix says. “We have to come together to fight it, and it seems to be working. I’m very proud of SIU for taking some action. We just need them to be accountable and continue to do what they say.”
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► To learn more about these support opportunities, visit forwardfunder.siumed.edu.
Six Generations of Family Medicine Care
by Sarah Kinkade | Photography by Sara Way
Growing up in Chicago, Cynthia Thomas, MD, didn’t always dream of being a doctor, but she wanted a career where she could help others and excelled at math and science in middle school. After hearing about the shortage of doctors in underserved areas of her community, in high school she decided that medicine was where she wanted to be. While life’s twists and turns moved her out of her Chicago community and to Springfield with her husband, her passion for community and family medicine moved with her.
After graduating from SIU School of Medicine in 1991 and completing her residency in 1994, Dr. Thomas worked at a community health center in Decatur for a few years. In 1997, she joined SIU’s Department of Family and Community Medicine as a faculty member and practicing physician, a role she still has today. She serves 730 patients in the Springfield area.
“Community medicine is really important to me – serving the community and being part of the community,” she says. “You have an opportunity to care for not only an entire person, but the entire family. You learn what genetic conditions cross generations and can help patients learn how their family history has an impact on their health.”
Family and Community Medicine is a field of primary care that allows doctors to treat the entire family. At SIU School of Medicine, our founders saw a need for more primary care doctors in central and southern Illinois more than 50 years ago.
“One of the foundational principles of the SIU School of Medicine was a social accountability to the people of central and southern Illinois,” said Jerry Kruse, MD, MPSH, dean and provost of SIU School of Medicine. “Early on, our region saw a severe shortage of primary care physicians, and thus, we have always had an emphasis on family medicine programs. While we strive to address all the health needs of this area, the continued development of primary care programs and the training of primary care physicians remains a core tenet of our operations and vision.”
Every day, physicians like Dr. Thomas are meeting the needs of a broad range of families. However, it’s somewhat remarkable when a doctor has been the medical care provider for six generations within a single family.
Yet Thomas has done just that. From helping to birth babies to helping the elderly thrive in their golden years, she’s been a reassuring presence for the Holloway family.
Zevernett Holloway, who goes by Zee, is a retired nurse, and knows the importance of the doctor-patient relationship. She started seeing Dr. Thomas at SIU Center for Family Medicine-Springfield many years ago.
“I was the first one in the family to see her,” Holloway says. “At one point, I needed a new doctor and was connected with Dr. Thomas. I was immediately impressed with her attentiveness, and convinced my mother to switch to see her too.”
Dr. Thomas treated Holloway’s mother, Sabreen Abdullah, for many years before she passed earlier this year. As part of residency training in Family Medicine, residents are required to do two “home visits” each year.
“Sabreen was a favorite of the residents; she was so appreciative of our care and loved encouraging the residents to learn while they did home visits to the nursing home,” Dr. Thomas says.
“Mom always told the residents, ‘When you get to be my age, your modesty is gone. So have a look at everything.’ She was very comfortable working with residents,” says Holloway.
Her grandmother also saw Dr. Thomas for a short period prior to her death.
It was a natural fit for Dr. Thomas to take care of more and more of Holloway’s family.
“Dr. Thomas does not leave anything uncovered,” Holloway said. “The most pleasant thing about her is her nature. She treats you like you are her family. Whatever you might want to talk about, she’s going to ask you questions to find out what’s the best outcome for your health. She was also very respectful as my kids got older. She keeps their confidentiality, and she takes the time to address every one of your concerns.”
Holloway has a history of hypertension, or high blood pressure, and regularly discusses this with Thomas.
“For a long time, I didn’t want to take anything for it,” she says. Her reluctance eventually led to an ER visit and a subsequent appointment with Thomas. “She would not even let me drive home that day because my pressure was so high.” Holloway now takes a new medication regularly. “Dr. Thomas followed my every movement very closely during that time.”
Thomas also provided care for Holloway’s three children, Charles, Tameria (Wheatley) and Arteria (Galbreath). As they became adults, the daughters began bringing their children — and eventually grandchildren — to see Dr. Thomas, as well.
Galbreath’s children Fabian Grisby Jr., Zaleigh Grisby (and her three children), and Tyrin Grisby also came to SIU Center for Family Medicine for part of their health care.
As an alumni of the SIU School of Medicine, Dr. Thomas describes how some lessons learned in medical school resonate today.
“At SIU, the introduction to clinical medicine takes place very early in training,” she said. “One thing I love about our programs is the simulated patient experience. It has made medical students and residents comfortable talking to patients and instills the importance of good patient-physician interaction and relationships. I still use some of the tools I was taught years ago in my practice today.”
Retired Nurse Holloway values the spectrum of family care Dr. Thomas has provided through the years, and continues to refer her newest grandbabies to her.
“Dr. Thomas is just the top,” she said. “She always cares about what I am going through.”
Zee (holding photo of Zee’s mother), grandson Tyrin, granddaughter Zaleigh, daughter Arteria and great-grandchildren Zaniah, Zaraea and JaRon Jr.
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR VIDYA SUNDARESHAN, MD, MPH
Photography by Maria Ansley
Dr. Vidya Sundareshan is interim chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in SIU’s Department of Internal Medicine. She has been a public health resource, medical educator and spokesperson for the school of medicine throughout the 2020 pandemic response. She also serves as the Medical Director at Sangamon County Department of Public Health.
1. You are active on Twitter and have used the hashtag, #istandwithscience. Why is that important right now?
The beauty of science is it ever evolving. We search and “re-search” for the correct answers and the truth. What we consider correct today may be proved to be entirely incorrect at a different time. The truth can be empathic and yet have plurality based on the situation, the interpreter or the field. Teachers, lab researchers, doctors and journalists are all scientists in one way or the other as they all search for the knowledge.
To me the hashtag #istandwithscience is a celebration of my passion for science and what science does for our community and the world. It stands as an expression of the value of science and an invitation to appreciate science and follow the truth. It stands for the open-mindedness to share our research findings and discuss its impact. It means I’m committed to listening, thinking and applying knowledge and respecting its diversity. For me personally, it means that I will support and safeguard the scientific community so we can all continue to critically think, ask questions, evaluate the truth and freely share the information with each other.
2. We are coming through an election year and people are ideologically divided on many issues. What about public health?
Unfortunately, people can be divided ideologically in public health as well. For this reason, it is not as easy as it should be to make policies based on scientific evidence. It is important to make decisions that are evidence-based and not based on personal choices or caprices. Science is a vital piece of a working democracy. It is therefore important to not undermine the evidence or discredit the scientific process.
Science is bipartisan. Many of us have advocated as part of our professional societies for continued support and funding for scientific organizations like the NIH and CDC. The CDC information is credible, valid and freely available. People all over the world rely on it and cite it with confidence. There is tremendous trust of people in these organizations. It is therefore the responsibility of our leaders in science and politics to continue empowering these organizations to pursue scientific evidence, make guidelines for health care professionals and serve as an excellent public resource for presenting complicated information in simple formats that can be easily understood.
3. You were recently promoted to Professor of Medicine. What is your hope for your new role?
Professor of Clinical Medicine is a great honor and I’m grateful for that. Only 20 percent of professors at SIU are women. I’m proud of our institution for recognizing women and encouraging diversity while making decisions on promotions.
With this honor comes great responsibility. The Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine is very active in patient care, teaching, research and community service. Our mission is aligned with the department and the school: to provide high-quality care in infectious diseases for people living in central and southern Illinois. We have been able to expand our services further because of telemedicine and our outreach. We offer a fellowship program that trains sub-specialists in infectious diseases. We are physician-scientist-educators. We collaborate with other scientists to use the best evidence-based practices in our practice of medicine.
Our subspecialty of infectious diseases has a lot of public health and community health incorporated into our daily work. As professor of medicine, my goal is to continue to optimally contribute while guiding others in my division and department to collaborate and achieve their goals. Aiming towards excellence in education and patient care, we want to continue to give back to our community locally and regionally.
4. When you are not working to save Sangamon County from COVID-19, what do you do for fun?
My favorite thing to do outside of work is to spend time with my daughters. We love music. We sing together and compose small musical pieces that help me de-stress. We also love to dance. Our family loves movies. I have grown to like the Avengers, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson because of some die-hard fans in my family.
I'm also very active in the Indian community. I serve on the board of directors for the Indian Association of Greater Springfield, where I participate in organizing social events for the Indian community. I also teach Indian classical music and dance to children at Sunday school as time permits.
5. We hear you are passionate about the arts. Can you tell us about that?
I enjoy community theater and support it as best as I can. We go to many shows at the Hoogland and the Muni. Each year we participate as a family in one show. I’m either in the play or help with the production as much as I can. I love working with the directors. Gil and Ann Opferman are my favorites. They are educators and very organized. They work on their production for a whole year after researching. Their scripts are a fun adaptation of a classic story. My entire family was in their last show, ‘Aladdin.’ I played Sherzada. We had a great time at rehearsals and made so many new friends.
I'm extensively trained in Indian classical dance and vocal music. As a teenager, I got to travel to many places in the world with my dance teacher, sponsored by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. I continue to perform and have recitals at the Hoogland periodically. For many years I have been an invited artist at Springfield’s First Night celebration (a public New Year’s Eve event). I have also presented master classes in Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance form) for the Springfield Ballet Company.
This was a big part of my life growing up. It’s a whole different side of me that makes me feel fulfilled. I encourage everyone to pursue their hobbies or continue the art forms they have spent so much time learning in childhood.