Sharing stories about the students and resident physicians at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV who are studying and training to deliver the medical care that will make a real difference in people’s lives – I did that.
Sharing stories about the faculty physicians who not only teach, but also provide the care that allows Southern Nevadans to put a medical problem in the rearview mirror – care that sometimes makes the difference between life and death – I did that, too.
During the last six years, I’ve had the good fortune to be a voice of, and for, the school in my role as editorial associate director, writing pieces for the medical school’s weekly Making the Rounds newsletter, the UNLV News Center, and the school’s annual magazine, where I also served as editor.
I’ve also had the opportunity to introduce the medical school and its staff to the greater community at large, through articles that have run in Las Vegas HEALS, Nevada Business, DAVID, Black Image, Las Vegas Woman, LaVoce, Special Sources, and Las Vegas Sun.
I will miss being part of the medical school. But I’m Medicare eligible now, and my wife and I have decided it's about time to find some new challenges to take on. Given that years ago we promised each other that at age 100 we will die of heart attacks in each other’s loving arms, our decision at this time makes perfect sense to us.
The power of positive thinking aside, there is so much I have learned at the medical school, so much I want to remember. So much that is, well, inspiring.
When Roma shared the philosophy of life that gave her strength – “it is not the cards we are dealt that control our lives, but how we choose to play them” – she gave voice to others in the school community I’ve written about who’ve overcome challenges that have included everything from homelessness and cancer, to war and parents’ drug addictions, before entering one of the world’s most noble professions: the practice of medicine. Both Lisa Durrette, the interim chair of psychiatry, and resident physician Addison “Addy” Guida, a 2023 graduate of our school, overcame grueling cancer treatments to make their dreams a reality.
How could I ever forget resident physician Brent Blackwell, a decorated Afghanistan veteran who did five combat tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger before deciding he wanted to save lives as a trauma surgeon? And who could fail to remember Larry Alexander, an assistant dean and professor who left abject poverty behind to design medical school curricula and to teach the best and brightest students in Las Vegas? Or medical student Claire Ong, who so impressed National Institutes of Health investigators during an internship that they think she’ll be doing important future cancer research.
I’ll always remember how students Keith and Kevin Noorda – they’ll be the first identical twins to graduate from the medical school – want to be as beloved by their patients as their primary care physician father, J. Cal Noorda, who goes off to work every day in Las Vegas announcing: “I’m off to stamp out disease and save lives.”
There’s so much I don’t want to forget.
In my mind’s eye, I still see dentist Michael Gubler, his wife Rachel, and their daughter Annalisa, thanking UNLV Health pediatric surgeon Michael Scheidler for saving Annalisa’s life as an infant. Though the Gublers moved to Arkansas after the procedure that corrected a problem with Annalisa’s intestines, they drove back to Las Vegas to thank him. Now a teenager, Annalisa hugged the doctor repeatedly, whispering “thank you, thank you” through tears.
And there was 80-year-old Cornelia “Connie” Jackson, a Sun City Summerlin resident who drove to the medical district to thank UNLV Health breast cancer surgeon Jennifer Baynosa for care that included helping her negotiate the workings of the health care system to find an oncologist and radiologist.
“If it hadn’t been for Dr. Baynosa’s help, I’m not sure what I would have done,” Jackson said. “She and her staff did everything they could to ensure that I got what I needed. It's not easy to navigate the health system by yourself … I really didn’t know who to see first.”
Fifty years in print and TV journalism and public affairs helped prepare me for promoting the MD-granting school that was a long time coming to Las Vegas. So did a learned passion for writing, courtesy of my eighth grade English teacher Vivian Grice. A graduate of a historically Black college, she’d make her students write one theme a week and then fill them with red marks and messages that included, “Mr. Harasim, you have a fine mind but it gets lost in your grammar.” When the first class entered the medical school in 2017 – it did so under the leadership of Barbara Atkinson, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Medicine and the only woman to ever become dean of three medical schools in the United States – I was ready to tell a story about a school that would change the direction of health care in Southern Nevada.
Like Dr. Blackwell, I had joined the Army and gone off to war (Vietnam was mine), in part, to get a sense of what I was made of. Covering the war for military publications enabled me to better understand the hows and whys of trauma care that went into the handling of the Oct. 1, 2017, tragedy in Las Vegas, where a gunman turned an area outside Mandalay Bay into a killing field. Sixty people died. Hundreds were wounded or injured.
Then the medical writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I learned that the wounded, smelling of gunpowder and blood, kept arriving at University Medical Center (UMC) with shattered limbs and tourniquets – and those who could talk pleaded with nurses and doctors to help others first, assuring caregivers that they could wait. Because I’ve either covered or worked in health care, I did not find that behavior at all strange.
I agree with Frans de Waal, author of Age of Empathy, who argues humans are “preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” He notes only psychopaths are emotionally immune to another’s situation.
Waal suggests that people would be far better off if they placed their trust in their biological nature instead of political institutions that so often pit people against one another.
“Biology constitutes our greatest hope,” he writes. “One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture, or religion.”
I’ll never forget why medical student Sherine Khanbijian, whose parents immigrated from the Middle East, agreed to having a feature done in Making the Rounds that would discuss her ill-fated arranged marriage, a union that could have side-tracked her dream of becoming a physician if she hadn’t ended it.
“I was initially reluctant to talk openly with the newsletter,” she said, “but ultimately I thought if at least one person becomes inspired by this story, then it’s worth it. I encourage all women to reach within and find their inner strength and capitalize on it; there is so much you can do, so many beautiful changes you can make. Nothing and no one should ever hold you back.”
Good memories of people connected to the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine – I have them.
I’ll never forget how Irwin Munoz, class of 2025, resisted gang pressure to pursue an education that would ultimately evolve into his acceptance at the medical school.
And I’ll always remember internal medicine resident physician Tammera Flores, whose professional driving of an 18-wheeler convinced her to help patients make healthy life changes.
“Many of the truck drivers I met over the road were middle-aged, obese males with multiple comorbidities; many of whom smoked, drank energy drinks, or used illicit substances to stay awake and suffered, as we all did, from the same lack of healthy foods. This experience continues to inspire me to educate my patients about chronic disease prevention. I want to help my patients take control of their health by making positive changes at home, so that they can avoid hospitalization.”
While I won’t be driving an 18-wheeler, I will hit the road this week to make some new memories. Maybe I’ll meet someone as interesting as Charles St. Hill, the medical school’s chair of surgery. His parents – dad was an OB-GYN – knew their three-year-old son would probably become a surgeon when he sutured, or rather sewed, the snout back on on his favorite teddy bear.