Meat spoilage: it turned out to be the subject matter that had a lot to do with Julpohng “JP” Vilai becoming a physician.
That unusual bit of biography was shared by the pediatrician as he reflected on how he became the physician he is today. An assistant professor with the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, he received the 2022 Department of Pediatrics Faculty Educator of the Year Award.
“When I was an undergraduate at UNLV, I took a microbiology course taught by a visiting professor, Dr. James Jay. He was a food microbiologist nearing the end of his career, yet his enthusiasm for what he taught was infectious. It was clear that he loved what he was doing. He was like a grandfatherly figure who wanted his grandchildren to enjoy microbiology as much as he did. He was just so full of life and stories about his own life in science, which he said was made more challenging early on because African Americans lacked career opportunities.
"I was lucky, he took me under his wing. I worked in his lab and we published a manuscript on meat spoilage…That work, coupled with lively discussions he led on topics that ranged from good and bad bacteria to how long you could have ground beef around without it being harmful…served as a catalyst for my interest in medicine. I wanted to use what is learned in science to help people. Dr. Jay was a great teacher – great teachers inspire.”
Vilai, a former Bishop Gorman High School valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biological sciences from UNLV, says he often thinks about Jay before he teaches medical students and pediatric residents. “I will never forget the enthusiasm he had for his subject, how animated and excited he was about what he was teaching. It’s something I always want to bring to my teaching.”
Born in Las Vegas at Women’s Hospital – it closed in 1994 – Vilai is the only child of immigrants from Thailand who came to Las Vegas in the 1970s. His father earned a degree in economics at UNLV, and when he couldn’t get a good-paying job at a bank, worked as a casino slot mechanic. His mother worked as a casino card dealer until her son was born, and then became a stay-at-home mom. The small family home on East Charleston Boulevard where Vilai grew up now houses Sin City DMV Services.
A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Vilai says he decided to specialize in pediatrics because of the vitality and optimism of children. “It’s something that we can all learn from. You want to help them continue to be that way. It’s so rewarding – most of the time, if they are sick, they bounce back so quickly.”
While Dr. Jay had a profound influence on the way Dr. Vilai teaches, a physician he worked with while completing his pediatric residency at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., has had the same kind of impact on his clinical practice.
“I will always cherish the opportunity I had to work with Dr. Stuart Kaufman, the medical director of transplantation hepatology at Georgetown. It was a liver and small bowel transplant center and the children there could be very sick.
"Dr. Kaufman was so intense about taking care of his patients that he’d forget to eat. We frequently would become concerned about him and go out and get him something to eat. When he said patients come first, he meant it. Families had his home number and all of his patients and families loved him. He always looked out for families who came from disadvantaged communities, people who often faced obstacles to receiving adequate healthcare. In one instance, I remember a family was unable to find a ride home from the hospital. Upon learning this, Dr. Kaufman pulled out his credit card and said let’s get them a cab ride home. He was a problem solver at the most basic level, but he was also selfless almost to a fault. To this day, I have modeled my clinical practice after his example, attempted to be available to patients whenever they need it and being dedicated to their care and well-being, not only medically, but also, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.”
Prior to joining the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine last year, Dr. Vilai, the married father of two young children, was in private practice in Billings, Montana, for more than six years. “I wanted to work with patients in an underserved community.”
Practicing in Montana, he said, was very different from doing so in an urban area. “Given the paucity of subspecialists and resources, we tended to be more comfortable with medications and treatments that would only be under the purview of a specialist here. Rather than sending a patient hundreds of miles away to Salt Lake City, Denver, or Seattle, or having them wait for a visiting specialist who would come once every month or two, we tried to work with families with the guidance of specialists to provide as much care as possible locally.”
Aware that LGBTQ+ children are at much higher risk of completed suicide and face significant hurdles with respect to healthcare, Vilai and his wife started a support group for LGBTQ+ individuals in Montana. The doctor also participated in telehealth care for Native Americans who are part of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.
With his parents aging, Vilai returned to his hometown of Las Vegas just over a year ago. Recently, Dr. Evelyn Montalvo Stanton, the chair of pediatrics, named him an assistant director of the UNLV Health Pediatric Clinic.
His listed clinical interests include children with chronic healthcare needs, underserved populations, behavioral and mental health, transplantation medicine, telehealth, LGBTQ+ children, and adolescent medicine.
“I like to be busy,” he explained.