The year didn’t start out as the darkest time in American public health history. 2020 began with millions of Americans, courtesy of TV and the internet, witnessing 330,000 people from across the world joyfully ushering in the New Year on the Las Vegas Strip. The entertainment business in Las Vegas, the backbone of the Southern Nevada economy, was so hot that Cirque du Soleil’s aquatic landmark “O” was shifted to a seven-night schedule. At the UNLV School of Medicine, which opened its doors in 2017, the beginning of the new year signaled the home stretch push toward graduation for the school’s inaugural class.
During the past year, the school has turned the spotlight on its students, faculty, donors, and volunteers — men and women who have not allowed a pandemic to stop them from transforming health care in Southern Nevada. Some highlights:
January: The volunteer work of the medical school’s 400-member community faculty, which supplements the 150 full-time faculty, was chronicled. These physicians provide guidance to residents in the clinical setting, supervise medical student rotations, teach, and perform important scientific research. Three community faculty members who were featured — Dr. Carrie Bedient, a fertility specialist, Dr. Kathleen Benson, an interventional cardiologist, and Dr. Mark Christopher Dugan, a pediatric critical care specialist — all said they volunteer to make a difference in the lives of young doctors and the community they will serve one day. Said Dr. Mark Guadagnoli, the medical school’s associate dean for faculty affairs, “The diversity of experiences that community faculty bring cannot be overstated. Having so many full-time medical professionals on staff just wouldn’t be financially possible. It would bankrupt a school.”
February: To mark Black History Month, Black medical students, residents, and faculty physicians gathered on campus. Veteran physicians spoke about challenges they faced in their careers, providing encouragement and guidance to their future colleagues. “Black History Month gives us a chance to reflect on what our ancestors accomplished; it’s important to honor them,” said Lauren Hollifield, a member of the medical school’s inaugural class. Students Jabre Millon and Sami Mesgun collaborated on an essay that read in part: “Celebrating Black History Month reminds us all that Black history is American history.”
March: As the COVID-19 virus spread across the country, Dr. Michael Gardner, CEO of UNLV Medicine, and his team began what would be Nevada’s longest-running test site for the virus. Students, residents, medical assistants, physicians, and staff calmed worried callers while making appointments. Third-year student Caleena Longworth, also an officer in the Nevada Air National Guard, directed the guard’s presence at the test site, which tested more than 19,000 people. An Associated Press photographer captured Dr. Elissa Palmer, head of family medicine, climbing a ladder to get a specimen from a trucker in his cab high off the ground.
The spirit of those on Gardner’s team was embodied in the dedication of UNLV Medicine medical assistant Tiffany Robledo. She found out on a Friday she was going to be collecting specimens for the curbside testing program the following Monday. Excited, the 21-year-old, who is studying to become a nurse, set out to find an apartment. Weeks later she would offhandedly say: “I had to move out of my parents’ house as soon as I found out I was testing potential COVID-19 patients. (My parents) are elderly with underlying health conditions, and I have a special-needs sister living there. No matter how small the chance, I couldn’t risk bringing the virus home. It did make a huge dent in my bank account, and having to say goodbye to my family was hard. The whole family was crying, but I know this is what I signed up for going into the medical field and this something I plan on doing for the rest of my life, and that’s simply caring for others and saving lives.”
April: Dr. Marc Kahn, a former associate dean at the Tulane University School of Medicine, took over as dean of the UNLV School of Medicine. Just a few weeks after arriving, he began working with Vitalant, the blood collection nonprofit, and University Medical Center, to ensure that COVID-19 patients could have access to convalescent plasma treatment in Las Vegas. The treatment takes antibodies from a recovered coronavirus patient’s blood plasma and gives it to another patient who is struggling to ward off the virus. “If someone has a viral infection and gets better, they make neutralizing antibodies to the virus which are part of the immune system that help us fight infection,” Kahn explained.
May: Dr. Angelica Honsberg, the division chief for the UNLV Pulmonary Critical Care Division who directs clinical care for patients with COVID-19 in the UMC intensive care unit, revealed that experiences of UMC ICU COVID-19 patients would be part of Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School studies designed to find the best treatments for the virus. The UNLV ICU physician team consists of 10 practitioners — attending physicians along with doctors in specialty training as fellows and residents. Attending physician Dr. Rajany Dy said COVID-19 is a coronavirus so novel the only thing purely predictable about it is its utter unpredictability: “It’s very disheartening to see someone die who seemed to be doing well at first.”
June: The family of Patrick Thomas Rose announced that an endowed scholarship in Rose’s name would be given to the UNLV School of Medicine. Rose, who died at age 51, was 20 when a series of massive explosions at Henderson’s Pacific Engineering & Production Company (PEPCON) severely injured him. As a result of his injuries, Patrick received a settlement from PEPCON and part of it went toward the endowed scholarship. “He wanted to help bring better healthcare to Las Vegas,” said his brother, Michael Rose.
July: As a new class of medical students, the class of 2024, arrived on campus, the chair of pediatrics, Dr. Evelyn Montalvo Stanton, began a UNLV Medicine newsletter dealing with everything from infectious diseases to pulmonology. It is sent to pediatricians and family physicians throughout the Las Vegas Valley. The first edition, with observations by School of Medicine pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. David Di John, dealt with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, which is associated with COVID-19. Stanton hopes the newsletter will serve as a catalyst for more dialogue between physicians in Southern Nevada.
August: Two new members of the basic science faculty, Dr. Kanee Lynn Lerwill and Dr. Thomas Vida, joined the medical school. Basic sciences, including anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology, and pharmacology — are a core component of medical curricula, addressing the biological infrastructure of the human body, illness, and related treatments. To appropriately integrate basic science content with clinical application is always a challenge, a reason why accomplished faculty is so important.
September: Third-year medical student Justin Bauzon was the lead author of a research article published in the highly-respected, peer-reviewed Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy journal. His team’s study examined how researchers are now investigating whether drugs used for one purpose can also be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. “This is an important contribution to understanding Alzheimer’s drug development,” said Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, former medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and current director of the Chambers-Grundy Center for Transformative Neuroscience in the UNLV department of brain health.
October: Groundbreaking began on the medical school’s first permanent building. The five-story Medical Education Building, scheduled for completion in 2022, will be the centerpiece of the Las Vegas Medical District. Philanthropic funding totaling more than $150 million made it possible. The funding, announced by Gov. Steve Sisolak in November 2019, largely comes from the Engelstad and Lincy foundations with additional gifts from unnamed donors. The donors formed a donor development limited liability corporation called the Nevada Health and Biomedicine Corporation (NHBC) to manage how funds are spent. During her remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony, NHBC CEO Maureen Schafer saluted the NHBC board of directors: Andy Artusa, MaryKaye Cashman, Marianne Boyd Johnson, Kris McGarry Engelstad, Nick Santoro and Lindy Schumacher. “Without them, this project would not have been possible,” she said. Observed Dean Kahn, “The donors at NHBC have shown us the very real needs of the community can be addressed, even when naysayers...put up roadblocks.”
November: At the medical school are men and women, faculty, students, and staff who have sacrificed for the common good with their military service. On Veterans Day on Nov. 11, a story was published about medical student Johnathan Scott, who served as a combat infantryman in Afghanistan. A skilled soldier, Scott said he also benefited from luck, divine intervention — or both. He once stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device ) that, fortunately, didn’t go off. During this month, another veteran, Dr. Michael Gardner, the UNLV Medicine CEO and vice dean of clinical affairs who served as a military doctor, secured a freezer that can store a large quantity of vaccine at extremely low temperatures to help with the local COVID-19 vaccination process.
December: Dr. Deborah Kuhls, assistant dean of research who recently became president of the Clark County Medical Society, announced that Dr. Kavita Batra, the school’s biostatistician, co-authored an article, “Investigating the Psychological Impact of COVID-19 Among Health Care Workers,” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The article is based on comprehensive meta-analysis involving about 80,000 participants. Biostatisticians play a key role in scientific inquiry, helping physician-researchers design studies and make sense of all the data they collect.