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Serving those who serve: Training and supporting veterans, active-duty service members and their families

VCU School of Medicine faculty, staff and students and VCU Health team members are making a difference through military-based partnerships.

Clothes hanging on rack -- one is military-style jacket, the other a lab coat with stethoscope

By Laura Ingles
VCU School of Medicine

May is National Military Appreciation Month. As designated by Congress in 1999, the 31 days contain holidays such as VE Day, which marked the end of World War II in Europe; Military Spouse Appreciation Day; Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day, honoring those who died while serving in the U.S. military.

This month and all year round, VCU School of Medicine and VCU Health support veterans and active-duty service members. From our academic medical center in Richmond to areas overseas, we are dedicated to enhancing patient care and clinical training. Our research benefits those who’ve served and those who continue to serve in the armed forces.

Education: From student to service member

For Wendy Clay, M.D., who graduated from VCU School of Medicine this month, the inclination to take care of others is a family trait. As a teenager she watched her mother care for her declining grandmother. This experience sparked a desire to provide both medical care and emotional support to those in need.

“The process of caring for her and hearing about her experiences with physicians really prompted me to be the kind of person who would not only provide excellent care for people like my grandmother but also encourage people like her to feel comfortable in that process,” Clay said. 

When Clay learned about the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which covers the cost of tuition, fees and a monthly living stipend for medical students who commit to serving in the military after residency, she contacted a recruiter to begin the application process.

“I had this concern that I wouldn’t be in control of which specialty I wanted, and it would be based on what the branch needed. But if you are considering the Health Professions Scholarship Program, I would encourage you to look at each branch and what residencies they offer,” Clay said. “As long as it’s offered, there are no limitations on you, and you’ll get to where you want to be.”

Clay is among several health professional students affiliated with the military, including School of Nursing graduate Henneh Adjei and brothers Chris and Alex Pais from the School of Medicine, who have each served overseas and will continue to serve patients as health care providers.

Following her graduation this month from the VCU School of Medicine, Clay is preparing for a psychiatry residency at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Her plan is to continue her training with a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry, followed by at least four years of service in the Air Force. 

“It really appeals to me, being able to care for the children of service members and provide that support, especially during times of deployment and the changes that occur among families in moving from base to base,” Clay said. “Another aspect of becoming a physician in the military is that no matter which branch you choose, you will have some changes, and life is definitely not going to get monotonous.”

Research: Improving veterans’ lives

Joe Montanari has experienced balance issues, sleep troubles and severe migraines since sustaining two mild brain injuries during active duty in the Army and National Guard. Montanari is one of thousands of veterans participating in a study led by David Cifu, M.D., chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at VCU Health. 

Funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, the Long-term Impact of Military Relevant Brain Injury Consortium, or LIMBIC, is investigating the ongoing impacts of combat concussions. Researchers from this national consortium of universities, hospitals and clinics have already discovered links between traumatic brain injuries and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, opioid use and suicide. 

In recognition of his pioneering research, Cifu was recognized this month as this year’s recipient of the Paul B. Magnuson Award, the highest honor from the Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development Service.  

Montanari, who is also a research assistant in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said working alongside Cifu and other researchers has helped keep him grounded and connected with fellow veterans. Montanari’s main objective is to retain as many participants in the study as possible so the consortium can continue collecting data that will improve prevention and treatment of traumatic brain injuries and related conditions.

"I’ve already been through it, so I want to do anything I can that could help other people that are still in service receive better treatments and precautionary measures,” Montanari said.  

Patient care: Training for the trenches

Known for its fast-paced, unpredictable environment and patients in need of immediate treatment, the emergency department at VCU Medical Center is a fitting place for Navy SEALs and medics to train.

For the past two years, the Department of Emergency Medicine, in collaboration with other departments, has hosted sailors from Naval Station Norfolk for intensive medical training prior to deployment. According to Michael Vitto, D.O., an associate professor in the department who helps oversee the program, trainees arrive at VCU with basic medical knowledge, and for two weeks work alongside VCU providers to gain experience in resuscitation, critical care, trauma, burn care, anesthesia and surgical procedures. Emergency physicians and nurses include the trainees on clinical teams, and department faculty guide them through simulation, procedural training and education in subspecialized areas such as clinical ultrasound.

“The goal is to strengthen their skills with additional experiences that they may encounter while on a mission,” Vitto said. “They are able to participate in the care of critically ill patients prior to being deployed, and once deployed they will manage similar patients on their own.”

While he is proud to have a role in a program that supports service members, Vitto said the opportunity is mutually beneficial.

“Our team learns from them. We learn about the environment they work in, and how they treat a patient in a resource-limited setting,” he said. “The focus is on teamwork, situational awareness, communication and leadership. These skills apply to any medical team, whether you’re at VCU or on a Navy SEAL mission.” 

For more information on how we support those who’ve served

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