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Together, Storming the Same Mountain

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VCU Health IT Professional Donates Kidney to Colleague; Their Story Reveals All Four of Our Values—Service, Trust, Attitude & Respect—as Well as the Innovation of Our Mission

“It’s a small world.” It’s what you say in wonder when you encounter people, events or situations in unexpected places. And when unexpected kindnesses and acts of selflessness keep popping up in that small world, it can start to feel a whole lot like family—much like VCU Health.

VCU Health Associate CIO Reuben Southall and IT Managing Director Harold E. Harris, Jr., have worked together for many years. Both are accomplished, 30-year veterans of the IT profession. They often come to one another for a brainstorming session or as a sounding board for ideas. They hold similar spiritual convictions, share self-improvement habits and are avid readers on leadership. They’re both charismatic and engaging, both sharp dressers, and they share a quirky affinity for bow ties. The two have much in common.

Including a kidney.  

Maybe you weren’t expecting that. Neither were they until a few weeks before Southall’s kidney transplant. Dr. Chandra Bhati, one of their VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center surgeons, wasn’t expecting it either. In fact, he didn’t know Reuben or Harold at all before meeting them as patients. But interestingly, he would discover an important connection with them regardless.  

A dark time for a bright leader

Last year, Reuben learned that a health condition necessitated a kidney transplant. After 30 years supporting the mission of VCU Health, the dedicated IT leader of the system would now be a patient of the system.

Because wait times for a deceased donor kidney can vary, Dr. Bhati explained that a live donor was ideal. The search for a live donor began, and while Reuben waited, he started dialysis three times a week. He soon dreaded it. Willing donors began to come forward, including his daughter and a colleague, each a reason for hope—but each inevitably proved to not be a match. Those months were “a very dark period,” said Reuben. Physically, psychologically and emotionally.

Then one morning Reuben got a text: “This is just a season. Keep your mind on the end goal.” Then the next morning: “Reuben, it’s going to happen when it’s supposed to happen.” More inspirational messages, then sermons and Bible scripture, appeared: all from his colleague and friend Harold. It was so comforting that Reuben began to share his worries with Harold. “He took it all in, and started feeding me good stuff back,” explained Reuben, “Throughout the process, he was invested in helping me cope with some of the disappointments. He was a motivator and an encourager.”

An “emotional and spiritual donor” steps up

Harold is a physically fit man. He’s also articulate and a dynamic speaker. He conveys a sense of quiet confidence and strength. But while Reuben struggled with failing organs and having hope dashed again and again, something was going on inside of Harold too.

As Harold explained it, “I'm a Christian, so the Holy Spirit sat on me for four days, and it wasn't a heavy, burdensome weightiness. It was more of a, ‘Hey, dude. I'm trying to get your attention.’” Harold heeded that calling and discussed the idea of donating his kidney to Reuben with his wife, who fully supported him. So Harold started the tests, instructing the transplant coordinator that under no circumstances could anyone tell Reuben until and unless it was absolutely certain he was a match.

About a month later, Reuben learned that Harold, now a confirmed match, was giving him a kidney. He was overwhelmed. Throughout his ordeal, colleagues had never ceased asking how they could help. They’d given him rides home and prayed for him. Throughout his career, Reuben had used a phrase to describe VCU Health’s culture in which everyone does his or her part, from custodians to surgeons: “we’re all storming the same mountain.” He was now seeing just how deep that sense of camaraderie and commitment to others could go.

“The support was phenomenal,” said Reuben. “It almost felt like family.”

“Brothers and sisters” with a shared vision

Family is a common theme when speaking to Reuben, Dr. Bhati and Harold about VCU Health. Dr. Bhati, who is from India, completed a fellowship in Birmingham, U.K., moved to Chicago for a general surgery residency and transplant fellowship and then relocated to Richmond five years ago to join VCU Health. “Now I feel like this is my home,” he said. “VCU almost feels like a family. Everybody I know, we talk to each other like brothers and sisters. If you need help, you just call.”  

When asked if he had any fear about electing to have a major surgery, Harold was emphatic: “There was not an ounce of trepidation. I was not worried about ‘what if?’ I was not remotely concerned because these folks are absolutely special.” As Harold explained, his trust in VCU Health extends to his childhood growing up in the Churchill neighborhood of Richmond, a favorite aunt that had retired from the main hospital and the fact that as a patient a few years prior VCU Health had “literally saved my life.”

Harold says of all the staff: “They are exceptional every single day. They make it look easy every single day. You have folks here that give their all every single day. It’s not good. It’s not mediocre. It’s not average. It is absolutely exceptional.”

“Without connection, things don’t work”

The transplant was a success. Dr. Bhati is the first and only physician on the eastern U.S. seaboard to perform a complete robotically assisted kidney transplantation, and he performed Harold’s procedure with this same technology. During these surgeries, Dr. Bhati sits at a computer console with controls and a high-definition, magnified, 3-D image of the surgical site. When he moves his hands, the mechanical arms of the robot mimic his movements exactly. The system enhances precision, flexibility and control for the surgeon, and as a result there’s less invasiveness, less pain and faster recovery for patients. 

Since robotically assisted surgeries rely upon information technology, Reuben and Harold themselves can even take some of the credit for the transplant’s success. As Dr. Bhati was explaining the robotics to them, he said: “Look what information technology is doing for us. Look what you are doing for us.” Whether it’s as simple as computer-accessed patient charts or complex as robotic surgery, physicians and other healthcare practitioners “would not be able to do what we’re doing today” without IT. And what’s true of the technology is also true of the hospital’s various teams, according to Dr. Bhati: “Without connection, things don’t work.”  

VCU Health is certainly a place of uncommon connections and incredible, life-changing stories. Some might call it luck, serendipity or providence. Others chalk it up to what happens when great people with a great interest in others come together to do great work in pursuit of a great mission.

We like that one. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the 12,000-member family we know as VCU Health, all bound by a single mission: We preserve and restore health for all people of Virginia and beyond through innovation in service, research, and education. As a team, Harold, Reuben and Dr. Bhati clearly exemplify the innovation inherent in our Mission as well as all four of our institutional Values: Service, Trust, Attitude and Respect