VCU Health annual report 2020-21



As we reflect on the past year, we are in awe of the strength of the people who have carried us through it all. Throughout this pandemic, the entire VCU Health System team has proven their unwavering commitment to those we serve, even when faced with the most serious of obstacles. Their compassion and perseverance have made them — and our health system — truly unstoppable.

Donning masks and full PPE, our clinical teams excelled in patient care. The ingenuity and flexibility of our faculty and students helped us educate even more future health care leaders. Research continued non-stop, and we kept on track to make world-class health care more accessible to our region’s children and adults.

The enclosed stories offer just a brief glimpse of the many heroic feats of our team this year. As you are reading these stories, we are still facing the challenges of the pandemic — and the people of VCU remain unstoppable.

From both of us, a world of thanks to our teams, and to you, our supporter.

Michael Rao, Ph.D.
President, VCU and VCU Health System

Arthur Kellermann, M.D., M.P.H.
Senior Vice President, VCU Health Sciences, and CEO, VCU Health System

Patient care

It was the year when 13,295 people pushed themselves to the limit.

Their feet hurt. They missed their family. They felt exhausted. But they powered through it all to fight COVID-19 and every other challenge of this incomprehensible year. Throughout the pandemic, each person who works for our health system performed on a heroic level. It took strength. It took fearlessness. And on some nights, it took a lot of coffee.

VCU Health performs rare liver transplant for the first time

VCU Health became one of the first in the country to perform a blood type incompatible liver transplant — part of an ongoing effort to increase patient access to lifesaving organs amid a national shortage. The team at VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center performed the transplant using a living donor. In this case, a son, Brenton Luper, offered a portion of his liver to his mother, Karen Luper, to make the transplant possible.

The transplant team included Dr. David Bruno, surgical director of adult and pediatric liver transplantation, VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center; Dr. Seung Duk Lee, transplant surgeon; Dr. Kimberly Sanford, medical director of transfusion medicine; Idris Yakubu, Pharm.D., transplant pharmacist; Erin Schulz, living-donor transplant coordinator; and Dr. Vinay Kumaran, surgical director of living donor liver transplantation, whose resume includes more than 700 living liver donor cases.

To Brenton Luper, the procedure has meant a world of change for his mother, and his entire family. “It hit me, what this is going to mean for our lives, our family’s lives, our friends’ lives,” Brenton said. “This will have an impact much longer than any of us anticipated.”

VCU takes on sickle cell disease through support and research

In 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended classifying sickle cell disease — a painful blood condition mostly affecting Black people — as a health disparity. In Richmond, Virginia, sickle cell patients have found a medical home at VCU Health and something else: hope.

VCU Health’s Adult Sickle Cell Medical Home goes beyond pain management to offer a multitude of services, including housing. Whether patients need help scheduling appointments, filling out forms or understanding their doctor’s instructions, or if they need to talk through everyday life challenges such as food, employment and relationships, patient navigators help in every way. For younger patients, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU developed a sickle cell transition program to bring teens much-needed education and support. Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU treats approximately 320 children and teens with sickle cell disease.

Researchers are also close to finding better treatments for the disease, thanks to the dedication of Martin K. Safo, Ph.D., a professor at VCU School of Pharmacy, and his team. A pioneer in sickle cell research, Safo has dedicated his career to halting the formation of these abnormal cells. Clinical trials for a new sickle cell medication based on his research could begin as early as next year.

Mother of two wins 3-month battle with COVID-19

Body weakness and a persistent cough sent Corrine Townsend to her local urgent care. She thought she’d be out in an hour or so. What Corrine didn’t know was that that visit would be the beginning of a months-long battle with COVID-19.

Sent to the hospital, Corrine quickly learned how sick she was. Her outlook was uncertain. She was transferred to VCU Medical Center, and quickly discovered that when you’re in the hospital for COVID-19, you’re not only fighting for your life; you’re doing so with the care teams at VCU Health standing in for your friends and family. To minimize the spread of COVID-19, health systems across the country had suspended or limited routine visits from loved ones.

The care teams at VCU Health went above and beyond to meet her emotional needs, she said. “Not only did they keep me physically safe but mentally, they kept me encouraged and motivated me to not give up. They took the time to remind me that I’m still a person, I’m still a human. That it’s okay to have a bad day, but you’re going to do this. And we’re going to do this together.”


Our students learned about medicine, perseverance and turning on a dime.

Health sciences students were on the front lines in clinical care. Our School of Pharmacy was the driving force behind a highly successful community vaccination campaign. And while dental schools across the country closed their doors, ours mounted a herculean response to COVID-19 safety and health disparities. This was the year of learning by doing more than ever.

Student starts The Simple Sunflower to deliver repurposed wedding flowers to patients

VCU medical student Eleanor Love found a way to make wedding bouquets special twice — not just for the couple’s family and friends on the wedding day, but for patients in hospital beds at VCU Medical Center. Love leads The Simple Sunflower, a service she founded that delivers flowers regifted from weddings and other events to VCU Medical Center patients, with the help of VCU Health Volunteer Services. While some other cities have similar operations, The Simple Sunflower is Richmond’s first.

Since its founding, the service has gained considerable recognition from local, regional and national media, including The Washington Post, National Public Radio (NPR), NBC News and People magazine.

Love, who graduated in May 2021, recently matched into a diagnostic radiology residency at Oregon Health and Science University — her top choice — based in Portland. It’s the same city, coincidentally, where one of the organizations that first inspired The Simple Sunflower is based. In her role as a radiologist, she is ready to continue the same type of “behind-the-scenes” work she’s done with The Simple Sunflower. As she heads to Portland, a new leadership team of medical students and their faculty adviser, Robin Foster, M.D., will continue to carry on the project — and the joy it brings — in future years.

Medical students graduate in three years through new program

Five students graduated in 2020 as part of the inaugural cohort of VCU School of Medicine’s competency-based graduation pilot program. The program’s students undergo a rigorous assessment of their competency and, in turn, graduate in three years instead of the traditional four. They’re also guaranteed acceptance into a residency program at VCU Health.

Fewer than 15% of medical schools in the country offer competency-based graduation programs. “Like our peers across the country, we are continuously looking for innovative ways to reduce student debt and address the national physician shortage,” said Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “The competency-based graduation pilot program is a novel way to meet those needs for our students who already know what type of physician they want to become.”

Through the program, students accelerate their clinical training by replacing third-year electives with acting internships and receive increased mentorship from preceptors and program directors in their chosen specialty, as well as more formal assessments throughout the year. Participating specialties in the pilot program include internal medicine, pediatrics, family medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry; however, additional specialties may be considered based on student and residency program interest.

Scholarship brings VCU Nursing student one step closer to opening his own practice

Nicholas Santalucia is following his dream to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with support from a new grant aimed at providing scholarships for nursing students enrolled in the master’s program. The School of Nursing recently received a $700,000 grant from the Helene Fuld Health Trust, the nation’s largest charitable trust devoted exclusively to supporting student nurses and nursing education. The fund will provide an average scholarship award of $4,000 to approximately 15 master’s students per year.

Santalucia, who works as a registered nurse in adult psychiatry at VCU Health, has found his purpose in mental health. “I am drawn to the field of psychiatry due to the population being not only misunderstood but also heavily underserved,” he said.

While he currently cares for patients as a nurse, he said he looks forward to providing care more independently as a nurse practitioner, adding to the number of providers prepared to serve an underserved population. Santalucia said the scholarship will allow him to pursue his education without the need to increase his already substantial educational debt. “Without this additional debt, long term it will help me reach my overall goal of opening my own practice at an earlier date,” he said.

Health equity

As monuments fell, we worked to topple barriers.

Throughout the year, diversity, equity and inclusion were more than talking points here. They were points of action. As COVID-19 shed new light on health care disparities, we worked to help those most impacted. We established “vaccine hubs” and the VCU Vaccine Corps to bring immunization to all. We served the underserved, and proved we will always be their advocate in health.

New educational series connects the past with visions for a more equitable future

Learning, reflecting and involving the community are vital to determining how VCU and VCU Health take action toward achieving health equity. With that in mind, in March of 2021, VCU and VCU Health introduced the History and Health program. VCU and VCU Health teammates and community members who participate in the program can explore how the university’s complex history affects the health system’s patients today.

The inaugural series, History and Health: Racial Equity, is open to all faculty, staff, students and VCU Health team members, as well as members of the community. The series includes education about historical practices and current health disparities — and it also offers opportunities to consider how to enhance the care provided to the diverse communities served by the health system. VCU and VCU Health employees and students who participate in a majority of the program events and online modules can earn a digital badge. The series’ first monthly virtual event began March 24, 2021, and a new series was launched in fall 2021 as well.

“We are embarking on a journey to learn and to reflect,” said Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact at VCU Health and one of the leaders who established the new series. “It will be important to incorporate what we learn along the way into how we shape our organization for the future as we continuously define our culture, our values and the type of organization that we want to be.”

Dr. Carlos Smith serves as guest editor for journal on DEI in dentistry

In a historic feat, the American College of Dentists (ACD) became the first dental organization to dedicate two full issues of its journal to diversity, equity and inclusion, and VCU’s Carlos Smith, D.D.S., M.Div., FACD, played a major role. An associate professor, and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion and the ethics curriculum at the VCU School of Dentistry, Smith served as guest editor for both issues, which were released in summer and autumn 2021. Smith says he “was humbled and honored in being asked to serve on the editorial board earlier this year, much less tasked with serving as guest editor for such a timely issue.”

He acknowledges many ACD fellows such as Drs. Mayer Levy, William Bennett and our very own recently retired Fred Certosimo for nominating him as a fellow several years ago. Said Smith, “My goal as guest editor was to take readers and fellows on a journey that framed diversity, equity and inclusion from an ethical and professionalism lens — a moral lens — and not simply because of political mindedness, increased productivity and revenues, or fear of public outcry.” Smith also serves on the oral health equity core of VCU iCubed, the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation.

VCU researcher is one of two nationwide to receive funding for DEI review of medical education curricula

VCU School of Medicine’s Dina Garcia, Ph.D., is one of two researchers nationwide to receive funding from the Society of Directors of Research in Medical Education for a review of anti-racist curricula in undergraduate and graduate medical education.

Garcia, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy, will conduct the review with a team of researchers from the Office of Assessment, Evaluation and Scholarship, the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health and VCU Libraries. The aim, Garcia said, is to identify gaps and opportunities for growth along the medical education continuum and use the key findings to inform future diversity, equity and inclusion practices across medical schools.

Said Garcia, “These scoping reviews are a way to galvanize efforts to ensure that curriculum is reflective of not just the needs of the field in general, but also for students who are undergoing training to see themselves reflected in curricula.”

Jill Biden visits VCU Massey Cancer Center with aim to fight cancer disparities

In February 2021, Jill Biden, Ed.D., the first lady of the United States, met with scientists, doctors and community leaders at VCU Massey Cancer Center to learn how they are working together to address cancer disparities.

Biden, who was accompanied by Norman Sharpless, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute, visited the labs of several researchers in the Goodwin Research Laboratory, including the lab of Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center and a pulmonologist and cancer disparities researcher who has dedicated his career to addressing inequities in the health care system.

Biden praised not only the scientists’ research but also the center’s efforts to build trust and collaborate with the community to reduce inequities. “The researchers and medical professionals here at Massey are pushing the science of medicine every day,” Biden said. “But I’m just as grateful for the work [Massey does] for the art of medicine as well. Building trust and relationships. Empowering communities to bring their own talents to this fight.”


We could have just focused on the here and now. But tomorrow’s not going to wait.

Yes, COVID-19 is here. But so are cancer, heart disease and every other health condition. So throughout 2020 and 2021, we continued our research efforts across the health care landscape, with 625 active clinical studies. Cancers, substance use, sickle cell, pregnancy intervention, dental disease, disparities — our quest for answers was unstoppable.

VCU researchers’ new solution could help patients in shock

Department of Surgery Professor Martin Mangino, Ph.D., and his colleagues were searching for a better way to preserve organs for transplants. They created a synthetic solution to help that happen — but the team also recognized its potential for other lifesaving uses.

The new solution, called polyethylene glycol-20k IV solution or “PEG-20k,” could be used to help stabilize people in shock who are suffering from dangerously low circulation, whether from loss of blood, illness or another injury. The U.S. military, seeking ways to improve outcomes for soldiers facing battlefield trauma, quickly became interested in the solution’s possible applications in the field.

“This solution buys you tremendous amounts of time,” Mangino said. “Instead of hours, it now buys you maybe close to a day to get somebody off that mountaintop where they’ve been injured and to get them to definitive care where they can undergo surgery and other resuscitation.”

Clinical trial examines outcomes of patients with COVID-19 and cancer

A nationwide clinical trial funded by the National Cancer Institute and now open at VCU Massey Cancer Center will examine the short- and long-term outcomes of patients with COVID-19 and cancer to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts of infection. The COVID-19 in Cancer Patients Study will include a national registry of blood samples and radiologic images from adult cancer patients infected with the novel coronavirus to analyze disease pathology.

Massey is one of four cancer centers in Virginia participating in the trial and one of more than 700 study sites in the nation. The goal is to enroll 2,000 patients nationwide in the trial.

For a number of reasons, cancer patients on active treatment may be at greater risk of more severe infection with COVID-19 and poorer outcomes. Recent findings indicate that cancer patients are nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 infection as the general population. However, existing data on how COVID-19 infection impacts cancer patients is severely limited.

Said Andrew Poklepovic, M.D., study site principal investigator and medical director of Massey’s Clinical Trials Office, “The findings from this study will guide the clinical treatment of cancer patients affected by COVID-19 through the course of the pandemic.”

Researcher awarded $5.4M grant to study how chemotherapy can weaken the heart

A research program led by a scientist at VCU Health Pauley Heart Center will expand its efforts toward improving the heart health of cancer survivors, thanks to a newly awarded multimillion dollar grant. The grant is intended to promote innovation and enable researchers to mentor more budding scientists in their fields.

Fadi Salloum, Ph.D., the Natalie N. and John R. Congdon Sr. Endowed Chair at VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, has received an R35 Emerging Investigator Award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The seven-year, $5.4 million award will fund Salloum’s research program: “Managing Cardiac Toxicities of Cancer Therapy.” The goal of the research is to better understand the basis of cardiotoxicity — damage to the heart caused by chemotherapy drugs — and inform the discovery of new methods for the prevention of chemotherapy-induced heart failure.

“The overall focus in our lab is on heart failure, which may be attributed to several causes, including myocardial infarction, or heart attack; FDA-approved chemotherapeutic drugs with known cardiotoxic effects; and genetic diseases, such as muscular dystrophy, that cause severe heart failure,” said Salloum. The flexibility offered by the grant will allow Salloum, also a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, to pursue all these areas of research under a single funding mechanism, providing more time for mentoring lab trainees.


The pandemic continued. Our growth never stopped.

Through labor challenges, supply chain issues and COVID-19 shutdowns, we forged on to build the future of health care. So our area’s children will have world-class resources. Patients of all ages will be able to access services more easily. More communities will have more options. And when tomorrow comes, we’ll all be ready for it.

Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU celebrates topping out of its new tower

On May 19, 2021, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU held a virtual “topping out” ceremony for its new 16-story children’s tower, celebrating the placement of the structure’s final steel beam. The 500,000-square-foot facility stands approximately 260-feet tall — or the height of 13 giraffes. Connected to CHoR’s outpatient Children’s Pavilion, the tower completes an entire city block dedicated to caring for kids.

While the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how the hospital celebrated this construction milestone, it hasn’t delayed progress toward the spring 2023 opening. The $400 million tower will expand access to pediatric care and consolidate emergency and inpatient care into one building designed to meet the unique needs of children. The tower will house all private rooms, an emergency room, a Level 1 pediatric trauma center and a helipad, additional operating rooms, increased imaging capacity, playrooms and family amenities, and convenient parking. A bridge will connect the tower to VCU Medical Center.

In addition to consolidating pediatric inpatient and emergency care into one facility, the new tower will also house specialized inpatient programs like bone marrow transplant and epilepsy monitoring, which are currently co-located with adult services at VCU Medical Center.

Construction continued on VCU Health’s Adult Outpatient Pavilion

VCU Health’s new Adult Outpatient Pavilion opened December 2021, thanks to efforts that continued throughout 2020 and 2021. The new 17-story building is located at the corner of North 10th and East Leigh streets, on the MCV Campus in downtown Richmond. This 615,000-square foot facility consolidates under one roof 26 specialties previously housed across the MCV Campus.

VCU Massey Cancer Center occupies six floors of the new pavilion. The Center’s technology includes a new MRI-guided linear accelerator (MRI-LINAC), the only one between Pennsylvania and Florida.

In addition to clinical care, the new Adult Outpatient Pavilion offers wellness activities such as yoga and support groups. Two pharmacies, a laboratory and café are on-site, as well as designated spaces for quiet time between appointments.

“The Adult Outpatient Pavilion is a pivotal chapter in our mission to make world class health care accessible for all,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D, president of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and VCU Health System. “It is our most ambitious and visionary building project yet. Most importantly, it’s a promise to be the answer to people who have run out of answers, and a space with superior patient experience that fosters learning, collaboration and healing.”

The pavilion will serve about 200,000 patients annually, with the ability to expand services over time.

VCU Health System and BAYADA collaborate on new home health and hospice care service

In June 2021, VCU Health System and BAYADA Home Health Care, the largest not-for-profit home health care provider in the U.S., announced a new collaboration by forming a company for in-home health and hospice care in the Richmond metropolitan area. The new company, called VCU Health at Home by BAYADA, is expected to start accepting patients by the end of 2021.

Through the new company, patients living in Richmond and surrounding counties will have a wide array of high quality in-home services available to them, including those to help them recover from an illness, injury or recent hospitalization, as well as end-of-life care. They will continue to have access to their providers once they transition to the comfort of their home. The launch of VCU Health at Home by BAYADA marks BAYADA’s expansion into the Richmond market for home health and hospice services. The company serves communities in 22 states from 347 locations across the country.

Over the past several years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for home health care solutions has increased. A 2020 William Blair survey found that 81% of physicians with discharge planning responsibility preferred to send their patients to a home health agency rather than other post-acute care alternatives. Prior to the pandemic, 54% of physicians preferred home health care.

Riverside Tappahannock Hospital officially becomes VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital

VCU Health System acquired the hospital and its related services, including diagnostics, physical therapy, Tappahannock Urgent Care and the Riverside Medical Group practices located in the Northern Neck. Residents of the community also now have access to VCU Health’s services, including clinical trials and medical specialists.

In closing

Welcome to Dr. Arthur Kellermann, VCU Health’s new CEO, SVP

On Oct. 1, 2020, we were just seven months into the pandemic. The country was bracing for a surge in cases as the holidays approached. It was a mission critical point in time. And it was Dr. Art Kellermann’s first day as our health system’s new CEO and senior vice president for health sciences.

Reflecting on those first few days, Kellermann recalls, “I knew the worst was yet to come. We were headed towards flu season and the holidays, on top of COVID-19 — a triple threat. We would need all the stamina we could muster. I had faith in the team, despite the exhaustion and the worry.”

Throughout the surges of 2020 and 2021, and the monumental effort to vaccinate as many people as possible, Kellermann remained our steadfast leader. And he credits those around him for our success. “I am incredibly proud of what our team has accomplished during one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history — in VCU Health’s history. The level of leadership, professionalism and teamwork displayed by the entire team has been phenomenal. It’s rare to be moved beyond words, but that is exactly the case when I think about the performance of this team. No matter which way the tide turns, this community can count on us.”