Medical school alumni return to serve in Southwest Virginia
Mixed with excitement and a little bit of anxiousness, the first 42 students to enter the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine just over a decade ago sat in new student orientation in August 2010.
“The mayor welcomed us and talked about how the medical school was the biggest thing to happen to Roanoke since the railroad decided to build the depot there in the 1800s. We were all looking at each other, like what? This guy is crazy,” Andrew Moore reflected. “Then you look at what Roanoke has become a decade later and he wasn't wrong.”
After graduating in 2014, Moore, like the majority of his fellow classmates, left Roanoke, Virginia, where the medical school is located, and scattered across the country for residency training in their chosen specialty. Residency programs range from three to seven years. Many pursue a sub-specialty fellowship that takes an additional year or two before graduates begin to officially practice medicine.
Moore went to Chicago, Illinois, for residency in emergency medicine at Northwestern University and then to Portland, Oregon, for a research fellowship at Oregon Health & Science University. This summer, he and his wife and son packed up and moved across the country – back to Roanoke – where he is now an emergency medicine physician for Carilion Clinic and assistant professor for the medical school.
“I know one of the hopes for the school was that medical students would stay or come back, but national data shows people tend to practice where you do residency or where your mother-in-law lives,” Moore laughed. “There must be something in the water for VTC to bring back a sixth of the charter class.”
In addition to Moore, three other charter class graduates came back to Roanoke this fall to practice after doing residency and/or fellowships elsewhere. Another signed a contract to come back this year after finishing a fellowship. Two charter class members, Josh Nichols and Josh Eikenberg – though Eikenberg graduated a year later to obtain a master’s in public health – stayed for residency and afterward to practice.
Data shows that VTCSOM alumni are actively serving in Virginia, with 20 percent in the commonwealth for residency, fellowship, or practice. A little less than half of those 20 percent – just over 8 percent – are based in Roanoke.
“Hearing about returning alumni reinforces my belief that the higher education institutions so plentiful in our region are the pipeline for growing our population and, in these cases, for strengthening the medical community that is central to our region’s economic health,” said Beth Doughty, who just retired as executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership. “It is gratifying to see how the dream of a medical school has evolved to benefit our region in so many ways and will continue to do so.”
“We always knew that our region is a great place to live, work and play! And we believed a medical school would further enrich our amazing health care,” said Nancy Howell Agee, president and CEO of Carilion Clinic, the Roanoke, Virginia-based health system that founded the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine along with Virginia Tech. “We are pleased to have our alumni return knowing they are joining an extraordinary team. We welcome them back with open arms.”
“Our success comes from the strength of our community,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “The collaborative nature of the Virginia Tech Carilion partnership, the support of the commonwealth and regional leadership, and the service-oriented spirit of our graduates brought us this far. We’re proud to see so many alumni returning to support our shared mission to serve the commonwealth.”
Robert Brown left after graduation and headed to Baltimore, Maryland, for a combined residency in internal medicine and emergency medicine at the University of Maryland. He just wrapped up a fellowship in critical care there – particularly an important field as the COVID-19 pandemic began – before his return to Roanoke.
“I always had in mind that I would be lucky to come back here,” Brown said. “I had a unique experience. Not to mention, I came with scholarships and other things that made my way easier. A big part of me knew that if I was going to give back in some way, Roanoke could be a place to do it.”
Don Vile started his studies with the charter class with his wife and a weeks-old baby by his side. After graduation, they – along with a second child they welcomed during medical school – moved to Winston Salem, North Carolina, for an internal medicine residency at Wake Forest University. He stayed at Wake Forest for training in hematology and oncology.
When Vile started his job search, no positions in his field were available in the Roanoke-area. “Looking at all the different factors – how much we enjoyed Roanoke and what the medical school and the community did for us while we were here – we really hoped for the opportunity to give back,” Vile said.
Fortunately, a position opened up at Blue Ridge Cancer Care. Vile is now a hematologist and oncologist at its Roanoke and Salem locations.
Ashley Gerrish thought her stay in Roanoke as a charter class student would be temporary. “I remember coming to medical school and thinking, when I finish, we're leaving for residency. Then I decided I wanted to stay for residency, but after that, we are leaving for good. Then, it really became home.”
Gerrish did leave Roanoke – temporarily – for a year-long minimally invasive surgery fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University. After fellowship, she and her husband welcomed a baby girl to their family and, this fall, she began practicing back at Carilion Clinic as a bariatric and general surgeon.
“The fellowship made me appreciate a lot of the things that I have here. I realized I liked the size of Roanoke. I live two minutes from the hospital,” Gerrish said. “There are good things that I learned from my fellowship and the health system there that I can bring back to my practice here.”
Matt Joy is currently completing a reconstructive microsurgery fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. Like Gerrish, Joy completed his residency with Carilion Clinic. He continued to pave the way in new academic opportunities, as the first resident in Carilion’s integrated plastic surgery residency. He’s already contracted to return to Carilion Clinic after his fellowship. His family even stayed in Roanoke to await his return this coming summer.
“We love the city. It’s been a really great place for us to raise a family. All three of our kids were born here in Roanoke over the course of medical school and residency,” Joy said. “We’ve just really loved the greater community.”
Josh Eikenberg started with the charter class, but graduated one year later to get a master’s degree. “I have to admit that I couldn’t even find Roanoke on a map before I heard of VTC,” Eikenberg said. “Coming from a larger city [Baltimore] when I started medical school, I did not expect that I would stay in Roanoke after graduation.”
He did – completing residency in dermatology. “As a graduate from a dermatology residency program, there was no shortage of job opportunities anywhere in the country. After seeing what was out there and ultimately deciding to stay in academics, I felt like there was no place better to start my career than at VTCSOM,” said Eikenberg, who now holds a faculty position with the medical school, coming full circle.
Beyond a love of the region, another theme that united the physicians in a desire to stay or return to Roanoke was mentorship and strong relationships with faculty, who are now colleagues. Now they want to return the favor.
“There is something very gratifying about being able to teach students from my alma mater,” Eikenberg said. “I still remember the day we walked in the building for the first time. I remember being quite nervous because that’s when things finally started to feel real. I have come a long way since then but, ultimately, the fundamentals that I learned at VTCSOM helped prepare me for being a faculty member. I appreciate the opportunity to pay it forward now.”
Gerrish officially became a faculty member in December. “It is exciting to be able to help mentor and encourage the students and give back some of the great mentorship I had as a student,” Gerrish said.
“I knew Roanoke and VTC were special when I was here, but I didn't understand exactly how unique that is,” Brown said. “Part of me is a little bit selfish. If I'm going to give my life to a calling and I'm going to push hard to make things better, I actually want to see them get better. I feel like I can do that here.”
“We've really been fortunate in that we've had the opportunity to live in almost every region of America. So, when it came time to look for academic emergency medicine positions, we were willing to look all over the country,” Moore said. “It really came back to the combination of things that Roanoke has to offer: a great patient population, an agile health care system, and an emergency department that very few practitioners have left, all in a cool area. It checked off almost every box we were looking at.”
Now many of the former classmates are excited to now get to work together as colleagues.
“The thing is we all went our different ways and so to come back together is absolutely hilarious to see how much we've changed, but also how very fundamentally we have not,” Brown said.
“Seeing classmates return reaffirms everything that I've always thought, which is that Roanoke is a great place to be, to live, and to work and that Carilion and Virginia Tech are doing great things right now,” Joy said. “There's a lot of growth that's happening right now and that people want to be a part of that.”
“My former classmates could go anywhere with their training. I think it is a testament to their positive experiences when they were students living in Roanoke and rotating with VTC faculty,” Eikenberg said. “There is also the allure of the opportunity to continue building what we helped start a decade ago.”
The Charter Class established a scholarship fund after graduation to help support current and future students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Scholarships help reduce debt for students and make the school more competitive for top applicants. Anyone can contribute to the fund to help attract and retain the best medical students in the country.