The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine is a private, osteopathic medical school on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg with branch campuses in Spartanburg, S.C., Auburn, Ala. and Monroe, La. VCOM also recently added Bluefield College to its list of campuses.
Dr. Ashleigh Keats Clickett desperately hoped for the best when, a couple of months ago, one of her patients – a young woman who was eight months pregnant – took a test for the COVID-19 disease. An obstetrician and gynecologist in Huntington, W.Va., the former Virginia Tech track and field athlete certainly understood the reality of today’s pandemic. The disease spreads quickly, shows no mercy to the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions, and can cause significant problems among certain young people. Biomedical researchers and others in the medical profession continue a relentless pursuit of a cure or a vaccine. Unfortunately, the young woman tested positive for the virus – she worked at a nursing home where there was an outbreak. But the story ended positively, as she gave birth to a healthy daughter, and everyone appears to be doing well, though not before creating weeks of worry for Clickett. “She ended up having it [COVID-19], but ended up doing fine,” Clickett said. “It was no problem. She really didn’t have many symptoms. So it’s definitely been a learning curve as far as how this virus acts, what patients get sick from it, what don’t, how many people are getting it — it’s been all new. “She had the baby, and everything turned out great. But it’s been a little bit scary and a little bit eye-opening as far as how scary things can get — and we have no way to control it, other than the social distancing and keeping our hands clean and that sort of thing. It makes you wonder if it could ever get worse, or if something worse than this could come up. What would we do?” These are the types of questions that all doctors continue to ask themselves. Fortunately, those educated at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine – VCOM, for short – in Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center feel equipped, and more importantly, motivated to face such challenges. That contingent includes nearly 25 former Virginia Tech student-athletes, cheerleaders, and trainers who matriculated to VCOM after receiving their undergraduate degrees from Virginia Tech and either have graduated or are in the process of graduating from VCOM. VCOM and Virginia Tech share in a public-private venture, pooling resources for research and the educating of future doctors – many of whom go on to practice in rural or underserved areas. For example, Clickett works at a practice in Huntington, a town of less than 50,000 people. Dr. Scott King, a former football player, spent the past five years in Charleston, West Virginia working a residency in urology at Charleston Area Medical Center before recently completing that residency and joining a practice in Okatie, South Carolina near Hilton Head. Dr. Spencer Harris, a former baseball player, practices family medicine in his hometown of Louisa, Kentucky – a town of 2,500 people not far from Huntington. Practicing in these types of underserved areas presents challenges in and of themselves. A COVID-19 pandemic only adds to it. Not that this group shies away from such tasks, however. “The heart and the motive behind why people get into medicine and nursing and other ancillary services is still good and true,” King said. “So, this is just an opportunity for trial by fire in terms of why you do this. It brings to the forefront of our minds to sacrifice to help someone … It reminds you that this is a job, and you’re caring for sick individuals and this is a scary situation, but it’s what we decided to do. “Virginia Tech and VCOM, their whole existence is built upon serving communities in need. When you approach life in a manner of service, you can’t back away from the challenges that we’re facing through all this.” Dr. Chris Diaz, a former Virginia Tech wrestler who graduated from the university in 2012 and from VCOM in 2017, has spent the past three years working as a resident at Carolinas Medical Center (CMC) in Charlotte, North Carolina – one of the largest hospitals in the state. Diaz specializes in internal medicine in which he diagnoses and treats internal diseases and illnesses, mostly in adults. Diaz said he wasn’t quite on the front line of the pandemic, but he wasn’t far from it. His risk only increased when smaller, outlying hospitals and medical centers in Southwest North Carolina started sending COVID-19 patients to CMC, which possesses more resources and staff to treat those with the disease. CMC actually created a separate intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients. “At the end of March is when I first got pulled in,” Diaz said. “They were trying to hold off on bringing people into the hospital, so that we didn’t have as much exposure, and I didn’t have any direct contact at first. But later on, I was moved to the ICU [intensive care unit], and more specifically, the cardiac ICU. They usually try to keep the COVID patients away from that area because they’re sicker in general and potentially immune-compromised if they’re in line for a heart transplant. “In general, they’ve been able to keep me away from the COVID patients, but still being in a hospital, you’re around others that are dealing with the coronavirus patients. Just being in a hospital, you’re more exposed. I think I’ve had less direct exposure, but still indirectly just being in the hospital.” Like any doctors, Diaz worries about exposing his family to the disease – and in particular, his 10-month-old daughter. In looking at the data, children and young people appear to be the least at risk, which eases the minds of doctors with younger children. Yet no doctor wants to put their family at risk, especially those with infants. “Overall, we’ve done, at least within our system, a good job of isolating people that don’t need to be exposed, and I’ve felt pretty secure where I’m at,” Diaz said. “I can only control so much, and if I was to be around it, there is a sense of security in knowing that there is only so much I can control in the matter. All I can do are the precautions that are set in place.” For Clickett and King, the biggest impact of COVID-19 has been in the volume of their caseloads and how they go about treating patients. The pandemic forced the cancelations of most elective surgeries to preserve resources – namely, personal protective equipment (PPE), which consists of clothing, helmets, goggles, masks, and other garments designed to protect caregivers from infection. Thus, most hospitals and practices only permitted emergency surgeries. Also, most hospitals and practices canceled or curtailed any elective services – regular appointments, checkups, etc. Doctors, though, refused to ignore their patients, coming up with creative ways to provide services. “We moved into this telemedicine phase where we did a lot of over-the-phone consults on things that didn’t need to be seen in the office,” Clickett said. “So that was a lot of GYN [gynecologist] visits. We still saw our obstetric patients in the office for the most part — basically they require more in-office care than some of the GYN consults. So that was a new phase that we needed to learn, doing these phone visits because we were used to seeing people face to face. It was interesting to deal with that, and now, we’re wearing masks all the time. That’s been an adjustment. Just a lot of different aspects now.” As a chief resident, King, a native of nearby Radford whose father ran a private practice in the New River Valley for years before retiring, ran into another issue forced by the pandemic – an inability to test new procedures on patients and teach those to residents looking to learn as they progress in their careers. “The joy of being a chief resident is to aggressively teach,” King said. “You want to start seeing younger residents progress faster, but if I haven’t completed enough of a certain procedure to feel confident to a degree, then I’m not quite ready to hand off some of that responsibility and some of those cases. So that has a trickledown effect.” “VCOM’s been around for some time now, and they’ve gotten a good grasp of how to make and produce good doctors,” Diaz said. “The hospitals I’ve been at and the classes I took while I was there really shaped and prepared me for this, and I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful for the people I was around and the friendships that grew out of there and even some of my fellow students from VCOM. It’s been cool to look back at all that work, and the time spent was worth it. I wouldn’t be here without those opportunities.”
During an incredibly dark time in the world’s history, all those who work in healthcare represent the better of humanity. Certainly, those who have attended or are attending VCOM are firmly entrenched on that list.
The Virginia Tech athletes who have attended or are attending VCOM and their sport or support area: