Saluting a Legacy
A historic partnership: UF College of Medicine and the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center
avid Bielick marches into the hospital room, cracking a smile as he greets his first patient of the morning: an 86-year-old Korean War veteran admitted the previous night due to chest pain.
“How do you feel today, Mr. Hodson?” Bielick asks as he walks to the patient’s side and tilts his head, hand leaning on the bed railing.
“I feel good,” Carl Hodson says. After all, doctors found no sign of a heart attack and he can likely go home today.
After a few minutes of conversation about everything from military memories to family life, Bielick holds out his hand to help Hodson sit up before placing his stethoscope gently on the patient’s chest. He then peels back the covers at the foot of the bed to reveal sunshine-colored non-slip socks and inspects the patient’s ankles to ensure any swelling has subsided.
Though he navigates the exam like a seasoned professional, Bielick is not yet a full-fledged physician; instead, the fourth-year doctor-in-training is one of the many UF medical and physician assistant students who help care for patients during their clinical rotations at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center. More than 200 UF College of Medicine students receive clinical training at the VA each year.
“When I was a student, everybody accepted me, so that’s how I feel now,” says Hodson, who spent 10 years in the U.S. Army and later became a nurse. “I never worry here. I know they’re going to take good care of me.”
For students, caring for veterans offers a chance to serve those who have served.
“Being able to give back to veterans who have served in unfathomable ways inspires me,” says Bielick, who hopes to pursue a residency in internal medicine. “It gives me a different feeling of gratitude to come to work every day than I would get anywhere else.”
One of two VA hospitals in the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center opened its doors to patients in October 1967, seven years after the UF College of Medicine graduated its inaugural class of medical students. Since then, the hospital — part of the largest integrated health system in the nation — has provided comprehensive treatment for hundreds of thousands of veterans from all branches of the U.S. military for medical issues ranging from spinal cord injury to post-traumatic stress disorder while training countless students and residents.
“The VA has a long, proud history of affiliating with medical schools,” says North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System chief of staff Bradley Bender, MD, noting that the roots of the alliance between academic medicine and the Department of Veterans Affairs reach back to the end of World War II.
Today, VA facilities have affiliations with 135 allopathic U.S. medical schools, and 60 percent of physicians around the nation receive portions of their clinical education at a VA facility, during their training, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In fact, the VA is the largest provider of health care training in the country.
One aspect of the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center that sets it apart, however, is its physical — and metaphorical — closeness to UF.
“There’s nothing like face-to-face communication,” Bender says of the VA and UF, neighbors that share the same stretch of Archer Road. “Several UF College of Medicine leaders have also had prior roles at the VA, so they appreciate how the VA contributes to the overall health care mission. Our partnership is like a marriage — we work hard to ensure things go smoothly.”
This strong relationship, built on the pillars of collaboration in patient care, teaching and research, follows the vision of the hospital’s first director, the late Malcom Randall, who the facility was named after in the late 1990s and who once referred to the partnership between the VA and UF as “the real strength of this hospital.”
In clinical practice, the VA’s affiliation with UF provides the facility with additional health care providers. About 180 VA physicians hold faculty appointments at UF, and about 200 UF faculty members have privileges at the VA.
“In the recruiting process, it helps us attract academically minded physicians who want to work with students and residents,” Bender says. “In fact, a lot of our best doctors were trained at the University of Florida.”
One such doctor is Chad Hood, MD ’97, who rotated at the VA as a UF medical student and later served in the Army before returning to Gainesville. Today, he is the associate chief of staff for education for the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System and an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine department of medicine.
“I always sought out rotations at the VA,” Hood says. “We had strong teachers and excellent supervision and leadership, but you also got a lot of autonomy to be able to come up with treatment plans and coordinate aspects of the patient’s care. The VA is a great environment to flex your skills and strengths as a medical student.
“From taking care of a veteran who witnessed the aftermath of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines to treating a former soldier who liberated concentration camps at the end of World War II, in caring for patients at the VA you sometimes uncover incredible stories and life experiences, many of which enriched me as a medical student and continue to enrich me as a doctor.”
Hood says while students around the country tend to rate their time at VA facilities among the best educational experiences of their training, the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System consistently outperforms the national average.
“Over the past four years, 89 to 95 percent of UF medical students have rated their VA clinical experience as ‘very good to excellent.’ This is compared to about 70 percent nationwide,” he says.
A sense of duty
Students who rotate through clinical courses at the VA form meaningful connections with patients, mentors and colleagues while learning to hone their skills treating complex medical issues. In getting to know their patients, students also have the invaluable opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of what they’ve read in history books.
Fourth-year UF medical student and Navy veteran Bryan Erb discovered his passion for medicine while serving in Afghanistan. Later, while assigned to the VA as a UF College of Medicine student, he confirmed his life’s mission: to help patients cope with mental health issues through a career in psychiatry.
“Mental health issues are so prevalent among my fellow veterans,” says Erb, one of 23 UF medical students who are either veterans or are currently on military scholarships. (Two current physician assistant students also served in the military prior to coming to UF.) “It’s helpful to have somebody who can relate to what they’ve been through. Being a veteran provides me with an additional ability to connect with patients during my VA rotations. Given the sacrifices they’ve made, we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can for them.”
For patients like Hodson, receiving treatment from a team that includes students means more talented minds dedicated to their care. At the end of the day, it comes down to a sense of duty.
“We did a job when we were called upon to do so,” Hodson says. “We did our part, and now we let them do theirs.”
Snapshots of the 50th anniversary celebration
The Malcom Randall VA Medical Center marked 50 years of providing care to veterans with a ceremony and picnic Friday, Oct. 27. The event included remarks from Thomas G. Bowman, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Congressman Ted Yoho of the third congressional district in Florida; and Michael L. Good, MD, dean of the UF College of Medicine.
Photos by Daniel Henry