Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

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UNLV medical students: ‘If we lose, nobody in the state wins’

UNLV School of Medicine

Mikayla Whitmore

UNLV President Len Jessup speaks at a stethoscope ceremony by UNLV School of Medicine for its inaugural class of medical students at the Student Union on July 17, 2017.

As someone who has lived and worked in both Las Vegas and Reno, is a graduate of UNR and is now a student at the UNLV School of Medicine, Sierra Kreamer-Hope has experienced the state’s north-south political tensions from both regions.

Sierra Kreamer-Hope

Sierra Kreamer-Hope

In recent weeks, as she watched the UNLV med school become caught in the turmoil of university President Len Jessup’s pressured decision to leave Las Vegas, she said she saw the familiar signs of regional political in-fighting at play. And she’s come away with a strong message for those who would undercut UNLV for the benefit of UNR and the north.

“The whole idea of creating this medical school was not to breed more competition or more animosity between north versus south,” she said. “The point of having a second medical school was to produce more amazing physicians for the state of Nevada — a state that is in desperate need of more physicians and more quality health care.

“So for that to get lost in the midst of the bickering, sometimes it can be frustrating for what we’re trying to accomplish. Because if we lose, nobody in the state wins. It’s not just a problem for UNLV. It’s not just a problem for Southern Nevada. It’s a problem for all of Nevada.”

This week, Kreamer-Hope was among five UNLV medical students who agreed to sit down with the Sun to discuss what’s happening at the school, how it’s affecting them and how they feel about the situation that led to Jessup taking an offer to become the president of California’s Claremont Graduate University.

The interviews came at a time of uncertainty for the medical school’s leadership, which has come under criticism from the higher education officials who pushed out Jessup — Chancellor Thom Reilly and a faction of members of the Nevada Board of Regents.

Meanwhile, the school’s dean, Barbara Atkinson, is in a tenuous position as she nears the end of her five-year contract this summer. She has been closely allied with Jessup, who is scheduled to start his duties at Claremont on July 1, and his departure leaves her unprotected from those who pressured him to leave.

In fact, unidentified sources confirmed to the Sun that last month, shortly after Jessup announced he would seek opportunities elsewhere, Atkinson received a memo saying she would be offered a three-month contract, which reportedly was part of a succession plan.

Amid the turmoil, Kreamer-Hope and her four classmates have focused on their studies and have remained optimistic that the medical school will continue to grow.

But the situation has created anxiety and disappointment among them.

To a person, they said the school had gotten off to an extraordinary start and that there was no place they’d rather be studying. Some said the school’s administration and faculty were being subjected to undue criticism, and that whatever mistakes may have been made didn’t warrant a housecleaning.

But their main motivation in speaking out was to send a unified message to the regents and Reilly:

The faculty and staff have earned a chance to stay in place, at least until their class graduates.

Building a dream school

Maneesha Sakhuja

Maneesha Sakhuja

Maneesha Sakhuja, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate who Atkinson helped attract to the med school, said the faculty has a saying about what it wants the school to be.

“They’re aiming to create the medical school that they wish they could have attended,” Sakhuja said.

In working toward that objective, Sakhuja said, the staff had created unique opportunities for students and an environment they wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Here are two examples:

• In their first year, students are paired with primary care physicians, shadowing those doctors as they perform clinical work. The goal is to provide the students with mentorship and expose them to what it’s like to work in the field. Students say such partnerships are common in medical schools, but it’s rare for them to be offered to first-year students.

• The faculty and staff conduct regular listening sessions to get students’ input on programs, the curriculum and school operations. Students say the staff makes changes based on the students’ suggestions — something that almost undoubtedly would not happen at a large and long-established medical school.

Lauren Hollifield

Lauren Hollifield

“At a school like that, if you have any constructive criticism, it’s a ‘you’ problem,” said Lauren Hollifield, a Bishop Gorman High School graduate who chose UNLV’s medical school over four others that had also accepted her. “That’s because they’ve already put through thousands of medical students and they’re fine. So if you’re not doing well, that’s your problem.

“But here, if you want to adjust something or say something should change, they’re willing to listen to you because it’s their first go-round. It’s great. They’re very receptive to the things we say.”

Students offered several examples of staff acting on their suggestions.

Horacio Guerra

Horacio Guerra

Horacio Guerra, who grew up in a military family and applied to the med school after getting a cell and molecular biology degree at UNLV, said the staff had reworked one class schedule based on a request by students to give them more time with “acting patients” — basically people acting like they have a certain illness. As a result, the students now work weekly with those individuals, which helps them learn how to obtain patients’ health histories.

Sakhuja said the staff also had built in period “remedial” sessions, which are breaks in the day-to-day class schedule that allow students to catch up on their coursework.

“That’s one of the many things that show that our faculty are looking out for our well-being,” she said. “Little things like make a big difference.”

‘We’re on a great trajectory’

Brian Davis, a Coronado High graduate and son of an interventional radiologist, is among several members of the 60-member first class who are from the Las Vegas Valley. That’s no happenstance, as the school focused on finding students from Nevada in hopes that they would stay here after graduation.

“I applied here for a lot of reasons, but part of it was I wanted to come home,” said Davis, who got his undergraduate degree in bioinformatics at Brigham Young University. “I wanted to help the medical community here in Las Vegas.”

The school’s long-range strategy is to increase class sizes to 120, but it will first need a new building. Its current facilities, adjacent to University Medical Center, are too small to support that many students.

But while Nevada lawmakers have approved funding for the school’s operations, the money for a new building still hasn’t materialized.

And now, the turmoil surrounding Jessup has threatened to delay progress toward expanding the school.

Upset at the regents and Reilly over Jessup’s departure, the Engelstad Family Foundation withdrew a $14 million gift for the building, and a mega-donor who’d provided a $25 million contribution said she was reconsidering future gifts.

The Engelstad donation was among the key complaints against Jessup by his detractors, who criticized him for signing an agreement for the gift that made it contingent on him and Atkinson remaining at UNLV until at least 2020. Jessup, who is three years into a five-year contract, was accused of trying to financially benefit himself.

In addition, Jessup’s detractors also claimed that he and Atkinson failed to tell regents that cost estimates for the building had grown from $100 million to more than $200 million.

That claim was proven to be false, but the students said it was only one way in which the regents and Reilly had unfairly criticized Atkinson.

They said Atkinson, the former longtime dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, deserved praise on a number of fronts: assembling a talented staff, leading the school smoothly through the accreditation process and helping develop fundraising support that resulted in each student in the first class receiving a full scholarship.

“We’re on a great trajectory,” Davis said.

Another key metric of success can be found in the gender and ethnic makeup of the first-year class, which reflects its mission to provide opportunities to groups that are underrepresented in the nation’s medical schools. The class consists of 31 women and 29 men and is majority minority, with minority students making up 52 percent of the student body.

Fifteen students are the first in their families to go to college, and three are the first to have graduated from high school in their families.

Davis readily acknowledged that the scholarship money played a key role in attracting him and his classmates, but he said he and others also were drawn in by the school’s potential to improve the region and state. The school’s supporters say it will provide a pipeline of physicians for the region, drive development of a medical health industry and help improve the overall quality of health care in Southern Nevada, which in turn could help the community become more attractive to businesses looking for a place to start or grow. It’s been estimated that once the school is fully built out, it will have a $3.1 billion economic impact.

“So we need to treat our leaders well,” Davis said. “And we need to continue on this path to creating a wonderful medical center and a wonderful environment for these medical leaders to practice and feel confident that the state has their back.”

Confidence in the future

Students say that despite their disappointment with state leaders, they’re confident their education and prospects won’t be affected. Operational funding remains intact, and accreditation isn’t at risk.

They also say the excellent instruction they’re receiving will help ensure they’ll do well on standardized professional tests that play a key role in determining job opportunities.

“My faith in our school is not shaken at all,” Sakhuja said. “Our faculty are unwaveringly committed to the school they created, and to each student. I think the right thing to do is to let that team continue to do what it’s doing.”

Students expressed equal optimism on another matter that has prompted questions about the stability of the school’s leadership — Atkinson’s health. Atkinson, who came out of retirement to lead the school, was hospitalized for several months last year after suffering a ruptured intestine that led to a serious infection, but Guerra and Davis described her as being energetic and fully engaged when she returned to work in November.

“I think if she didn’t feel comfortable health-wise to continue, she’d be the first to say that,” Davis said.

Guerra said that if Reilly or the regents had concerns about Atkinson’s health, “they should just ask her.”

“But to be honest, I think everybody here is pretty comfortable with her continuing on,” he said.

‘Something special’

For five years before Kreamer-Hope returned to Las Vegas, she worked as a medical assistant and an EMT dispatcher in Reno.

When she decided to pursue her M.D. degree, she was accepted into several schools but narrowed her options to UNR and UNLV.

“Obviously, I have stakes in both ends of the state,” she said. “I feel like I’m from both places. But I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to be part of something special.”

She and Hollifield, who were interviewed together, said the school had been everything they’d hoped it would be — a place with elite instructors, an innovative approach, strong donor support and a diverse student body that had quickly become closely knit.

Both said they believed the school would overcome the current turmoil, but they also said it would reach its goals faster if state leaders would let it thrive.

“It’s disappointing that anybody would want to change what we’re trying to establish here,” Hollifield said. “It’s a little confusing as to why all of this is happening.”

“I think animosity and competition are getting in the way of progress at our school,” Kreamer-Hope added.