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Opioid education day focuses on solutions to crisis

The Physical Therapy Program in the University of Colorado School of Medicine recently held an educational day titled, “Pain & Healthcare in Society: Changing Attitudes, Behaviors and Health Systems to Address the Opioid Crisis.” The event drew 250 students, alumni and community members from various disciplines.

The event was focused on improving pain management through a better knowledge of systems-level barriers to achieving effective collaboration, a deeper understanding of pain management across health care disciplines and examples of innovative approaches to pain management and collaboration.

Opioid educational day
On stage from left, Anthony Delitto, PT, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Robert Saper, MD, MPH, of Boston University, address the audience at the recent opioid educational day on campus.

“The scope of the opioid crisis and the challenges of caring for people with pain are sometimes overwhelming,” noted Andrew Kittleson, PT, DPT, PhD, core faculty, Physical Therapy Program. “This event showcased so many brilliant and compassionate people — both nationally and right here in our community — who are working to make a difference.”

CU welcomed speakers from other areas of the University, including Venu Akuthota, MD, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation; Rob Valuck, PhD, of  the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; and Daniel Goldberg, JD, PhD, of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities. Participants from other institutions included Colorado Rep. Chris Kennedy (D-Denver) and national thought leaders Anthony Delitto, PT, PhD, FAPTA, dean of rehabilitation science, the University of Pittsburgh; Alice Bell, PT, DPT, of the American Physical Therapy Association; and Robert Saper, MD, MPH, from Boston University.

Areas of discussion were focused on the history and scope of the opioid crisis, barriers and opportunities for inter-professional collaboration and examples of innovative solutions and ideas for managing pain holistically, equitably and effectively.

Not just a day of presentations, a core group of professionals met following the event to brainstorm action items for the Physical Therapy Program, UCHealth and the CU Anschutz campus community.

Event sponsors were RehabVisions, Aegis Therapies and New Health.

Guest contributor: Natalie Ianniciello, communications & relations specialist, Physical Therapy Program.

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Liver clinic targets silent epidemic with team approach

After watching the cafeteria lady’s husband die under his team’s care, Thomas Jensen, MD, began focusing on preventing the scenario from happening again. The patient, who had been unknowingly suffering from liver disease, had lost all function of the organ, leaving Jensen and his colleagues nearly helpless.

Wieland and Jensen
Amanda Wieland, MD, and Thomas Jensen, MD, flank a FibroScan® machine, which they often use to quickly and non-invasively assess patients’ liver health. The pair teamed up to launch the Multidisciplinary Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Clinic (NAFLD) in hopes of slowing an increasing epidemic.

Today, as an assistant professor on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Jensen’s memory fuels his outreach aimed at detecting what has become the most prevalent chronic liver disease in the United States. Rising in tandem with the obesity epidemic, Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) now strikes children as well as adults and is soon expected to become the top reason for liver transplants in this country.

“It was one of the toughest cases I saw in residency,” said Jensen, who joined the School of Medicine’s Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes in 2016. “He was intubated and on multiple medications and was very difficult to manage. I just remember thinking to myself: We need to have a better way of finding these people before it’s too late.”

Answering a call

Today, Jensen and Amanda Wieland, MD, of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, have launched the Multidisciplinary NAFLD Clinic, using a team approach that combines their expertise with that of top experts across the campus in decreasing the disease’s burden on patients and the health care system.

Red flags for NAFLD in patients



Visceral fat (increased waist circumference)

Metabolic syndrome

Insulin resistance

Type 2 diabetes

High blood pressure

Sleep apnea

Some lipid disorders

High triglycerides

Some medications (e.g., some HIV drugs, Tamoxifen, Methotrexate, some steroids)

“Roughly 30 percent of the population has Fatty Liver Disease, doubling in incidence since the 1990s,” Jensen said. “We know that it’s not only preventable, but it also can be reversible largely through diet and exercise,” said Jensen, who hopes to extend the clinic hours with the addition of SOM’s Emily Schonfeld, MD, a gastroenterologist, to the staff this fall.

NAFLD – which results when fatty deposits (steatosis) collect in the liver because of something other than alcohol consumption – has strong links to obesity and heart and metabolic disease. While it strikes 8 percent of the lean population, NAFLD affects nearly 70 percent of diabetics and 80 percent of the morbidly obese.

If the cause goes unaddressed, liver inflammation, scarring and cell death (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH) can result, ultimately leading to permanent tissue damage, or cirrhosis.

Missing a silent killer

With top-of-the-line screening equipment, the clinic’s team can identify cases and determine the severity, generally non-invasively, steering patients down the road to reversal. Jensen hopes more patients and primary care doctors, who often don’t have the knowledge, ability or time to effectively treat NAFLD patients, will seek expert care for themselves or their patients.

While primary care physicians routinely check liver function with blood tests, the Dallas Heart Study found the lab work was not a reliable marker, leaving patients undiagnosed, Jensen said. “On ultrasound, researchers found that up to 80 percent of those patients who did have fatty liver had normal-looking enzymes,” Jensen said.

Because doctors once thought simple steatosis would never progress to inflammation and scarring, non-specialists sometimes downplay early NAFLD, Jensen said. But studies now suggest within a six-year period, up to 40 percent of those patients do develop NASH.

“So, our sense is that it’s not only important to screen but to look at the risk factors that might suggest patients are susceptible and to monitor those patients.”

Life-changing diagnosis

Having lost his brother 10 years his junior last year to long-undiagnosed NAFLD, Aurora resident Dennis Ipsen considers himself lucky that his doctor sent him to Jensen and Wieland. The pair quickly detected the disease and began monitoring Ipsen.

“That’s what I liked the most,” Ipsen said of Jensen’s expertise and team approach. “He was Johnny-on-the-spot looking for this, and he knew what he was dealing with, and he brought in the other doctor very quickly,” said Ipsen, who has diabetes and heart disease. “The sooner it’s detected, the better off you are.”

Ipsen’s only new directive so far: maintain his chosen Weight Watchers diet plan. “I’m hoping that’s all I need,” he said.

“I just remember thinking to myself: We need to have a better way of finding these people before it’s too late.” – Thomas Jensen, MD

Rx: Weight loss

A healthy diet, exercise and weight loss is often the only prescription necessary with early diagnosis, Jensen said. “We know that with a 5 percent weight loss, you can reverse the level of fat in the liver,” he said. “And with a greater-than 10 percent weight loss, you can even start seeing reversal of fibrosis (early stages of scarring).”

At the NAFLD clinic, patients receive counseling on controlling related conditions and on ways of achieving weight loss, from fitness apps to bariatric surgery. “I had an obese patient with moderate steatosis,” Jensen said. She was a candidate for bariatric surgery and opted for that route. One month and 15 pounds later, a recheck found her fatty liver was completely resolved, Jensen said.

In addition to the Metabolic and Bariatric Program for severely overweight cases, the NAFLD clinic works closely with the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in helping patients master lifestyle changes and achieve weight loss.

Keeping the faith

Valerie Frank family
Valerie Frank stands front and center of her family, which includes eight grandsons. Frank travels from her Sterling home to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus for specialist care for liver disease.

Although Valerie Frank’s disease had progressed to cirrhosis by the time she found the clinic, the Sterling resident dropped more than 40 pounds since diagnosis and holds out hope that Jensen’s and Wieland’s care can keep complications at bay.

“It’s still good to know,” said Frank, who has diabetes and spent more than a year seeing doctors and undergoing tests trying to find an answer for fatigue and abnormal blood work. She finally told her doctor she gave up. “And he said: Let’s try one last thing. Let’s have you see Dr. Jensen and Dr. Wieland at UCHealth.”

Three weeks later, after making the two-plus-hour trip from her Sterling home, Frank was diagnosed. Now, despite the drive and higher out-of-pocket costs, Frank said she will continue under the doctors’ care for as long as they can help her and would encourage other liver patients to do the same.

“Absolutely. From the minute I walked in, I felt a connection with them both,” said the mother of three and grandmother of eight grandsons. With cirrhosis, her prognosis is not certain, but she’s sure of one thing: The doctors are doing everything they can to give her the best outcome. “I’m feeling well. I’m doing well. You can’t give up on hope,” she said. “I have total faith in them.”

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CU Orthopedics serves super-club of 10,000 kickers

The Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club (CRYSC) is partnering with leading sports medicine specialists at the University of Colorado Department of Orthopedics at the CU School of Medicine and UCHealth to ensure its athletes receive unsurpassed care as well as education about injury prevention.

Acting as liaison between CU, CRYSC and UCHealth is Head Athletic Trainer Julie Graves, MA, ATC, who became the full-time athletic trainer for the Colorado Storm soccer club two years ago. Her role has expanded as the Storm recently merged with CRYSC, creating a super-club of over 10,000 players ages 3 to 18. CU Orthopedics’ title sponsorship is similar to the arrangement with Storm, but “it’s just at a bigger volume,” Graves said. “We’ve had two years of providing top-tier care and it’s going extremely well.”

Responsive treatment

Julie Graves
Julie Graves, MA, ATC, is the head athletic trainer for the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club.

Teaming with CRYSC and its five regions along the Front Range comes at an ideal time as the Department of Orthopedics is experiencing a high rate of growth. “Adding this to our portfolio positions the department for a high level of exposure across Colorado, and we look forward to strategically growing this relationship with the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club over the next several years,” said David Kaplan, Orthopedics Department finance administrator.

Graves works with three medical directors who volunteer their time to provide care for club members. “We try to get our kids directly into one of those three first and foremost, but if they’re overbooked we find another CU sports medicine specialist to provide care,” Graves said. “This really gets them right where they need to go in an expedited manner.”

Graves has treated a variety of injuries on the field including dislocated kneecaps, labral hip tears and sprained ankles. However, treatment doesn’t stop on the field. Graves further develops the at-home rehab program, recommending exercises and stretches, and follows up on the player’s progress. Graves has also established an athletic training evaluation space inside the CRYSC Central Region headquarters where the members come to have their appointments. Having a dedicated space gives her the ability to see injuries within 24 to 48 hours, as well as provide treatment or taping before practice.

Positioned for injury prevention

The partnership between CRYSC and CU Orthopedics is a special one. Kaplan notes, “Becoming a sponsor uniquely positions us to focus on injury prevention with these young athletes and ultimately care for them at the appropriate location when an injury does occur. The Sports Medicine team across the School of Medicine has the expertise and experience to take care of the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club athletes similar to the way we cover University of Denver athletics, University of Colorado athletics, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Mammoth, Rockies and Denver Broncos.”

For athletes, the presence of an athletic trainer takes away the worry of when an injury occurs and next steps. In the event of a more serious injury, Graves close working relationship with CU Sports Medicine specialists has afforded her the ability to refer athletes and their parents to the most appropriate specialist depending on location, severity, or type of injury. This is the same approach CU Sports Medicine takes with collegiate level teams and the professional teams they support.

Graves frequently hears from grateful parents. “I’ve gotten absolutely wonderful feedback from the athletes and parents,” she said. “They’re so grateful that the club has an athletic trainer and a huge orthopedic partnership that provides quick, effective and professional treatment for their kids.”

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Video shines light on an often hushed disease

In recognition of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) awareness month, students Diana Ir, Hailey Hyde and Jacqueline Garner in the Colorado School of Public Health created a public health awareness video about the disease. IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, currently affects about 1.6 million Americans.

Featuring Brett Forrest, a local reporter, and his personal experiences with IBD, the group hopes to shine a light on a stigmatized disease.

“Medications, surgery and lifestyle changes can have a life-changing effect for those who are suffering from IBD,” said Ir of the importance of spreading awareness. “Our message and goal is to encourage individuals to contact their physicians if they believe they may have IBD or symptoms of IBD. Through this video, we hope to reduce stigmas associated with the disease.”

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Ronald Sokol, MD, named president of American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases

Ronald Sokol, MD, a professor of pediatrics-gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition in the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has been named president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD).

Sokol was introduced as AASLD president in a recent article in Hepatology magazine. “Ron has made significant contributions to the field of hepatology through his clinical expertise, research, mentoring, advocacy and service within national organizations,” the article states.

In addition to his hospital affiliations at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado Hospital, the article notes, Sokol is the vice chair of clinical and translational research in the Department of Pediatrics and director of the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI) at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. CCTSI recently received a $46.5 million NIH grant to continue its work of accelerating research discoveries and new health care treatments.

The article in Hepatology went on to say that Sokol has been an NIH-funded investigator since 1986 “and has received an astonishing $200 million in grant support to date. His major clinical interests are pediatric hepatology and liver transplantation. Ron’s scientific interests include the mechanisms of vitamin E deficiency and cholestasis; the role of mitochondria and oxidative stress in liver injury; the mechanisms of liver cell injury in cholestasis; fatty liver, and parenteral nutrition-associated liver injury; the pathogenesis of biliary atresia; and the development of predictive models for rare childhood liver diseases.

“To that end, Ron has published 250 original articles pertaining to basic science, translational and clinical research studies in pediatric hepatology.”

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Search for migraine relief lands Pennsylvania patient in Denver

The Blakes
Jeffery and Carol Blake pose during a walk down the shore near their Pennsylvania home.

Carol and Jeffery Blake travel 1,400-plus miles every 12 weeks for a medical procedure that takes roughly 15 minutes. And they’ve done it religiously for four years.

After launching a search for the “best of the best” to treat his wife’s debilitating migraines, a common procedure for the retired cardiologist when his family experiences medical problems, Jeffery Blake found Marius Birlea, MD, and the University of Colorado Headache/Pain Medicine Clinic. It was a match.

“He is extremely well-trained and very interested in finding alternative ways to treat this disease,” Carol Blake said of Birlea, as migraines are still a poorly understood brain disorder. “When you get a doctor who is current in the research and has the ability to treat you well, it’s like dynamite. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

‘It scares you to death’

Blake joined the 1 billion people worldwide who suffer from migraines during her third pregnancy 36 years ago. But the headaches, which can have a hormonal connection, went away after her fifth daughter was born, even completely for a four-year stretch.

With migraines often ceasing after age 55, Blake hoped she was in the clear. No such luck. They returned. And this time, with a “vengeance,” the former writer said.  “I would sometimes get migraines four times a day. One would subside, and another one would hit.”

Her relentless episodes put her in a class of chronic migraine sufferers, defined as patients who have 15 or more migraines per month. The rarer group, which includes about 4 million of the 39 million U.S. migraine sufferers, is not a fun club.

“I would lose vision in my right eye,” Blake said, explaining her “aura,” vision changes that signal migraine onset in some patients. “It scares you to death.” For the period following the aura, which can last anywhere from hours to days, Blake couldn’t bear light or noise. She couldn’t stand the thought or smell of food. And, of course, her head pounded.

Birlea and Blake
Marius Birlea, MD, treats Carol Blake for chronic migraines.

A passion for change

“Migraine is one of the most common neurological conditions,” said Birlea, assistant professor and director of Headache Fellowship in the CU School of Medicine Department of Neurology. More than 90 percent of sufferers are unable to function during episodes, and women who have auras with migraines are at increased risk of stroke, said Birlea, known for his research on possible migraine connections to viruses, such as shingles and herpes.

Passionate about changing the way migraines are viewed by the public and in the medical field, Birlea said migraines are under-recognized and under-treated.

Since its Food and Drug Administration approval in 2010, BOTOX® injections have been the standard of care for uncontrolled chronic migraines, Birlea said. “And it’s my understanding that of the millions of sufferers, a minority of chronic migraine sufferers are receiving it.”

When you get a doctor who is current in the research and has the ability to treat you well, it’s like dynamite. You can’t ask for anything better than that. – Carol Blake

‘Like a dream’

Before finding Birlea, Blake had received minimal treatment over two months at home in Pennsylvania without real success. On her initial visit to the Aurora clinic, Dr. Birlea spent two hours in consultation with Blake and then began a battery of tests to rule out other underlying medical problems.

At the clinic on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, Birlea and his staff use a comprehensive and collaborative treatment approach. Patients learn about nutritional and other triggers that can set off a migraine, such as stress, glaring lights and interrupted sleep patterns.

After discussing his extensive experience with BOTOX® and its effectiveness and minimal side effects, Birlea and Blake opted to try it. Along with the injections, Blake began taking B-12, magnesium and B-2, often effective in dealing with chronic migraine.

“That’s when we could see that we were beginning to get the headaches under control,” Blake said, adding that Birlea’s knowledge and approach made a difference.  “I know what a good doctor looks like, and it was like a dream finding him.”

Recent CU Headache/Pain Medicine Clinic news:

  • The clinic was recently chosen for a University of Colorado Hospital pilot program implementing a practice transformation model. Under the plan, medical assistants care for the patient in the exam room, taking histories, ordering lab work, transcribing for the doctors, and making follow-up appointments, steam-lining care and leaving providers to focus solely on their patients.
  • A cohort of clinic providers recently attended Headache on the Hill (HOH), an event that joins patients, scientists and caregivers from across the country at the nation’s capital to advocate for pain-management research.
  • The clinic recently became one of a select group of centers in the country to join the American Registry for Migraine Research (ARMR), expected to be instrumental in creating a better understanding of the disease.
  • With its approval expected in the next few weeks, the clinic plans to offer an antibody injection that blocks calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), a protein involved in migraines. The subcutaneous injection possibly could be self-administered.


‘Such faith in him’

During a recent injection procedure, after much small talk about everything from what college Birlea’s son had chosen to what traveling the Blakes had done recently, Birlea began the procedure, which, according to protocol, involves 31 tiny injections from the front to the back of the head.

“Her friends are all jealous of her forehead,” Jeffery Blake said, as Birlea worked. BOTOX®, which prevents migraines by blocking pain signals, allowing the brain to heal, also erases wrinkles.

As Birlea asked Blake to sit up from the exam table, so he could start the injections on the back of her head, she told an observing physician assistant in training: “I barely feel them. I’ve never felt much when he does it. He’s so good at it.”

Blake, who always hears the latest research news on migraines when she sees Birlea, said she was interested in a new injectable treatment to be offered soon that would not require her huge travel commitment. But she said she would remain Birlea’s patient regardless of her treatment plan.

“I’d still want to see him at least once a year. I have such faith in him. He is the essence of a really caring and competent physician.”

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Answering the call: Line9 partnership puts pharmacy school to action

As soon as Bayli Larson hung up the phone, it rang again. She closed her eyes. It rang again. On the third ring, Larson took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and picked up the receiver.

Larson, a fourth-year graduate student in the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, wasn’t facing a harassing caller. A firm believer in the benefits of volunteering, Larson was staffing the phones for Pharmacist Line9.

Although the 90-minute phone marathon can offer a crash course in stress control and mental cleansing, it provides CU, volunteers and Channel 9 viewers so much more, participants say.

“It gave me a sense of the needs of the community members, and it helped me learn how to think on the spot,” Larson said. “As a pharmacist, it’s really important to be able to communicate effectively and respond accurately in a way that the patients understand. It was great practice.”

Fulfilling a growing need

Because of the popularity of the service (no volunteer’s phone ever sits quiet) coupled with serious medical matters taxing the community, Channel 9 recently boosted the airings, making Pharmacist Line9 a monthly event, said Lynne Valencia, Channel 9 vice president of community relations.

Many of the questions I answered I felt really made a difference in their lives, whether it was preventing drugs from falling into the wrong hands or averting a serious health event. — Briana Williams

From an opioid-addiction crisis gripping the state to a severe flu season lingering on, critical issues have heightened the need for the partnership, said Valencia, an alumna of CU Denver. “CU students and faculty members supply the expertise that people are looking for, and we provide the platform. They offer our viewers sound advice and a great service.”

Volunteering ranks high on the priority list of CU’s pharmacy school, recently named the recipient of the 2017 Lawrence C. Weaver Transformative Community Service Award from the American Association of College of Pharmacy (AACP). While fulfilling unmet needs in the community, volunteer events move CU students’ education beyond the textbook.

“It really can help supplement what you are learning in class,” said third-year graduate student Briana Williams, an active volunteer, including with Line9, and an intern at University of Colorado Hospital. “You definitely get questions right off the bat that you are like: I have no idea how to answer this. But you have to think on your feet and use the resources that you are taught in pharmacy school.”

Briana Williams on 9Line desk
Briana Williams, left, takes a rare break to smile for the camera. Her colleagues, from left to right: Liza Wilson Claus, Emily Zadvorny and Peter Rice.

Facing tough questions

Armed with Centers for Disease Control guidelines and other medical and prescription directives, Williams and Larson quickly fell into the groove of the call-ins, which generally include two students and two faculty members. Apprehensive her first time, when she was a second-year student, Larson said she remembered a lesson from school: It’s OK to say I don’t know.

Calls can run the gamut from the simple — Where can I get a flu shot? — to the moderate — How do I dispose of addictive medications? — to the complicated — What will I do if I can’t refill my pain-pill prescription?

With new regulations threatening opioid access, many calls relate to the crisis, including from fearful patients who rely on the drugs, Larson said. “I found those questions kind of challenging. A lot of these people have been living with chronic pain for years, and it’s the only thing that can get them out of bed in the morning.”

The anonymity factor can embolden callers to ask more complicated and sensitive questions, Williams said.  “Without having to actually go to a physician or pharmacist and see them face to face, they can ask these questions without thinking in the back of their minds that somebody is judging them,” she said.

Volunteers can confer with their colleagues on the Line9 desk, or, when a question falls outside of their expertise, refer the callers to their physicians, Williams said. “You have to know your boundaries and your scope of practice.”

Educating the pubic

Regardless of whether they can answer the question, the volunteers educate patients and urge them to use their physicians and pharmacists as resources. “I don’t know a pharmacist who wouldn’t provide any patient a phone consultation, but a lot of people don’t know that,” Larson said.

I think it really gets out to the public that pharmacists are not just pill-pushers; that we really have a lot of education that we go through to provide more services. And we are typically one of the more accessible health care professionals. — Briana Williams

Williams, who said she chose the CU Anschutz Medical Campus for graduate school partly because of the state’s progressiveness in the pharmaceutical field and the school’s emphasis on multidisciplinary teamwork, said taking part in events like Line9 also helps educate people about her profession.

“I think it really gets out to the public that pharmacists are not just pill-pushers; that we really have a lot of education that we go through to provide more services. And we are typically one of the more accessible health care professionals.”

‘A greater purpose’

A lot of people don’t know where to go for help, Williams said. “Many of the questions I answered I felt really made a difference in their lives, whether it was preventing drugs from falling into the wrong hands or averting a serious health event.”

In today’s competitive world, volunteering can also boost student’s chances at jobs and residency programs, said Williams and Larson, who both work in pharmacies and have their eyes on residencies post-graduation. Larson recently learned that she matched to a PGY1 residency with UCHealth Memorial in Colorado Springs.

Residencies are not required, but they can help set pharmacy students up for careers in hospitals and clinical settings after graduation. This year’s residency numbers for CU Pharmacy are on par with previous years, with 64 percent of those who applied matching, tying the national average.

“I just can’t stress it enough how important work and volunteering is,” Larson said.  It also helps students stay focused on what comes at the end of their heavy college load. “I remember going to work after an exam and being grateful to see there’s a lot to look forward to,” she said. “It’s all for a greater purpose.”

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Honor Society: A small dose of compassion goes a long way

In the end, his patient died. But as Ajay Major, MD, MBA, then an intern, flipped through the old veteran’s medical record, he found comfort in the memories the notes inspired.

Now Major, a second-year internal-medicine resident on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, calls up those memories of the witty old man with terminal cancer who always asked for bourbon (and his devoted wife who always rolled her eyes in response) as a continual reminder of the importance of compassion in health care.

“Medicine is hard,” Major said. “We see a lot of patients with a lot of difficult medical issues, and I think burnout stems not just from feeling overworked, but also from feeling that we’re not truly caring for our patients on a human level.”

Major, co-president of the CU Anschutz School of Medicine (SOM) Resident Chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, spread his message during the society’s annual Solidarity Week Feb. 12-16 by encouraging his colleagues to take part in the week’s centerpiece program, Tell Me More (TMM).

Changing the conversation

Dr. Griff with Cory
Megan Griff, MD, chats with University of Colorado Hospital patient Frances Cory as part of a program aimed at teaching the value of compassion in medicine.

Armed with a TMM questionnaire and a smile, second-year internal-medicine resident Megan Griff, MD, entered her patient’s room, finding Betty Redwine, 77, wrapped in a light blanket and relaxing in a chair. “Is it OK to talk and find out about your life?” Griff asked, after explaining the program and introducing Major and attending physician, Jeannette Guerrasio, MD.

“OK,” Betty Redwine said, returning her doctor’s smile. “But it’s nothing exciting,” she said, grinning up from beneath a black-suede, shower-like cap she informed her guests was taming her unruly hair.

Prompted by four TMM questions, Redwine soon was sharing pieces of her past. Topics of capillaries and high blood pressure gave way to children’s feats and life’s treasures, sounding more like tea-time chatter than hospital-room discussion. When Redwine let a little secret slip, the room exploded in utterances of disbelief.

“What?” Guerrasio said, after Redwine revealed she worked as a registered nurse for 35 years. “Why didn’t you tell us?” asked Griff. “My mom is a nurse, too,” Griff said, when the commotion subsided. “You guys are hard-workers,” she said, patting Redwine’s hand.

Staying centered on the cause

While it might seem miniscule, a small dose of compassion can result in an array of benefits, Major said.  “It allows the patient to feel that the care team really cares about them, but it also brings some catharsis for providers. Just finding out a little bit more about our patients’ lives outside of the hospital can help re-center us in the work that we are doing as physicians and, I believe, help prevent burnout.”

On the patient side, studies show compassionate healthcare results in higher patient satisfaction, a higher pain threshold, reduced anxiety and better outcomes, according to the Gold Foundation, which cites supporting studies on its website.

TMM team meets with nurse
Ajay Major, MD, MBA, left, and Jeannette Guerrasio, MD, right, talk with Anne Marie Fleming, RN, about the Tell Me More program.

“People develop diseases for lots of reasons, and everyone’s lives really affect the way they respond to health problems,” said SOM Chair of Medicine David Schwartz, MD. It makes sense that trusted patient-provider relationships result in better care, he said. “We need to know how their lives might be contributing to the development of disease, and how their lives might contribute to our ability to effectively treat their disease,” he said.

Remembering: ‘I’m a person’

Looking up from her bed as the TMM trio walked into her room, Frances Cory, 79, had them laughing before even agreeing to chat. “You want to talk beyond my medical condition? You mean you don’t care about my medical condition anymore?” said the mother and grandmother, who later responded to a question about her biggest strength: “My sense of humor.”

Cory, who shared with her visitors that she had served more than 5,000 volunteer hospital hours during her lifetime, said she thought the program was important. “It’s nice to know that you take the time to talk to your patients. I’m a person.”

The TMM program offers a valuable reminder for medical students that their patients are people, and not just medical mysteries to solve, Guerrasio said. “I actually, as a doctor, find these conversations really helpful. And it’s what makes me come to work every day.”

Notes about the patient-doctor chat are jotted down on the TMM questionnaire, which is then displayed on the wall so that everyone involved in that patient’s stay, from therapists and nurses to doctors and janitors, can use it as conversation fodder, Major said.

‘The more passionate individuals are about their profession, and the more they enjoy what they are doing, the more engaged they become. These things feed on each other in very positive ways.’   ̶   David Schwartz, SOM Chair of Medicine  

Seeing nothing as too small

By getting to know his end-stage cancer patient and his wife as an intern, Major learned not just about his patient’s bourbon routine, but that he was a strong war veteran who had “always been a fighter.” That helped Major, when the man opted for a late chemo-treatment that was questionable at his stage and age. While the patient fared well through therapy, he developed an infection afterward that ended his fight.

When his patient was transferred to hospice, Major told his palliative caregivers about the bourbon. As he looked through his patient’s medical record after learning of his death, Major was jolted by one caretaker directive: Bourbon, one ounce at bed time as needed.

“It seems like such a small detail,” said Major, who published an article in JAMA Oncology about the patient experience. “But when his fighting wasn’t working anymore, he started thinking about things he really enjoyed in life. And having his little bit of bourbon was kind of important to him. So we made sure he could have that to the end.”


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Four sisters with cancer get care

Roberta Aberle and her three sisters share an unfortunate bond: cancer.

Her two oldest sisters passed away from the disease. She and one sister are still fighting the disease. All four sisters were diagnosed in their 40s or 50s, and all have received treatment through UCHealth – Aberle at the University of Colorado Cancer Center on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and her sisters at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.

“Our family is definitely satisfied in the care we’ve received,” said Aberle, 53, who lives in Aurora, where she can easily access treatment at CU Anschutz, “and I’m 100 percent confident in the care I’m getting right in my backyard.”

A former quality and process improvement professional for UCHealth, she now applies her skills as an advocate and resource for people with cancer. She’s spreading the word about the treatment she received from CU physicians, and her own story of cancer, far and wide.

Years of diagnoses

“Sadness took root in our family in 2005,” Aberle said. That was the year the first of her sisters, Brenda, received her cancer diagnosis.

Roberta Alberle
Roberta Alberle, CU Cancer Center patient

Brenda passed away in 2008, and a year later, sister Carol was diagnosed. Both Aberle and her oldest sister Debby got cancer diagnoses in 2012. Debby passed away six months after her diagnosis, but Aberle has survived, outliving her original prognosis by half a decade.

Aberle remembers Leap Day 2012 vividly. That was the day she went in for a quick assessment of a minor pain in her side. Despite her significant risk factors of having multiple first-degree relatives diagnosed with cancer before age 50, she never imagined a life-altering diagnosis.

“I was feeling healthy and energetic and working my dream job,” she said. “Nothing could have been going better at that time.”

She came out with a diagnosis of inoperable primary peritoneal cancer, one of the most rare and lethal forms of cancer, and recommendations to begin arranging for palliative and end-of-life care.

“I was in utter disbelief,” she said. “I had just been thinking how ill everyone in my family is and that I’m not prepared to be the person who outlives my entire family, and now I had cancer, too.”

While the disease has devastated the family, it has also mystified them. All four sisters have had reproductive cancers, but none the exact same type, and each has had a different outcome. Aberle shares the same genetic marker for cancer susceptibility with one of her sisters, but the other two sisters did not have the marker. And on top of everything, in 2015 their father was diagnosed with melanoma and lymphoma.

“Cancer has blown our family to bits,” Aberle said, “but a bit falls to the floor and we pick it up and glue it back on. It’s created a bond that can’t be broken.

A powerful treatment

Despite her family’s devastation and her own grim prognosis, Aberle was determined to fight her cancer. For the next year and a half, she underwent chemotherapy and entered clinical drug trials. Then, she received hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), a rare cancer treatment that combines chemotherapy and surgery in a single procedure. The CU School of Medicine Department of Surgery is one of very few care providers in the United States that offer HIPEC.

During Aberle’s HIPEC treatment in 2013, CU surgeons opened her abdomen, removed the visible cancer cells and then doused the remaining cells with heated chemotherapy drugs. This procedure is followed by standard intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy. Because both HIPEC and IP techniques deliver chemotherapy directly to cancer cells in the abdomen (unlike systemic chemotherapy delivery, which circulates throughout the body), they can destroy microscopic cancer cells and has helped some patients live decades longer.

But it’s not an easy procedure for patients.

“It’s an invasive procedure, and it was a very difficult and painful recovery,” Aberle said. “I had a port inserted into my abdomen and staples up the length of my belly. Now, I have adhesions and scar tissue that still cause pain sometimes.”

Since HIPEC, Aberle’s cancer has returned, but she still believes it was the right treatment for her.

“It bought me additional time and got me farther down the path to the next available treatment,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind that, if I had not had access to CU surgeons, I would not have survived this long.”

Survival on her own terms

Now five years into her battle with cancer, Aberle is still determined to fight the disease, and she’s grateful that the care providers at CU Anschutz continue to empower her to do that.

“My survival is 95 percent connected to the care I’m getting from the University of Colorado,” she said. “No one has ever relinquished their hope in me or objected when I say I want to keep going. It is phenomenal to be working with these doctors.”

Two years ago, Aberle took disability leave in order to devote more time and energy to conquering her cancer and to doing the things that are most important to her: spending time with loved ones and sharing her experience to help others.

“I’m not fooling myself that I’m going to live to 103,” she said. “There’s going to be a point when I want to go to palliative care and hospice, but I want to make my sure that we’ve done everything possible first. I know I’m with the right team at the CU Cancer Center, because they share in that philosophy right along with me.”

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Dental students treat underserved in ACTS Program

When Matthew Iritani enters a dental office, it feels like home.

As a boy, Iritani spent hours watching his father, Mark Iritani, DDS, an orthodontist, work with patients. His mother, Patra Watana, DMD, a pediatric dentist, would come to his elementary school to teach the children about oral health.

“I always knew I wanted to grow up to be like mom and dad and go into the profession,” says Iritani, 25, a fourth-year student at the CU School of Dental Medicine.

Today, Iritani is closer to his dream. Through the CU School of Dental Medicine’s Advanced Clinical Training & Services (ACTS) program, he is able to have hands-on experience at the Salud Family Health Centers Sterling clinic.

Service to Colorado communities

Initiated in 1986, the ACTS program was one of the first programs of its kind and has become a national model for service learning programs designed to integrate students into underserved communities. ACTS provides hands-on experiences for fourth-year dental students as they practice in clinics around the state of Colorado. The number of days spent in the community are among the highest in the nation, giving our students the expertise, confidence and skills to immediately improve lives once they graduate.

CU dental student Matthew Iritani and preceptor Dr. Petros Yoon
Fourth-year dental student Matthew Iritani is pictured with his ACTS preceptor Petros Yoon, DDS, outside the Salud Family Health Centers Sterling clinic.

This year, each of the 76 fourth-year dental students will rotate through four to five of the 35 ACTS partner sites, a mixture of urban and rural statewide. More than 70 community dentists, many (46 percent) of whom are CU alumni and also participated in the ACTS program, have faculty appointments as preceptors and oversee the students during their ACTS rotation.

“All of the patients the students see are underserved in some way and have barriers accessing dental care,” says Tamara Tobey, DDS, Director of the ACTS program and an Associate Professor/Clinical Track.

Students appreciate the challenge, she says.

“Our students say it’s one of the best experiences during dental school, it’s valuable for their training and treating these patients is very worthwhile,” says Tobey, adding that prospective dental students often talk about ACTS as a reason they are interested in attending the CU School of Dental Medicine.

Tobey, a 1992 CU School of Dental Medicine graduate, was a student in the program and also a preceptor for more than 20 years.

“It’s always been our goal to expose students to community health centers and diverse populations,” she says. “Our students realize they really are making a difference in those patients’ lives and they might be drawn to working in community health practice as a career. We want to make sure they’re exposed to all options so they can make choices that are meaningful for them.”

From student to teacher

Petros Yoon, DDS, Dental Director at the Salud Family Health Centers Sterling clinic, graduated from the CU School of Dental Medicine in 2015. He now shares his knowledge and experience as a preceptor.

“As an ACTS preceptor, I want to guide the students and help advance their clinical skills and give them practical, real-world experience,” Yoon says. Each student assigned to the Salud Sterling clinic works with Yoon for four weeks, with a two-week break in between so they can go back to the dental school to care for their patients there and meet other school requirements.

Sterling is a small town in comparison to Denver; it has a population of about 14,000 people. It’s a hub for area residents to come for medical and dental services. Some patients drive 60 miles for their appointments.

“We have large families who come to our clinic and we make every effort to see the whole family if we can,” he says. “Sterling is a very tight-knit community and we are proud to serve and be a part of their families.”

Empathic skills are also important for students, who need to learn how to communicate with diverse patient populations, from children to seniors. Time management while providing quality of care is also a critical skill for students to learn. In the dental school setting, because of other variables such as classes, a student may only see two patients a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In the Sterling clinic, students may see four to five patients a day. Yoon oversees the students’ work, but gives them the opportunity to practice general dentistry, including exams, fillings, oral surgery and more.

“Here, we help them learn how to think critically on the spot, supported by evidence-based research and their clinical training,” Yoon says. “These are skills you really can’t practice unless you’re in a real-life situation.”

For Yoon, providing support to students comes naturally. As a CU dental student, he rotated through the Salud Fort Lupton clinic and understands the importance of the ACTS program. Even if dental students want to take another path – orthodontics, for example – the experience they get in a community health center will be rewarding.

Many opportunities to practice in community

“Petros is the best – he was a fourth year when I was a first year and would help me even then,” Iritani says. “One of the big reasons I wanted to go to Sterling as a rotation was because of him.”

Iritani also has worked in the dental clinic at Denver Health’s Westside Family Health Center and will be assigned to the Worthmore Dental Clinic in Aurora, caring for refugees. He’ll have two more affiliations in the spring.

Iritani is applying for CU’s Graduate Orthodontics Program and hopes to join his dad’s practice. His dad, Mark Iritani, is a 1985 graduate of the CU School of Dental Medicine and also practiced in an underserved part of Colorado as a young dentist.

“ACTS is valuable because it exposes you to what it would be like to work in both public health and private practice,” Matthew Iritani says. “I think the opportunity to see patients in different situations has been beneficial – especially since I went into dentistry because I want to help people.”

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