Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Fellows Graduation, 2021

Like almost every graduation celebration this year, the timing could not have been better. The rise in vaccinations and reductions in COVID-19 infection rates allowed for an ease in gathering restrictions for our health care workers. And less than a month later, members of a division that was on one of the many sets of front lines within University of Iowa Health Care, could at last come together in person and celebrate a few milestones.

Many would argue that one of the groups that has borne the most burden throughout this pandemic are the pulmonary disease and critical care fellows. As Brian Gehlbach, MD, clinical professor in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine, wrote late last year, “They have helped to return hundreds of patients to their homes and families, and they inspire me to do better. They have skill and knowledge, yes. And our program provides the training. But it’s our fellows’ hearts that have made the difference.”

The graduating fellows, their hearts and all their colleagues, friends, and family headed north on a muggy Thursday evening to Rapid Creek Cidery, which sits at the edge of an apple orchard running through a small valley. Guests helped themselves to drinks from the bar and enjoyed some of the live jazz playing on the patio.

After moving inside and taking their seats, the evening’s program began. As in years past, the evening began with a welcome from Division Director Joseph Zabner, MD. But before he handed the microphone to Program Director Jeff Wilson, MD, Zabner took a moment to recognize those leaving roles with the division besides the evening’s graduates.

After more than 20 years, Dawn Flaherty, MD, clinical assistant professor, is retiring. Zabner, Doug Hornick, MD, and Tom Gross, MD, each offered words of praise for Flaherty and how much they would miss her spirit and presence. Zabner also recognized Wilson, who is stepping down as program director after 18 years, and all he has contributed to the success of the fellowship program and the division. Later in the evening, Zabner also announced that Wilson would be succeeded by Alicia Gerke, MD, who offered her own words of gratitude for Wilson’s mentorship.

Then Wilson took the stage for one last presentation. He began by noting that the evening is as much a celebration for the entire division as it is for the fellows and thus, a recitation of all their successes over the last year was in order. He noted awards and publications after the new babies and engagements, reinforcing the family-like bonds that exist among the division’s members.

He then turned to describe the fellows themselves, their position on the front lines against the COVID-19 pandemic, and what he learned from their sacrifices and dedication to their patients. The room’s applause signaled the audience’s agreement and gratitude. Wilson turned the mic over to Herb Berger, MD, who presented the Sleep Medicine Award–traditionally a My Pillow–to graduating fellow Vikas Koppurapu, MBBS.

Wilson then noted one more role change for the room to acknowledge. Zabner had recently announced that he would be stepping down from the position of division director when a replacement could be identified. Wilson presented him with a plaque, in what is likely the first of many recognitions of Zabner’s service before leaving the role.

And then it was time to focus on the graduating fellows themselves. Wilson preserved last year’s new tradition of playing video messages from far-flung family for each graduate. He also continued the quiz game “Know Your Fellows” using information and photos from those family members. The audience learned who was afraid to fly and who was an excellent dancer.

Wilson introduced each graduate and spoke about their best qualities and some of the challenges and successes they each experienced during their time at Iowa. He also asked each research mentor who worked with the graduates to say a few words about their projects. Josalyn Cho, MD; Greg Schmidt, MD; and Ian Thornell, PhD, each told stories about the graduates that revealed their capacity for curiosity, their tenacity, and how assured they each were that these graduates would continue to make significant contributions to medicine. After they spoke, the graduates brought up family that were able to make it for a group photo.

After dinner and dessert, Gross moved the presentation into the more humorous, but no less heartfelt, portion of the evening. After lightly roasting his soon-to-be-former boss, he walked through the history of his involvement in each class’s graduation and the brainstorming process for this year’s parody song. “With all respect for the losses we’ve each endured and the hope for the future that we all share,” Gross made clear before playing his parody of The Police’s “Roxanne” titled “VACCINE.”

As the laughter and applause died down, the fellows, as always, got the final word. Each of them spoke briefly, some with visual aids, about their gratefulness for coming to Iowa and training with such a supportive faculty and staff. They each stressed how much they have been changed for the better as a result and that Iowa would always hold a special place for them.

A few more group photos, a few more (now sanctioned!) hugs, and the guests took their time heading back out into the evening. Warmer and bolstered by the camaraderie and good feelings that can only come from spending time, in person, with those who mean the most to you.

Congratulations to this year’s graduates!

Camilo Cano Portillo, MC
Vikas Koppurapu, MBBS
Shweta Kukrety, MBBS (Chief Fellow)
Maksym Puliaiev, MD

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