Top Achievements in Charlotte Medicine 2015
In an effort to improve the quality of care available in their community, these doctors are making Charlotte a leader in medical research, training, and education
Domagoj Coric, M.D.
Medical school: Wake Forest University
How long he’s been in Charlotte: 17 years
Affiliation: Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates
Why he chose this area of medicine: “It was not my lifelong dream to be a surgeon. I went to medical school for psychiatry. The last year of medical school, I did work in neurosurgery and went down that path. It wasn’t one of those things I planned on, but the more I was exposed to it, the more I wanted to do it.”
His top achievement this past year: On January 20, 2015, Coric and Dr. John Ziewacz implanted the secondever neuro-spinal scaffold into a patient who had a complete traumatic spinal cord injury, which meant the patient had no movement below the injury. The procedure took place within the first 72 hours of the patient’s injury and involved placing a piece of bio-absorbable polymer, less than half an inch long and one centimeter wide, into the defect of the spinal cord. The difference between this and previous procedures is that the scaffold is implanted directly into the site of the injury. Within six to 12 weeks, the scaffold slowly dissolves and the body absorbs it, similar to what happens with surgical sutures. The surgery was part of a pilot clinical research study that may one day lead to recovery from spinal cord injuries.
Why this achievement is important: “This clinical trial is amazing,” says the patient, Jesi Stracham. “Four months ago, I had no feeling from the chest down. Now I’m able to take small steps using leg braces.” Coric says that theoretically, “you could easily see this being combined with other treatments, structural combined with biological treatments. [But] you must have safety and some efficacy. … It’s a tough patient population. For people who are paralyzed, recovery is very limited. It’s nice to be able to offer them something.”
Christine M. Bolen, M.D.
Medical school: Virginia Commonwealth University
How long she’s been in Charlotte: 8 years
Affiliation: St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital
Specialty: Pediatric Hematology and Oncology
Why she chose this area of medicine: “I’ve always been fascinated by the science of medicine. [During childhood], I had exposure to a child … who developed leukemia. I remember asking, ‘Why did he die? Why couldn’t we save him?’ That stayed close to my heart and never left.”
Her top achievement this past year: Bolen was part of a team of physicians that worked closely with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to help establish the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in April. Charlotte is now home to one of seven St. Jude affiliates in the country. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is based in Memphis, Tennessee, and is known internationally for its research and treatment of childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Why this achievement is important: Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital runs clinical research trials through the Children’s Oncology Group. This new affiliation allows the hospital to continue those trials and participate in St. Jude’s clinical research trials. Hemby is the only practice in the Southeast to offer both types of trials. Now, some patients who are eligible for St. Jude trials no longer have to travel to Tennessee to receive treatment. “It’s pretty incredible,” Bolen says. “Patients have access to the most impressive research and trials that are available worldwide.”
SEE ALSO: Charlotte's Top Doctors 2015
R. Glenn Gaston, M.D.
Medical school: University of Tennessee at Memphis
How long he’s been in Charlotte: 8 years
Specialty: Orthopedics, Hand
Why he chose this area of medicine: “I loved the anatomy and biomechanics of the hand and wrist, but even more, the diverse population it allows me to care for. My practice includes newborn babies to elderly, Level 1 trauma to pro athletes, and all walks of society.”
His top achievement this past year: In 2014, Gaston and Dr. Bryan Loeffler, who specializes in hand and upper extremity disorders from the fingertips to the shoulder at OrthoCarolina, performed a procedure called targeted muscle reinnervation on a patient who lost an arm in a car accident. The surgery, which was the first of its kind in North Carolina, allowed them to move the nerves that used to control the amputated hand into the upper arm. There, the same nerves would control the prosthetic hand through myoelectric signals, which are naturally generated by the muscles. Gaston this year also started the accredited OrthoCarolina Hand Fellowship and serves as its director. The fellowship offers two positions a year to applicants who have completed a residency in orthopedics, plastic surgery, or general surgery.
Why the fellowship is important: The goal is to provide fellows the skills and experience necessary to become an upper-extremity expert. With eight practicing hand surgeons involved in fellowship education and a center that treats more than 50,000 patients and performs more than 5,000 surgeries annually, OrthoCarolina is becoming one of the top places to train in the country.
Thomas K. Fehring, M.D.
Medical school: University of Texas
How long he’s been in Charlotte: 30 years
Specialty: Orthopedics, Hip and Knee
Why he chose this area of medicine: “I went into orthopedic surgery because I played football at Wake Forest [in the mid-1970s] and sustained multiple injuries. I was influenced by the orthopedic surgeon and trainer there to pursue a career in orthopedic surgery.”
His top achievement this past year: Fehring is the president of the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons, as well as The Knee Society. They’re two of the most prestigious organizations in his field. But his proudest accomplishment is his work with the OrthoCarolina Foundation, which supports education initiatives to improve the quality of health care. Fehring is the foundation’s co-director, as well as the co-director of OrthoCarolina’s Hip and Knee Center. He helped launch a program that brings orthopedic surgeons from developing countries here to train.
Why the foundation is important: On the whole, the OrthoCarolina Foundation helps local educational groups, such as Citizen Schools, Teaching Fellows Institute, Queen City Forward, Promising Pages, and Pat’s Place, with grant funding. In the International Fellows program, surgeons from developing countries spend a month or more with Charlotte-area surgeons. Many of the fellows are also teachers, who share what they learn here with doctors in their home countries. The program has worked with 20 physicians, and this fall, it will bring surgeons from Ghana and Nigeria to Charlotte.
Edward Copelan, M.D., and Belinda R. Avalos, M.D.
Medical school: Tufts University Medical School (Copelan) and The Ohio State University (Avalos)
How long they’ve been in Charlotte: 2.5 years; Levine Cancer Institute recruited this husband-and-wife team in 2012.
Affiliation: Carolinas HealthCare System and Levine Cancer Institute
Specialty: Hematologic Oncology and Blood Disorders
Why they chose this area of medicine: Copelan became passionate about bone marrow transplantation during a fellowship at UCLA, while Avalos developed a similar interest during her time as a medical student at Ohio State. Both credit the “curative potential” of this specialty and the amount of research taking place for drawing them into this field.
Top achievement this past year: In 2014, Avalos and Copelan led the opening of the region’s first adult blood and marrow transplantation unit. The unit includes 16 specialized rooms, an apheresis unit for collecting donor cells, and a cell-processing laboratory. The team has also recruited eight physician-scientists to the institute’s Department of Hematologic Oncology and Blood Disorders.
Why this achievement is important: With the opening of the transplantation unit, patients now have access to technology and treatment that they once would have had to travel three hours to receive. Levine Cancer Institute is now one of the leading enrolling sites for blood cancer clinical trials in the country. In one year, the department performed more than 60 transplants, exceeding initial expectations.