UTMB’s new Dean of Medicine was nineteen when she first saw a baby being born, and she has been dedicated to looking out for patients' interests ever since
By Judie L. Kinonen
It was 2001, and obstetricians at Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington, North Carolina, population fifty thousand, faced an awkward situation: Hispanic women from the growing farming community nearby were showing up at the hospital’s emergency room in labor, never having seen a doctor for prenatal care. Doctors were either turning away the women outright or brusquely delivering their babies and then sending them home without follow-up care.
When word of the problem reached Valerie Parisi, then chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, thirty miles east of Burlington, she sprang into action. Parisi, who is now UTMB’s dean of medicine, learned that the Hispanic mothers were taking their children to a bilingual pediatrician in Burlington, so she reasoned, “Why not offer prenatal care in the pediatrician’s office, where it was most convenient for the patients?” The pediatrician was agreeable to the idea, and Parisi knew a bilingual certified nurse midwife at UNC who was willing to work out of a small examining room in the pediatric clinic. Today, the Hispanic women of Burlington receive excellent prenatal care close to their homes, and when they go into labor they travel to North Carolina Women’s Hospital in Chapel Hill, where the midwives are prepared to receive them.
It’s a story of people rolling up their sleeves to serve those in need, and that’s exactly what medicine should be all about, Parisi says. She accepted the UTMB School of Medicine’s top spot last summer, succeeding Stanley Lemon, who stepped down to direct UTMB’s new Institute for Human Infections and Immunity. Parisi has been on campus since October 1, 2004 and she has enunciated a clear mission: “We need to view medicine not as a career, but as a calling,” she says, “and that means it’s always service first—patients first.” Parisi practices this “patients first” philosophy, and she hopes to instill it in future doctors at UTMB.
She speaks at a brisk, energetic clip that reflects her Brooklyn upbringing, but Parisi is no stranger to Texas. She began her career in academic medicine directing the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center (UTHSC) in Houston from 1984 to 1994, then chaired the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1994 to 1997. Meanwhile, she earned a master’s degree from the University of California–Berkeley School of Public Health, and, in 2004, a master’s in business administration from the University of North Carolina Kenan–Flagler School of Business. Parisi had earned her medical degree as a member of Brown University’s first School of Medicine graduating class in 1975.
She says the pivotal moment of her life came in 1969, the summer after her freshman year at Brown, when she discovered what she describes as her “calling” to medicine. Parisi had just switched her major from biology to the sociology of religion. She was conducting sociological research at Women and Infants Hospital in Rhode Island when a resident invited her down the hall one afternoon to watch a delivery. “That was it,” she says, “I was completely captivated by the process of birth.”
While delivering babies was her focus at the beginning of her medical career, she soon wanted something more challenging. “I realized that women have been having babies on their own for a long time,” she says with a chuckle. So she shifted her attention to difficult cases, such as diabetics’ pregnancies. Her questions about pregnancy complications eventually led her to the research laboratory and funding from the National Institutes of Health to study placental circulation.
“All the research and new technologies were so exciting to me,” she recalls. But over time a grim thought began to cast its shadow: “The older I got, the more I realized research is great, but it’s not the end of the day, because there are so many patients who will never benefit from it.” That insight led her back to focusing on patient care.
Similarly, while Parisi is impressed by UTMB’s reputation for research—citing construction of the Galveston National Laboratory as a great triumph for the university—she wants to see UTMB patient care and its clinical enterprise merit the kind of national attention its research program has garnered.
To that end, Parisi has begun collaborating with Dr. Karen Sexton, vice president and chief executive officer for UTMB Hospitals and Clinics, and other hospital administrators to help UTMB rank with the top institutions in the country in quality of care, patient satisfaction, and patient safety. To help advance the medical school’s subspecialty programs, she championed the decision to purchase land in northern Galveston County so UTMB doctors can provide needed specialty services and complement existing health care services in the growing community there.
Despite her hectic administrative schedule, Dean Parisi makes time for what she enjoys most—seeing patients, which she does at the new Women’s Health Center in League City, that opened in April. “I don’t want to sit up in my office and forget why I’m here,” she says. She also regularly schedules time to meet medical students for breakfast, to listen to their concerns and offer herself as a mentor.
Her resume is heavy with teaching awards, and Parisi’s former students can attest that she has earned them. “She makes a very personal connection with those she mentors, and she’s also an advocate for them,” says physician Bruce Meyer, who met Parisi when he was a resident at UTHSC in Houston and now serves as chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Massachusetts. Parisi is still a family friend—she delivered two of his children—and a professional mentor. He says he still calls her when he needs advice about a patient with pregnancy complications.
UTMB anesthesiology professor Amr Abouleish first met Parisi when he was a student at UTHSC, and he says seeing her again at UTMB after nearly two decades is almost like being reunited with family. She had an indelible impact on his career, writing an eye-catching comment in a letter of recommendation for his residency: “She finished the letter saying that if she were ten years older and had a daughter, she’d be proud to have me as her son-in-law,” Abouleish says. The comment was the first thing his interviewer at Harvard University mentioned, and he believes it helped land him a coveted spot in that residency program.
Parisi also made an impact on the career of physician Karen Adams, who is now director of the obstetrics and gynecology residency program at Oregon Health Science University. She met Parisi when she was a medical student at UTHSC in Houston. “Valerie was tremendously generous with her most precious commodity—her time,” Adams says. “She treated her students and her patients the same way, as if each individual was the most important person in the world.” Fifteen years later, Adams says she still tries to live up to that example.
“Perhaps Parisi’s most valuable contribution to future doctors is in showing them how she expresses compassion for patients,” Meyer says. “There is both teaching by example and teaching by discussion, and she always both talked and lived out her obligation to the less fortunate and those without health care resources,” he says. “She always made sure that we knew we were to be blind to a person’s payer status. You give everybody the best care you can provide.”
Meyer says that attitude rubs off on everyone she touches, because students and faculty alike are naturally inclined to follow Parisi’s lead. “She has a magnetic personality, and she’s very good at creating a mission or a vision,” he says. “When you’re working with her, you get the sense that she’s going places, and everyone is on the bus with her.”