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Renaming committee honored with Levi Watkins, Jr. MD Award

Posted by on Monday, October 24, 2022 in Awards, Student Initiatives .

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and Vanderbilt University Medical Center recognized student and faculty leaders for their contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the community on Oct. 18, 2022.

By: Lexie Little

A group of students and faculty stand behind a table with a gold tablecloth that says "Vanderbilt School of Medicine"

The committee responsible for the renaming of Vivien Thomas Way received this year’s Levi Watkins, Jr. MD Student Award for its contribution to inclusive excellence at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) and Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC).

During the social justice movement of Summer 2020, medical students and faculty in VUSM’s advisory colleges sought ways to effect change in their community. They wanted to take a step toward dismantling active reminders of racism, starting with a sign many saw each day: that of Dixie Place, the former name of the street between Oxford House and the Medical Center parking garage.

“My classmates and I saw the opportunity to rename this street as a way to take a step toward dismantling racism to create a more inclusive culture at VUMC,” M4 Eki Olumese said. “In this spirit, we sought to create a diverse committee, inclusive of members from various areas of the medical center.”

Then second-year medical students, this year’s awardees launched an initiative to rename Dixie Place, forming an advisory committee to collaborate with administration, representatives from affinity groups like Pride in Medicine and underrepresented in medicine (URM) communities, housestaff, and other leaders to define principles and values the future name should embody. They organized an effort to gather nominations, leading to the selection of Vivien Thomas.

Thomas, an African American Nashville high school graduate, would not have been allowed to enroll in medical school at Vanderbilt during the 1930s when segregation was the norm. Instead, he worked as a laboratory assistant to renowned cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Alfred Blaylock. Blaylock tutored Thomas in anatomy and biomedical science, and the young assistant mastered surgical and research techniques and methodologies. Despite doing the work of a postdoctoral researcher, Thomas received no such recognition. The institution classified and paid him as a janitor.

Together at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins Medicine, Thomas and Blaylock pioneered a surgery to correct “blue baby syndrome” (cyanosis) resulting from a congenital heart defect that limited oxygen to the blood.

In recognition of Thomas’ pioneering contributions, the renaming committee chose to honor him. Thus, the street became Vivien Thomas Way.

“We are here to continue to uplift Vivien Thomas not only for his contributions to cardiac surgery, but also for his ability to pave a way for other Black and African American students like me, to know that excellence is possible, and so is change,” Olumese said.

The name gained its official status in April 2021 following the student committee’s meticulous work.

Upon the unveiling, Vanderbilt Chief Diversity Officer and Vice Chancellor of Outreach, Inclusion and Belonging Dr. André Churchwell commended the student-led effort and the choice of Vivien Thomas.

“He was an individual who, despite institutional racism, made invaluable contributions to medical research that saved thousands of lives and advanced the field of cardiac surgery,” Churchwell said in 2021. “The previous street name evoked a painful history in our country—one that is in stark contrast to Vanderbilt University’s vision for the future and efforts to foster an inclusive environment for our Black community.”

Olumese said one of the lessons students learned in the renaming process is that effecting change takes time, patience, and buy-in from stakeholders, but anyone at any institutional level can work to create a more inclusive environment.

“We are honored to receive this award and thankful to be able to uplift Vivien Thomas again and continue the conversation about what it means to create a more inclusive environment at VUMC [and VUSM],” she said.

The Levi Watkins, Jr. MD Awards recognize at least one faculty member, one graduate student, and one medical student associated with VUSM for their contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence in the Vanderbilt community. Watkins, the first African American to graduate from VUSM, championed opportunities for underrepresented minorities and diverse populations in the sciences during his long career as a physician and researcher at the nation’s top medical institutions.

The 2022 awardees received their plaques during the 21st annual Levi Watkins, Jr. MD lecture on Oct. 18, 2022. The lecture series is sponsored by the VUMC/VUSM Office for Diversity Affairs.