Shade Tree Clinic celebrates 10th annual benefit
Nine-time Grammy Award-winner Sheryl Crow and Grammy nominee Rivers Rutherford headlined “Late Night with Shade Tree Clinic” on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022
By: Lexie Little
Everyday is a winding road, one might say, for the underserved populations of the Nashville area. And since 2004, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine students have played an integral role in making the path to accessible health care easier for hundreds of patients in Middle Tennessee.
Shade Tree Clinic, now in its 18th year, provides free care to residents with limited resources including the uninsured, underinsured, and housing insecure populations in and around Davidson County. Medical and nursing students from Vanderbilt and affiliate programs gain clinical experience while serving a panel of around 300 patients under the supervision of faculty and Vanderbilt University Medical Center health professionals. Donors, Vanderbilt leadership, community partners, and volunteers collaborate to support the clinic’s efforts, including fundraising through an annual benefit organized by students.
“Late Night with Shade Tree Clinic,” sponsored by the Vanderbilt Medical Alumni Association, Messer Construction, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, brought supporters across the country together for a night of gratitude and guitars for a great cause on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic required that this year’s benefit and silent auction be virtual, that didn’t stop attendees from having some fun. After all, that’s all special guest Sheryl Crow wanted to do.
“It’s all about intention,” Crow said. “When I got to speak with the co-chairs yesterday, I got the full picture that the intention you guys have at Shade Tree is to help push humanity forward, to lift up those who are disenfranchised or who are somehow falling between the cracks. Where the blessing is, for them, the blessing is that you’re helping them. But the blessing for you guys is the deep feeling of the commitment to humanity that we all come away with when we lift somebody else up.”
Medical student hosts Hannah Kay and Tim Schurz, a married couple preparing to match into residency together this spring, kicked off the evening with the clinic’s student executive directors, Shauna McLaughlin and James Jordano. Sitting on a couch and chairs in positions like a late-night television talk show stage, students reflected on the importance of Shade Tree in not only their medical careers but in the community.
A third-year student, McLaughlin decided to come to Vanderbilt for medical school after learning about Shade Tree from a friend who volunteered at the clinic. When the pandemic interrupted in-person activities in March 2020, the usual way of having clinical interactions with patients became impossible. Yet, she found comfort in Shade Tree’s innovation.
“The first thing that happened was that I saw a huge outpouring of support from Shade Tree volunteers and the executive board…helping our patients learn how to use things like telehealth – technology that some of them had never used before – to make sure that they could continue to get care,” she said. “[They coordinated] contact lists and medication pickups.
“Now, we’re two years into it, back in-person stronger than ever…We prioritize our patient safety, our practitioner safety, and our student safety. We know that we’re going to keep on going, and I’m so proud of how the school and our volunteers have handled this pandemic with so much grace.”
The benefit came to a crescendo with greatest hits performances from Crow and Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame member Rivers Rutherford, whose daughter Maggie – a third-year Vanderbilt medical student – performed with him. All the while, attendees bid on silent auction items like a guitar signed by Crow, posters and photos autographed by country stars, a football signed by Tennessee Titan Ryan Tannehill, student and faculty artwork, and local gift sets.
Shade Tree Clinic volunteers and leadership hoped to raise $100,000 to support the clinic’s ongoing mission. They surpassed that goal, raising more than $143,000 in just one week. VUSM students Jessica Giles and Gabrielle Davis acted as co-chairs for the event.
While students remain the driving force behind Shade Tree, faculty play an integral role in clinic operations, led by medical directors Drs. Robert Miller, Eleanor Weaver, and Cooper Lloyd. Students, alumni, and colleagues honored the late Shade Tree medical director Dr. Michael Fowler at this year’s event for his extensive contributions to the clinic’s mission and medical education. A video compilation of messages shared moving remembrances of and gratitude for the long-time faculty member who died just four days after the benefit following an extended illness.
Fowler came to Vanderbilt as a fellow after completing medical school and residency at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine. He joined the faculty as an assistant professor of Medicine in 2003, rising to the rank of associate professor in 2015. During his tenure, he gained the admiration and respect of students, faculty, and patients for his commitment to compassionate care, earning one of the first John L. Tarpley Awards for commitment to care of underserved communities in 2018.
Fowler also left a legacy as a gifted teacher who had a knack for connecting with students from Day 1 at VUSM.
“Dr. Fowler was my first introduction to patient care in our physical diagnosis class as a first-year medical student,” Alumni Shade Tree Director Sarah Brown said. “I asked for extra help with blood pressures, other medical students asked for help with blood draws and cardiac exams, and he invited us into his own clinic to interact with his own patients and practice those skills.”
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education Dr. Bill Cutrer called Fowler “an absolute superstar,” saying a generation of Vanderbilt medical students are better for having worked with him, a clinician with an exponential impact on medical education and patient care.
Known for his humor, wit, generosity, medical skills, and magnanimous mentorship to students, alumni, and colleagues alike, Fowler dedicated his practice to the underserved, demonstrating true service through his work at Shade Tree and on student mission trips to Nicaragua.
Students and faculty working at Shade Tree Clinic now look to carry on Fowler’s legacy, using the proceeds from its February benefit to serve the underserved populations of Nashville and educate the next generation of compassionate, conscious, and capable clinicians.