Thank you, Dr. President: M4 Leland Dunwoodie
After four years serving as the Council of Class Officers president for the MD Class of 2022, Leland Dunwoodie reflects on his VUSM community
By: Lexie Little
For graduating students, the weeks leading to commencement mark a time of great excitement and anticipation of the future. And while that common experience remains true for M4 Leland Dunwoodie, the days leading up to his graduation from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine on May 13 also bring feelings of gratitude – for his education, his time as executive class president, his friends, his mentors, his partner, and his opportunities.
The next two weeks will serve as a time of thanksgiving, one markedly different from his first Thanksgiving in Nashville.
Setting the community scene
No lights or cameras filled a house on Natchez Trace on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving 2018, but plenty of action ensued as five medical students ventured to the grocery store. Roommates Dunwoodie, Patrick Donegan, Benjamin Coiner, Xavier Bledsoe, and the late Zachary Jones had decided to host Thanksgiving dinner for their classmates, and they needed to prepare.
Cue the situational comedy.
“None of us had ever cooked a turkey before, but we were hosting, so we said we’d make the turkey,” Dunwoodie said. “We bought the turkey the night before at 10 p.m. We had no idea that we needed to thaw it or anything like that. We got it and put it in the sink to try to let it thaw overnight. But Zach, being the astute future researcher he was, looked at all of the instructions and saw that you weren’t supposed to thaw it at room temperature for risk of infection. We had just finished our microbes and immunology block, so we were primed to take those things seriously.”
Nearly 75 pounds of turkey thus sat in the freezer until they awoke – no earlier than 10 a.m., likely closer to 11 a.m. – the next day. The hosts expected more than 60 guests at 6 p.m. Ransacking their cupboards for every pot and pan in the house, the Natchez Trace Boys scrambled to devise a thawing system instead of scrambling morning eggs. Well, late-morning eggs.
“We put [the turkeys] in these big pots and boiled the water in the pots, and we took other pots and pans and switched out which pot was getting hot water,” Dunwoodie said. “We eventually thawed them, and we baked one. Our friend and classmate Cullen [Moran] brought two fryers, and we fried two. And nobody got salmonella.”
Opening the house to their classmates, they fed all who visited. In retrospect, Dunwoodie thinks of memories like that Thanksgiving as one episode in a long-running sitcom, one actually lived and colored by realities of joy, challenge, strife, community, and care.
And Dunwoodie starred in a leading role.
Assuming a leading role
For the past four years, Dunwoodie has represented his MD class on the Council of Class Officers (CCO), most recently serving as executive president. Class officers advocate for students by bringing their thoughts about the curriculum, wellness, and student life to discussions with faculty and administrative leadership. They regularly organize events to support students in all aspects of their medical school careers, hosting everything from volunteer activities to casual campfire hangouts.
Dunwoodie’s leadership career started at Clemson University where he served as Student Senate President as an undergraduate. Through his interactions with people in the Clemson community, he realized a desire to serve and connect.
“I went in as a biochemistry major, and I found a love for computer science and biochem while I was there,” he said. “I thought I was going to go more toward an informatics research route, and I still want to do clinical informatics as part of my career as a pediatrician, but I found that I loved interacting with people so much through student government. I wanted to help people succeed at what they wanted to do, and I liked science. I saw medicine as a great connection of those two interests. That’s ultimately what led to me doing some shadowing and applying to medical school.”
After he received his acceptance from VUSM, Dunwoodie attended Vanderbilt’s Second Look Weekend, when prospective medical students meet current students, faculty, and staff and immerse themselves in activities related to VUSM programs and facilities. Prospective students also connect with potential classmates, forming friendships early on.
One friend Dunwoodie met at Second Look Weekend took on a particularly important role in his life: his partner, Caroline Maguire, with whom he will start residency in pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital this summer.
“I’m so blessed to be with Caroline,” he said. “She’s an amazing woman…We actually met at Second Look Weekend here, which was a lot of fun. The admissions team here does an amazing job. Jenn Kimble and Jennifer Bessette and the whole team do a great job of setting the tone for our culture here. It was great to meet Caroline at Second Look. We became friends during our first year and started dating toward the end of our first year of medical school. I’m super blessed to be with her and excited to be doctors together in a new city… Big changes are inherently scary at times, but it’s all really exciting – going to a new city where we haven’t spent that much time and going into a program that we feel is really going to care for us. That program will help us to become better people as well as better doctors. We’ll form a new community of friends and really start a life together. It will be an exciting time of change and growth and learning – not only from ourselves but also from each other.”
Before Dunwoodie and Maguire ever set foot on Vanderbilt’s campus, Dr. Eli Zimmerman, associate professor of neurology, knew the future class president would work tirelessly to continue a culture of support among his new classmates. He should know, as he served on Vanderbilt’s CCO before his own graduation from medical school in 2010.
The student-leader turned faculty member feels proud to have been even a small part of Dunwoodie’s journey at VUSM.
“I actually met him before he started here,” Zimmerman said. “I interviewed him when he was applying, and I knew he’d be a perfect fit for the school. Two things come to mind when I think about Leland – leadership and generosity. His leadership as class president, particularly during some really challenging times, has been tremendous. He is someone who just gets how to set an example and how to bring others with him to achieve a goal. He is also one of the most generous people I have ever met. If a classmate had a car stuck in a ditch in South Dakota, Leland would be the first one to volunteer to go rescue them. I’m so proud of everything he has accomplished and all the good stuff that lies ahead for him.”
Sitting in first-year lectures, Dunwoodie sat next to Maguire. They wrote each other jokes and puns based on the lecture via a shared Google Doc in which they also took notes. They built connections while reinforcing lessons in creative ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic required Dunwoodie and his classmates to get creative in yet other ways. They adapted to modified learning in the middle of their medical school careers, as social distancing guidelines altered the ways in which they gathered and navigated not only public health and patient health, but their own wellbeing.
Navigating plot twists
As the pandemic manifested, Dunwoodie recognized that his classmates each faced different personal challenges in addition to managing rigorous coursework and career responsibilities. He acted as an advocate for student needs at a time when mental health and wellness resources resonated more than ever before, encouraging his peers to take advantage of resources like free meditation through the Headspace app (provided free by Vanderbilt) and medical school-specific counselors at the University Counseling Center. He fostered a sense of support for his classmates through his willingness to listen and share these resources, all the while giving credit to fellow student leaders and administrators.
“During difficult times, being able to support classmates and to receive their support has helped strengthen our bonds. It’s what’s made our class so close,” Dunwoodie said. “In medical school, like in life, the stressful circumstances don’t always come up when maybe we think they will. From the first week of first year through the last week of fourth year, I know the school has our backs in whatever we’re going through. That starts at the top. I truly believe we have the best leadership in the country in Dean Brady, Dean Fleming, Dean Cutrer, Dean Vinson, Dean Pettepher, and Medical Student Affairs.
“That [leadership] spills down into them empowering our amazing students and student leaders to make effective change. The students are really the driving force behind making the school a better place…There are so many incredible student leaders. Those are the people that drive our school forward, and being able to learn from them and see them make their dreams a reality – even in the midst of a challenging medical school curriculum – is amazing.”
When those interested in VUSM ask Dunwoodie about his experiences as a leader, he lists full names of students who have worked on the Social Mission Committee, Wellness Committee, and at Shade Tree Clinic, assigning credit his colleagues working to promote health equity initiatives, wellness, and community service.
And while he notices and credits his classmates for the work they do to advance medical education at Vanderbilt, he remains humble, taking little credit himself. However, his work and presence do not go unnoticed.
“Leland is a person I admire for many reasons,” Associate Dean for Medical Student Affairs Amy Fleming said. “In his role as president, he has been a clear leader and always strived to serve and represent his class. He demonstrated an unusual ability to balance articulating the needs of his colleagues as individuals with the needs of the school as a whole. His fun and genuinely collaborative, cheerful leadership style has helped to elevate the wellbeing of all who work with him. He is a person I would choose to work with on any committee, as he brings energy, joy, and a desire to serve others. I will miss his presence at Vanderbilt greatly.”
In his four years at Vanderbilt, Dunwoodie assumed a visible presence. He volunteered to welcome new students at Second Look Weekend, encouraged classmates in Robinson College during College Cup events, welcomed family and friends to the 2022 Match Day celebration, and even donned an Albus Dumbledore (of the “Harry Potter” series) costume to act as a master of ceremonies at Cadaver Ball 2022.
Dunwoodie attributes his enthusiasm for VUSM largely to his classmates. He thinks of the Class of 2022 as an exemplary community, a tight-knit group of people who genuinely want to form intentional relationships with each other and with faculty, staff, residents, and fellows – holding each other accountable while laying a foundation of support on a highly interpersonal career path.
“They’ve always been there to support me,” he said. “They carry the unique, authentic energy that Vanderbilt University School of Medicine students have. That’s what makes it so easy for us to pay it forward and volunteer for events like Second Look Weekend or College Cup, especially when there are younger classes that haven’t experienced those things. It made such an impact on us, so it’s easy for us to carry that forward.
“I think I’m extra proud that our class is close with each other, but we’ve also made an active effort to become close with others in the School of Medicine community. There’s a ton of people that make the school go round. I think we’ve done an intentional job of connecting with teams of staff, faculty, and students during a challenging time to be a medical student.”
Preparing for his next role
Dunwoodie intends to carry that focus on other people into his career as a pediatrician, hoping to be authentic, genuine, and present in each moment. Looking to leaders like Senior Associate Dean for Health Sciences Education Donald Brady, he finds examples of who he hopes to be as a clinician and person.
He says VUSM leaders set human examples that strengthen a welcoming community and show students how to interact with people they encounter in their careers: with humility and care.
“In thinking of effective, authentic leadership, I think of Dean Brady,” Dunwoodie said. “He’s warm, he’s kind, and he’s caring, but he’s also his own goofy, unique self who participated in our satirical Christmas Card and Cadaver Ball shenanigans. And the other members of our leadership team are the same way. They are unashamedly themselves and willing to be vulnerable and show us their strength through their vulnerability and humanity.”
As a future pediatrician, Dunwoodie realizes the importance of authenticity. Going to the hospital or for a doctor’s visit can be an unnerving experience for patients, especially children, and an authentic, personable approach and expression of care goes a long way in defusing fears.
Dr. Travis Crook, associate professor of pediatrics and hospital medicine, noticed Dunwoodie’s ability to provide calm attention to care, even in stressful contexts like leading classmates through a global pandemic.
“[Leland] is incredibly adaptable and performs exceedingly well under pressure,” Crook said. “He remains unflappable in the face of adversity, which inspires confidence and promotes calmness in those around him. He has had a tremendous amount of strain and difficulties placed upon him in his four years here at VUSM and he has handled it all with grace and aplomb…He is humble, considerate, and intentional; he makes sure that everyone is comfortable, first and foremost, and leads by example.
“One of the unique, innate qualities that Leland possesses is how forthright and earnest he is. He engenders trust in those around him – from his patients to his peers, to his work teams, to his attendings. He engages in a deep and meaningful way that assures that he cares and is fully present and devoted to what he is doing. Leland’s patients know that they have been heard, their concerns are valued, and that they can rest assured that Leland will work with their best interests truly at heart. Caring is a term that is thrown around in the field of medicine, but it is rare to find individuals that care on Leland’s level; his ownership and investment in his patients, and the medical community as a whole, is admirable and precious.”
Setting the final scene
In March, Dunwoodie received a call from his brother who visited Nashville – and the famous house near campus – for Match Day festivities.
“It was just really fun to see the Natchez House in action one last time,” he said.
Those words transported Dunwoodie back to his first night at the house when all five roommates went out for dinner for the first time. He thought about Halloween in 2020 as they sat on the front porch, using a socially-distant pulley system to send candy baggies down the sidewalk to children in the community. He thought about that first Thanksgiving learning how to not poison dinner guests. And he thought about how much he grew thanks to his friends’ support and innovative minds.
“The community in my house with Ben, Pat, Xavier, and Zach has been sustaining and really helped me grow as a person. We call it the hive mind. We feel like we’ve almost entered each other’s consciousnesses. We’ve spent so much time together. And that house on Natchez Trace, there’s nothing like it.”
He now prepares to leave that Nashville house, packing up an impressive collection of Clemson garb and mementoes from his time at VUSM. His purple and orange wardrobe became a hallmark that Vanderbilt Medical Alumni Association (VMAA) Director Sarah Woodall (then director of VUSM Medical Student Affairs) noticed as soon as he arrived. With each fold of a shirt arm and zip of a bag, Dunwoodie thinks about the people like Woodall who made his time here worthy of diversifying his wardrobe.
Likewise, Woodall appreciates his commitment and example for future generations.
“When I first met Leland – decked out in his Clemson undergrad colors – I was struck by his positive energy and spirit,” she said. “After working with him for more than three years in his service as his class president, I got to know him as a thoughtful, caring, and considerate servant leader. I know he will always put his patients first and work to better himself and the medical profession. I look forward to seeing where life takes him – with a healthy supply of Vanderbilt black and gold.”
Dunwoodie hopes subsequent VUSM classes appreciate the supportive community at Vanderbilt, unafraid to grow individually and make new connections, become better people, and become great doctors. He stresses the importance of that support for physical and mental wellbeing – friendships, places, and activities that serve not just as breaks from school but outlets to enrich their lives.
His concern for others’ wellness will translate well as a pediatrician, but his friends acknowledge that his earnest care extends far beyond the profession.
And perhaps no one recognizes his care more than members of the Class of 2022, especially his roommates.
“Leland is one of the most genuine people I know,” M4 Pat Donegan said. “He truly puts others first and is seemingly always contributing to the betterment of our medical school community. Our struggling classmates are at the front of his mind, and he’ll help them at the drop of a hat. I admire his enthusiasm for striking up conversation with strangers and his resulting familiarity with people no matter where we go. It’s not a natural impulse [for most people], it’s his desire to make everyone feel comfortable. Leaving at the end of May is going to be hard not just because of the massive transition or going back to hard work but because I won’t be living with my little Natchez House family. And even though he arrived last to our house on the eve of our first day of class, Leland has always been first in making our house a home.”
As Dunwoodie prepares to close the door on the Natchez Trace house for the final time, the credits on that real-life sitcom roll through his mind: his friends, his family, his patients, his mentors, his classmates, and his partner. But one last slide makes it into production to convey the gratitude of those who know him, expressing their appreciation for his leadership: Thank you, Leland, for making VUSM a home.