Dean's Update

September 3, 2021 - Aron Sousa, MD


September is Women in Medicine Month, and while I thought about writing about women in medicine in the update each week of the month, I thought it was probably better to ask some women to write about women in medicine each week. So, I have asked some of our alumni to write about a woman in medicine who inspired them. Each week in September, I will include a page-long essay in the Dean’s Update and invite our alumni to speak at our Town Halls about their essay and their career. Schedules being what they are, some of the Town Hall sessions will stretch into October, but I am really looking forward to the essays and the conversations.

First up is Marsha D. Rappley, MD. Dr. Rappley graduated from the college in 1984 and returned to CHM to be faculty after her residency in pediatrics. She served as dean of the college from 2005-15. She has been a national leader at the FDA and the AAMC, and Marsha has been an astonishing mentor and sponsor for so many of us. I’ll catch up with you all after the essay, but for now, Marsha, the update is yours:

Nancy J. Hopwood, MD, allowed me to see that a physician could be a caring and compassionate person, as well as a superb teacher, scientist and investigator. I loved the caring part of being a nurse. And I longed to know more of the rigorous science behind what I was seeing and doing. In Dr. Hopwood, I saw that this might all be possible.

I always felt a great separation, a chasm, almost a class distinction between nurses and physicians. It wasn’t quite us vs. them. It was more like there are nurses and there are doctors. My family revered Dr. Shirley Austin, a renowned pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of Michigan during the 1950s who was instrumental in saving my infant sister’s life. And I met a few women pediatricians in my work as a nurse, so I knew it was possible for a woman to be a doctor. I also knew that it was unlikely. And certainly unlikely for me, someone more inclined toward literature than chemistry, ridiculed by medical students for asking questions during rounds, and rewarded by the thank you of a sweat-soaked cancer patient whose sheets I changed in the middle of the night.

Working alongside Dr. Hopwood, I started thinking, “If I were a doctor, I would want to be like Dr. Hopwood.” This slowly evolved to, “Maybe I could be a doctor like Dr. Hopwood.” This was the key to taking a step that felt enormously risky.

What if I applied and didn’t get accepted into medical school? My pre-med adviser told me that my chances were slim to none. Less than 1% of applicants at the time had degrees in nursing, and about 1% of those were accepted. Most medical schools were overwhelmingly male. And then there was chemistry.

Would I be able to handle the rejection, find fulfillment in my work, if I applied and was not accepted? Working alongside Dr. Hopwood made me realize that, if I made it, I could be a good doctor. I could be the kind of doctor I choose to be.

I was treated with great respect by many people in my career as a nurse, perhaps most deeply by my patients. Respect was conveyed to me as a person, for my abilities, for my potential to contribute. Mary Renkiewicz, RN, nursing supervisor at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, said “Maybe I see something in you that you don’t yet see in yourself.”

Ashok Sarnaik, MD, director of the ICU at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, insisted that I be the nurse assigned to his team to care for a direly ill child when I was an LPN. Christine Willis, RN, director of nursing at the University of Michigan Clinical Research Center said, “I think that’s a wonderful idea,” when I revealed that I was thinking, very preliminarily, about medical school.

Robert Kelch, MD, at the time chief of the Division of Endocrinology, who went on to serve in top leadership roles at the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan; and Irving Fox, MD, director of the UM Clinical Research Center, both always, always noted to everyone present that I had asked a very important question, every time the medical students sneered.

These are little things. But through these small acts of affirmation, I slowly built the courage to possibly fail in my reach to become a physician.

It was Dr. Nancy Hopwood in whom I could see a future for myself. If I could be a fraction as kind, as smart, as competent, as this intelligent woman thriving in her career, then I could be fulfilled. And I could contribute.

Dr. Hopwood attended my graduation from medical school (photo above) it was a great day.

-- Marsha D. Rappley, MD (CHM ’84)

Although I have occasionally had to follow Marsha, it’s not an enviable position to be in. I’ll be brief:

  • COVID-19 cases are up in our communities since July, and cases and percent positive tests are not climbing like they did in April’s surge in Ingham and Kent counties.
  • While there is no merit raise funding for non-union faculty this year, the university has provided a small market raise pool. Chairs have submitted market raise requests considerably beyond our funding capacity. We are trying to address inequity problems first and do the best we can with the limited size of the pool.
  • MSU’s undergraduates are back on the East Lansing campus, which is wonderful. While the Early Detection Program is only mandatory for people with vaccine exceptions, you can still volunteer, as I have.
  • Every county in the state is listed by the CDC as either substantial or high transmission of COVID-19. This means that, based on the CDC guidelines, everybody everywhere in Michigan should be wearing a mask when indoors in a public place.
  • This week, the Michigan Association of Preventive Medicine and Public Health Physicians and Michigan Association for Local Public Health released a letter asking for support of local health officials. In the last couple of weeks, I have heard about local health officers in Michigan receiving threats of violence and reports of physical intimidation by community members angry about COVID-19 related public health orders. My mind reels. These health leaders are trying their best to protect us and they need our support. Take a moment to thank the folks in your county health department, and when you get the chance in conversations, in public meetings, and in the media, vocalize your support for them and for the science of public health.  

Serving the people with you,


Aron Sousa, MD
Interim Dean

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