Carol Gilbert, associate professor of surgery at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, won the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award.

The prestigious award “honors a medical school faculty physician who exemplifies the qualities of a caring and compassionate mentor in the teaching and advising of medical students.”

The Association of American Medical College (AAMC) gives out the award at their annual conference at an awards dinner, held this year on Nov. 13 in Seattle, Washington.

Students from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine nominated Gilbert for the award. All 145 U.S. LCME-accredited medical schools were able to nominate one faculty physician for the award. Gilbert was selected from those nominations.

“I have never witnessed anyone be able to replicate her compassion for teaching as well as medicine,” said Robert Ferguson, a surgical resident in the Carilion Clinic - Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine program. “Dr. Gilbert is a true inspiration to all of us here at VTC. She is one of those rare surgeons who is not only a master in the operating room, but is also a compassionate healer and advocate for her patients.”

“This award is a big honor for me. I was so amazed to even have the students working on this,” Gilbert said. “I’m so touched.”

Carol Gilbert with a student working on a ghost heart
Carol Gilbert works with Class of 2015 student Lauren Poindexter in the medical school's anatomy lab on a so-called "ghost heart," a concept that could help develop organs for transplant.

Gilbert developed a desire to become a doctor at an early age.

“When I was about 3, our next door neighbor who is a physician gave me a stethoscope. I grew up with that like some kids grow up with a teddy bear,” Gilbert said.

Early on, Gilbert’s parents said she began “doctoring” her siblings.

“I came down one Sunday morning and explained that my brother was sick. My parents came up and listened and he was having an asthma attack. I was probably 5 at the time,” Gilbert said.

Despite her early drive, Gilbert faced challenges to become a doctor. When she attended the University of California Davis School of Medicine, only 20 to 25 percent of her class were women.

Gilbert faced the larger hurdle when she decided to pursue surgery because she was a woman and left-handed, both attributes that were rare among surgeons in the 1970s. When she started her surgical residency in Portland, Oregon, she was the program’s first woman.

When she left her residency and fellowship, Gilbert vowed to be a role model to other women and men as well.

“I took the Hippocratic Oath very seriously, particularly the part where you agree to pass on the practice of medicine. I feel it is integral to do that. You should be teaching people and passing it on, providing them with the best possible example of what you want to see in a physician,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert with the Life-Guard crew
Gilbert, center, with the Life-Guard crew.

Gilbert left her training and came straight to Roanoke, Virginia, where she has been a physician and trauma surgeon since the early 1980s. Gilbert served as the first medical director for Life-Guard, the first medical helicopter in Virginia.

She has weathered many changes to the health system, which was focused on hospitals in the early days, to a clinical model with Carilion Clinic, to now the beginnings of an academic medical center with robust residency programs, research, and the opening of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine for its first class in 2010.

Already active in teaching through the surgical residency, Gilbert quickly got involved with the new medical school, helping with early curriculum development and implementation.

She has maintained an active faculty role since, serving as a facilitator for problem-based learning cases, engaging in innovative anatomy instruction, and observing students in clerkships.

“Dr. Gilbert has achieved the profoundly rare status in her career where she is simultaneously an excellent mentor for students, a master clinician, a compassionate surgeon, an academic leader in resident and student education, and an advocate for all learners and patients,” said Chris Reed, a 2016 graduate of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and general surgery resident at Duke University.

Beyond her skills as a faculty physician, Gilbert earns high praise from students and peers for her compassion.

“This was no more apparent than recently when she and I rounded together on a mutual patient in the ICU,” said T.A. Lucktong, director of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine surgery clerkship and associate professor. “To help the patient's family better understand situation, she invited members to join us on rounds where she kindly and patiently explained each aspect of the patient's care as the team was discussing complex multi-system management.”

Gilbert started this practice about five years ago to open up lines of communication with patients’ families.

“I want the family to understand this is a group affair and they are part of the team, taking care of the patient just like we are,” Gilbert said. “I also send the students into the room to get the family. I want the family to see the student as bringing good things – information is the most important thing to a family with a patient in the ICU.”

Students and physicians also note Gilbert’s ability to inspire hope for patients and their families. Almost two decades ago, one of Gilbert’s patients was a 2-year-old boy who suffered a bad head injury. Another doctor told his mother the boy was unlikely to recover.

“I told her in my experience, this is a very bad head injury. But the reason we are pursuing this is because I would love for in a year or two for you to bring him back and say, 'See what the difference is',” Gilbert said.

The patient is now in his mid-20s and still calls Gilbert from time-to-time to catch up.

Gilbert holds a newborn baby in Haiti
Gilbert holds a newborn baby in Haiti. She went to the country with a disaster medical assistance team after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Photo: Carol Gilbert

Beyond helping patients and students in Roanoke, Gilbert volunteers for a disaster medical assistance team. She went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.

“They were huge life-changing experiences for me. Sometimes I feel like, I go down to help but I come back a different person,” Gilbert said. “We were only down in Haiti for 10 days but learned a lot about improvisation in medicine.”

She also trains dogs for search and rescue operations. One dog is trained to find lost or hidden people and has helped with local and national searches after crimes or natural disasters. A second is a conservation dog, trained to find certain animals or plants for research studies. Her third dog helps look after her house.

“I’ve gotten so much more out of my dogs than I’ve put in,” Gilbert said. “You get out with your dog, you work with the dog, and come to appreciate what the dog can do.”

Gilbert with her search and rescue dog Moki
Gilbert with her search and rescue dog, Moki, in Alabama after significant flooding in the state.
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