March

Photo of Dr. Robert Brodell
Dr. Robert Brodell, chair of dermatology, is known for his hard work in the classroom and the clinic, and for the community at large.
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Run-and-gun mentor: In academic medicine, Brodell runs full-court press

Published on Monday, March 11, 2019

By: Gary Pettus

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of Mississippi Medicine, the medical alumni magazine.

Dr. Robert Brodell is showing off his necktie; the label says “Harold of Boca.”

He drapes it over his palm, presenting it like a jeweler with a fine watch, the tie’s colors — red, purple, pink and orange — blushing like a Florida sunset in, say, Boca Raton, where his parents once lived.

“My dad made this tie,” said Brodell, professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology at the Univer­sity of Mississippi Medical Center.

His father, Dr. Harold Brodell, who retired as an internal medicine specialist, also found time to make ties, do metalworking, quilt, sculpt, teach nautical knot-tying and tackle puzzles: “He could solve the Rubik’s Cube in 4.6 seconds,” his son says.

“His extra energy was spent on his hobbies. My hobby has always been academic medicine.”

That’s like saying Lebron James — one of Brodell’s idols —has a passing interest in basketball. Teaching is Brodell’s occupation, preoccupation, profession and obsession. “I have a habit of teaching anyone who asks me,” he said.

Brodell with patient, Kim Ross

Kim Ross has been Dr. Robert Brodell's patient for about four years. "We need to duplicate about 50 more" of him, she said.

From his parents he absorbed a commitment to help others, and from his father, in particular, he soaked up

deep reservoirs of get-up-and-go that his colleagues and friends cannot help but covet. These two traits he has packed up and moved to the classroom and to the com­munity at large.

Dr. Offiah
Offiah

“He is always thinking of about 500 different things at one time, and 495 of them are how he can help somebody else,” said Dr. Maureen Offiah (’14), UMMC as­sistant professor of dermatology and one of his former students.

“Dr. Brodell is one of the kindest humans I’ve ever met,” “And the hardest-working person I know.”

In October 2017, Brodell accompanied Offiah on a mission trip to Enugu State University of Science and Technology in her home country of Nigeria, a nation of nearly 200 million and only some 150 dermatologists, she said. Only two of those have undergone fellowship training in Brodell’s subspecialty, dermatopathology, the study of skin disorders under the microscope.

In what Brodell calls “one of the most unbelievably great experiences I’ve had in teaching and treating patients in my life,” they lectured medical students in Enugu and, in rural Nigeria, examined patients, includ­ing some diagnosed with monkeypox, which Brodell had never seen before.

Brodell with patient describing a dermatological condition to two M4 students

With the consent of one of his patients, Brodell describes a dermatological condition to Nneamaka Ezekwe, center, a fourth-year medical student at UMMC, and Dave Crasto, a fourth-year medical student at William Carey University.

“I was still a student when I told Dr. Brodell I wanted to do this; he said, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea,’” Offiah re­called. “I had always planned to give back to my peo­ple back home in Nigeria, but I didn’t think I would be able to do so in a significant way while still in training 

“But after I matched here for my residency, Dr. Brodell helped make it happen.”

His friend, Dr. Stephen Helms, who first met Brodell when they both lived in Ohio, has been observing him with fascination for 30 years. “The name ‘Robert Bro­dell’ is synonymous with energy,” said Helms, UMMC professor of dermatology.

“I’ve always teased his wife Linda that when he’s sleeping we need to take some of his blood and manufacture it. We’d be rich overnight.”

Dr. Linda Brodell, a retired ophthalmologist, was single and in college when she sought advice on pursuing a medical career.

“No one in my family was a doctor, so I went for guidance to the person who had been my pediatrician,” she said. “His name happened to be Robert Brodell – Bob’s uncle. Obviously, Bob was named after him.

“After our conversation, he called Bob up and said, ‘I’m sending you one of my ex-patients; take care of her.’ Bob [the nephew] and I started dating, and the rest is history.

“It was a pretty interesting, marrying the guy with the same name as my pediatrician.”

HOME’S WHERE THE SCALPEL IS

From the time he entered the second grade, Robert Brodell grew up in the Warren, Ohio, a Rust Belt town tucked inside the state’s northeastern pocket, about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Cleveland is home to the NBA’s Cavaliers, the team to which, more than once, Lebron James has taken his tal­ents, much to the delight of the 1997 Cleveland Cava­liers Fan of the Year: Robert Brodell.

“They put me in a TV commercial,” Brodell said. “I wore a shirt and tie under a Cavs jersey. I had season tickets for 20 or 25 years.”

Like a hoop to a backboard, it seemed, Brodell was at­tached to northeastern Ohio, where he attended War­ren G. Harding High School, made “last chair” alto sax in the band, played baseball and football in the back­yard, and waltzed willy-nilly into his neighbors’ homes to see what the refrigerator held.

“Unlocked doors,” he explained.

Brodell next to an animal sculpture in Italy

During his October teaching cruise, Brodell visits this stylized animal sculpture in Italy's port city of La Spezia.

His mom, Jean Brodell, who died in January 2017, was known for a recipe called “Jean’s Beans.” She brought up three children with “unconditional love,” Brodell said, and did so while serving as business manager for Brodell’s dad.

The physician’s office was in their home, just as Robert Brodell’s would be one day.

Both parents encouraged their kids to help those within their reach. This inspired Brodell, as an adult, to dive into charitable works for the American Cancer Society and its Relay for Life, which at its peak raised in one year more than $1 million in Trumbull County, Ohio, he said.

“Because of my mom and dad,” he said, “I learned to try to make a difference in my community.”

Over the years, Brodell taught at a couple of Ohio’s educational mainstays, including what is now North­east Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, and Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.

For 15 years, he also lectured periodically at the Uni­versity of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, his medical school alma mater and a four-and-a-half hour drive from Warren.

After finishing his dermatology residency at Washing­ton University in St. Louis in the mid-80’s, he realized his dream of setting up a practice with Linda in the town whose refrigerators he and his friends once raided. In Warren, the couple’s clinic was also their home.

For 27 years, Brodell ran a private practice in Warren and an independent certified dermatopathology lab, where his friend Helms was one of many dermatologists who sent him biopsy specimens.

“I loved my work and my patients,” said Brodell, who added that for years he was the only board-certified pathologist between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. “But for those 27 years, I always had in the back of my mind that “woulda, coulda, shoulda” thought about academic medicine.” 

Finally, the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” became a “did.”

BOB AND WEAVE

“I’m an accidental dermatologist,” Brodell said.

That may sound incredible, particularly if you know Kim Ross, 46, who for four years now has made the two-hour drive from her home in Greenville to the University Physicians Pavilion in Jackson to see Brodell.

“I’d gone my whole life with these skin issues,” she said. “It looked way worse four years ago when I

showed up at his doorstep. I’ve been to dermatologyists everywhere and my skin has never been this clear.

“We need to duplicate about 50 more of Dr. Brodell, and put him all over the state. Figure out a way to clone him.” His students and residents, current and former, gush with equal vigor.

Dr. Anadkat

Anadkat

When Dr. Milan Anadkat hears Brodell’s name, he thinks of root beers and chili dogs. That’s what Brodell ordered for lunch the day Anadkat, as a medical student, sought his advisor’s support in his quest for a dermatology residency.

“This was in Ohio at an A&W restaurant; we drove there in his Hummer,” said Anadkat, now an associate professor of medicine in the Washington University’s Division of Dermatology.

“Here’s your advisor driving a Hummer and having a root beer and a foot-long chili dog with you and telling you to call him ‘Bob.’ In an endearing way, he is humble and down-to-earth and has so much confidence in himself and in what he’s doing.

“Accomplished? Yes, but above all, he wants to relate to people at all levels.”

Dave Crasto, now an M4 at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg, contacted Brodell in November 2017 to express his interest in Brodell's specialty. Since that introduction, he has decided to become a dermatologist.

“That’s like saying I want to start for the New York Mets next year in center field and lead off,” said Crasto, acknowledging the competitive nature of dermatology matching.

“But Dr. Bob makes the time to show students the right direction. When I first contacted him, he immediately invited me to a Grand Rounds the next day. There’s a lot of awesome mentors around, and there’s a handful of champions; he’s one of the champions.”

Nneamaka Ezekwe, a fourth-year medical student, has done a couple of away rotations, including one at Harvard, she said, “and, I kid you not, some world-renowned dermatologists I’ve met mentioned Dr. Brodell’s name.

“I didn’t know at first that we had a superstar here at UMMC, but I figured it out quickly. He’s one of the driving factors behind my decision to go into academic dermatology, after seeing the impact he’s had through his research publications.”

Funny story: Brodell thought dermatology was a terrible idea, at first. He went for it for two reasons: for the sake of his children — who hadn’t been born yet, and for the sake of convenience when a residency slot suddenly opened at Washington University.

“It was right after a talk with my wife about two doctor families, raising kids, and having a life: It was a Tuesday night,” he said. By Thursday, he had been accepted into a dermatology program.

Until then, he had been a third-year internal medicine resident, while Linda was a medical student with her eye on a general surgeon’s career. But the talk established this: Specialties with fewer on-call and emergency duties meant spending more time with the children they were going to have.

And they definitely had them: Dr. Lindsey Dolohanty is on the dermatology faculty at the University of Rochester; her brother, Dr. David Brodell, is a second-year resident in that same program; Dr. Erin Tilton, is a third-year pediatric dentistry resident at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; Julie Smith does government consulting work for a small firm; Nathan Brodell is a project manager for an online real estate company in Seattle.

As it happened, as the children were being born, the dermatology thing was working out. “I love dermatology and dermatopathology,” Brodell said. “I love coming to work every day. Every day I encounter problems I’ve never heard of before.” 

Six years ago, he ran across something he had heard of: a headhunter email, much like the ones he had turned down before. But this one arrived after his children were all grown. It said, “Looking for a dermatologist at a Southern university.” 

This, he thought, was the chance to get that wouldacoulda-shoulda monkey off his back. What he didn’t know, though, was that it pointed the way to a position he hadn’t sought, to a state he knew nothing about.

PULL UP A CHAIR, OR TWO

“When you move to Mississippi,” Brodell said, “they bake you a pie. They ask you to join their church.

“We found Southern hospitality in Mississippi.”

They found it sometime after they met the UMMC recruiter at a restaurant for breakfast in the morning after Brodell read his email. Their server delivered the omelets and the headhunter delivered the destination’s name: “Jackson, Mississippi.”

Perhaps it was the look on the Brodells’ faces that prompted the recruiter’s next words: “‘It’s not what you think.’”

“Ever since then,” Brodell said, “I’ve said those same words a thousand times to people who I might recruit to come here.” 

In spite of his initial, dubious reaction, Brodell accepted an opportunity, to, as he said, “harness my strengths and maybe end my career in academics at a higher level than I had thought possible.

“But I never thought I would be a chair.”

When Brodell arrived at UMMC in the summer of 2012, the dermatology program was not at department level. By July 1, 2013, it was.

Dr. Keeton
Keeton

“One of the heroes of this story is Dr. Scott Stringer,” said Dr. James Keeton (’65), referring to the professor and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Sciences.

“Scott Stringer had taken on dermatology as a division of [otolaryngology] and helped Bob develop the makings of the department, and when it reached a critical stage of development it became one,” said Keeton, UMMC vice chancellor emeritus of health affairs and dean emeritus of the School of Medicine who led the Medical Center at the time.

“The work ethic with Bob Brodell was far beyond anything we had conceived of, and for him to take

what was a division at the time and make it into a department with all those subspecialties was amazing.

“I was also especially proud of his ability to develop a good working relationship with the other dermatologists in the state.” 

The division-to-department transformation was complete once the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education approved the residency program Brodell organized.

Dr. Cornelius
Cornelius

“I’ve always heard about this academic legend since I’ve been here,” said Dr. Lynn Cornelius, who, since 2000, has been chief of the Division of Dermatology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where Brodell did his residency and a fellowship at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“It’s been incredible to see what he has built within a short period of time,” she said. “I believe the amazing thing he has done in Mississippi is to build a lot of outreach to underserved areas.”

Brodell was able to hire nine physicians. Today, the department also has five nurse practitioners, an office at Grants Ferry and in Louisville, and once-a-month clinics in Belzoni and Rolling Fork. There are also monthly multispecialty services at Jackson Medical Mall catering to patients with melanoma and lymphoma.

“Mississippi is one of the most underserved states in dermatology,” Brodell said. “We’re trying to place dermatologists in those underserved areas.” 

Subspecialists include Dr. William Black (’08), a Mohs surgeon; and Dr. Jasmine Hollinger (’11), who handles such skin-of-color cases as vitiligo.

For 20 months, though, Brodell wasn’t just the chair of a department; he was the chair of two departments.

Brodell family photo

Dr. Robert Brodell's extended family assembles for a formal portrait a couple of days after Thanksgiving. They include, front row from left, Dr. Robert Brodell, Dr. Linda Brodell and Kara Dolohanty, and back row from left, Kellen Ball, Nathan Brodell, Derek Smith (holding Logan Smith), Julie Smith, Kevin Dolohanty, Lindsey Dolohanty (holding Kate Dolohanty), Erin Tilton (holding Brody Tilton), Bryan Tilton, Taylor Brodell (holding Charlie Brodell) and David Brodell. (Photo by Eddie Tucker, Tucker Photo & Film)

Asked to serve on an interim basis, Brodell led the Department of Pathology while continuing his duties in dermatology. In January 2018, Dr. Timothy C. Allen took over, and Brodell was once again a one-chair man.

“That was huge, serving as the chair of two departments at one time,” Helms said. “That’s how much confidence the leadership has in him. He was working many, many hours. It was not uncommon for him to come in at 5 in the morning, which he will do even now.

“In spite of all that and his tremendous academic accomplishments and the large number of publications he’s worked on alone and with students and residents, he is not impressed with himself. The longer he goes, the more approachable he becomes.

“He will meet with medical students or students still in college at 7 in the morning to talk with them about their interest in going into dermatology. He’s willing to help anybody and everybody as much as he can. He doesn’t know how to say, ‘no.’”

Even when he’s on vacation, Brodell might be teaching. This happens on continuing education cruise

ship conferences he and Helms have been taking for a dozen years, often bringing their families with them. On a recent cruise in the Mediterranean, physicians and other health care professionals heard 14 hours of dermatology lectures by Brodell.

The truth is, he does have other passions, or “hobbies,” besides dermatology, and travel is one of them. It is something he and Linda enjoy doing together, along with visiting their children and grandchildren.

While Brodell has other interests he and Linda share, his wife draws the line at boating.

The reason for that can be chalked up to another of his achievements. Years ago, the marriage proposal from hard-charging, mile-a-minute Robert Brodell was accepted by someone who admits she has “this fear of speed.”