Against the Odds

ADDRESSING OHIO’S GREAT HEALTH CARE CHALLENGES WITH A NEW OSTEOPATHIC MEDICAL SCHOOL TOOK VISION, PERSISTENCE AND A HEALTHY DOES OF COURAGE. 

The nation was awash in red, white and blue for its bicentennial. A hitherto obscure Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter was challenging incumbent Gerald Ford for the White House. A newspaper heiress named Patty Hearst was on trial for her involvement with a homegrown militant group. And in Athens, Ohio, an intrepid band of two dozen students was starting classes amid the dust and noise of construction at an osteopathic medical school that had come into being – against all odds – less than a year before.

For the inaugural class of the new – and still unfinished – Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine, arrival on campus in 1976 was an exciting, slightly scary leap of faith.

“We all came here, and the school wasn’t completely finished,” recalled Hinda Abramoff, D.O. (’80). “They were building the school around us. And we all wondered whether we were really going to get a good education. We all wanted to be good doctors.”

By virtue of her last name and the alphabet, Abramoff enjoys the proud distinction of holding the first degree awarded by the college. Now an anesthesiologist with Cleveland Clinic, she has watched with interest as the school whose birth pangs she witnessed turns 40 and launches a new campus in affiliation with her employer.

That the college came into existence at all seems in hindsight miraculous; those present at the creation recall opposition from the Ohio State Medical Association and the Ohio Board of Regents, as well as an incredibly short deadline to have the school up and running. The state law creating the college and providing $670,000 in startup funding was signed August 1975; Charles Ping, who had just become Ohio University president at the time, recalled being stunned when he read the fine print.

“Somebody had slipped into the bill language that said, unless students were admitted within one year from the effective date of this bill, there would be no further appropriations,” Ping said. “I didn’t know what was in the bill until I read it. And that’s appalling. It takes seven years, on average, to open a medical school.” But after intense work, the first class arrived on schedule at a medical school housed in former residence halls, with renovations still underway.

Osteopathic physicians had been practicing in Ohio, and Ohioans had been training as D.O.s since the late 1890s. But as of the early 1970s, none of the state’s six medical schools was osteopathic. The Ohio Osteopathic Association (OOA), concerned that an Ohio resident who got D.O. training in another state was apt to stay there to practice, mounted a lobbying effort to open an osteopathic school in the state.

Though different universities were considered for the new school’s home, Ohio University got lawmakers’ attention with the suggestion that the college could be put into existing dormitory buildings on the university’s West Green, then partly empty (and creating a financial drain on the state) because of a drop in enrollment after the Vietnam War. The OOA also helped by assessing its 1,021 members a six-year annual payment of $250 to support the project.

From day one, a primary care focus

One selling point was the promise that the school would focus on training primary care physicians who would commit to practicing in Ohio after graduating; the legislation required 80 percent of the college’s students to be from Ohio or to commit to practicing in the state for five years. Initially calling only for creation of an osteopathic medical school, the bill was amended while in the House to specify the school be a “component part” of Ohio University.

With powerful support from a handful of key legislators, House Bill 229 passed the House overwhelmingly in March 1975, followed by Senate approval in July and signing by Gov. James Rhodes in August. George Dunigan Jr., then a lobbyist for OOA and now director of governmental relations at the Heritage College, said many people contributed to the effort, including then-Ohio University President Harry Crewson, Vice President for University Relations Martin Hecht, and the bill’s legislative “arch-champion,” state Sen. Harry Meshel of Youngstown.

Meshel, now 91 years old, got to see firsthand how far the college he helped create has come, when he attended a celebration of its new Cleveland campus in August. He recalled that one big reason for his support in 1975 was the fact that the region around Ohio University was medically underserved.

“I knew that southeastern Ohio needed medical facilities,” Meshel said. “They needed medical help for vast numbers of people.”

Dunigan called the support from the state’s osteopathic physicians amazing and indispensable. “The osteopathic profession came together like a fist to support the college with their money, their time and their initiative,” he marveled.

Jon Wills, then director of public relations for OOA and now its executive director, confirmed the importance of the osteopathic community’s backing – which he admitted was a tough sell to some members.

“No other profession has supported a public college in that way,” Wills said. “That got the attention of the legislators.” In planning for the college’s structure and curriculum, he said, planners took the best ideas from other D.O. colleges. “All the concepts that had shown some success in the past were built into it.”

Though he’s no longer alive, the name of the college’s first dean, Gerald Faverman, Ph.D., quickly emerges in any discussion of its earliest days. Faverman, not being a D.O., could not serve as dean long term, but he was hired to ramrod the school’s creation based on having helped facilitate a similar project at Michigan State University, which partly inspired the Ohio venture.

Those who knew Faverman describe a physically towering, hard-driving, charismatic and sometimes abrasive man who would go under, around or over naysayers to get things done, and who worked tirelessly to push the school’s story out to the media.

John E. Rauch, D.O., of Logan, Ohio, who served on the OOA committee to investigate the feasibility of an Ohio osteopathic college, recalled of Faverman: “He was like, ‘If I stepped on your foot, I’m sorry. Pull it out from under.’ He was full speed ahead and got the job done in record time, which was historic. No medical school had ever been started up in the time he was given, and he did it.”

While renovations proceeded with one eye on the calendar, the college was busy lining up faculty, appointing administrators, signing agreements with teaching hospitals, and trying to build a curriculum, all under the same time constraint.

“The curriculum didn’t get started being put together until December of 1975. And we were in a panic,” acknowledged Frank Myers, D.O., trustee professor emeritus of family medicine, who served as the college’s first associate dean for clinical affairs and took over as dean in 1977. He recalled that Charles G. Atkins, Ph.D., then associate dean for basic sciences and now associate professor emeritus of biomedical sciences, “spent several weeks in a couple of different stretches at Michigan State, seeing how they handled their curriculum. We wanted to use what was one of the first transitions away from the traditional course categorizations.”

Some basic science faculty were recruited from within the university, and some had to be won over to support of the new college, according to Thomas Wagner, Ph.D., who taught chemistry and later won renown for the university with his gene-splicing research. He said Ping’s unwavering commitment to making the new school a top-drawer institution was crucial in convincing the skeptics.

“He made it clear that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it at exactly the same level of competence and capability and elegance as at the allopathic medical schools,” Wagner said. “It was all Dr. Ping, insisting that this would … increase the prestige of the university and not decrease it.”

Only the resilient need apply

The first class arrived with varied life experiences. According to Carol Poh Miller’s A Second Voice: A Century of Osteopathic Medicine in Ohio, the first class included 16 men and eight women from 13 Ohio counties, New York and Michigan, who had been chosen from a field of 284 applicants. With an average age of 25, most had explored other career paths before enrolling, and many held master’s degrees.

Ronald Moomaw, D.O., (’80) now a NASA flight surgeon and psychiatrist,
said he believes Faverman consciously sought out seasoned, mature students, who would have the resilience to serve as trailblazers.

“Faverman picked people who had experience and were survivors,” said Moomaw, who partially funded his medical education by selling a construction business he had started. “It was a crowd that had actually tested themselves in life.”

Was there some unease about the raw newness
of the venture?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Moomaw said. “We had no class before us; they were still bringing the professors in. It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to have to move forward, we’re going to have to get an education, and we’re not sure how we’re going to do this.’ But this was a pretty tough crowd, and we just worked seven days a week – literally. I actually fell asleep in the anatomy lab twice at night.”

Another member of the first class with plenty of life experience behind him was MacGregor Poll, who flew combat missions in Vietnam for the U.S. Air Force before starting medical school at 33.

“I think I was the oldest one in the class,” said Poll, now an anesthesiologist in Tennessee. “I had developed an interest in medicine, and I got a chance to meet Gerald Faverman, the acting dean, and that’s how I ended up at the school.”

Abramoff, one of two New Yorkers in the group, said she got in partly by chance. “I’d been applying to medical schools, and I didn’t know anything about Ohio University,” she said. During a visit to a friend working for Faverman, she met the dean – who promptly asked her to apply. “I interviewed when I was there,” Abramoff recalled. “I just said, ‘All right, I’ll interview.’ On the spot. I interviewed in my blue jeans and T-shirt.”

Stephanie Knapp, D.O. (’80), now a pediatrician and allergist in Pennsylvania, came by a more traditional route. “I was in school at Ohio State University, and I’d always wanted to be a doctor,” Knapp recalled. “I didn’t really know as much about D.O.s as I did about M.D.s, but somebody told me about a new medical school being started at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.”

Did the slightly chaotic state of the school make her nervous?

“Actually, no,” she said. “I wanted to be a doctor so bad, it didn’t bother me. I would have gone anywhere to achieve my goal – and Ohio University was the place that gave me the chance.”

Support from unlikely places

Knapp, like others who looked back on the early days, vividly remembered Sherman Brooks, a university janitor with an interest in medicine who asked to be transferred to the new medical college. Brooks was dubbed “resident dean of humanity” in a 1978 college yearbook feature.

“He was the nicest guy,” Knapp said. “He was from southern Ohio. He was very encouraging when we were studying at night; sometimes he would quiz us. He was such a great guy, and I really remember him and how kind he was, and how welcoming.” Brooks, who died in 1987, was honored three years later with a scholarship in his name.

Abramoff recalled a warm embrace by the Athens community. “They were so welcoming to us,” she said. “We got invited to the president of a bank’s house for dinner, and got visits from all these community organizations. I felt like a VIP.”

Faverman stayed close to the first class, offering pep talks laced with blunt honesty. “Some of you are not working as well as you should; some of you are uptight; some of you are cocky,” he once warned the students over a lunch meeting. “But I’m not going to let any one of you go down the tube. … It’s a risk for all of us. Let’s just keep on trying and trusting. We’ll make it.”

A feeling of family

Those who staffed the school at the outset have a range of memories with a common thread – a sense of close camaraderie in a shared adventure.

Charles “Chip” Rogers Jr., director emeritus of external relations, worked first as Faverman’s assistant and driver (Faverman had terrible eyesight).

“There was a familial atmosphere,” Rogers said. “Faverman said to me one time, ‘You know, if this thing fails, you’re out of a job, too.’ And that’s kind of an incentive when you’ve got four kids and a house payment. So we all worked harder, but we all supported one another, because it’s ‘united we stand, divided we fall.’ So everybody stood behind one another.”

Carl Denbow, Ph.D., director emeritus of communications, painted a similar picture, noting that in the early days, it wasn’t uncommon for a staffer to stop a faculty physician in the hallway for a consult about a medical complaint.

“It was a team effort, and we got along really well,” Denbow said. “I guess we had a sense that we were at ground level of an enterprise that really had a promising future, and there was a great sense of pride in that.”

That pride continues to grow among students and staffers who were in on the ground floor as they watched the college expand with a new campus in Dublin, Ohio, in July 2014 and in Cleveland in July 2015.

Such growth, Moomaw said, was “totally unpredictable” 40 years ago. “Who would have ever thought?” he said. When he first entered the college, Moomaw noted, the facilities were something less than state-of-the-art. “Now I visit, and I say, ‘Wow, I’d like to go to this school.”

Current Heritage College Executive Dean Kenneth Johnson, D.O., said the experiences of the trailblazing students from 1976 are now being mirrored in the birth of the Dublin and Cleveland campuses.

“It must be extraordinary to have watched the college being created from the ground up, and now, 40 years later, to see elements of that exciting process play out again in Dublin and Cleveland,” Johnson said. “I really hope some of our current pioneer students get a chance to compare notes with the classes from those earliest years.”

Ohio University President Emeritus Ping suggested that, in a career with many highlights, helping nurture the College of Osteopathic Medicine ranks near the top.

Seeing how far the college has come in 40 years, “I just get this glow about me,” Ping said. “I think getting the college off the ground was among the finest moments of my years here in Athens. … And we have an outreach in the region that I’m very proud of. I remember early on when they undertook a campaign to vaccinate all the schoolchildren in southern Ohio that had not been vaccinated. That’s such a feeling of ‘this is what we’re supposed to do.’ And we’ve done it.”