Dean Atkinson is back to work

Updated November 21, 2017 - 11:27 am

Barbara Atkinson is back full time as founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine as it winds down on Friday the first semester in its history.

The 75-year-old Atkinson said she feels like she has a “new lease on life,” after recovering from a ruptured intestine that left her in a coma in the intensive care unit at UMC for two weeks in July at a time the school launched.

“I was fine and at home on Sunday, and all of a sudden I had a pain in my abdomen and within a half an hour it got terrible and I passed out,” Atkinson said. It was a pretty bad time for my family, and not as bad for me until I woke up from a coma after a couple of weeks.”

Atkinson spent more than a month at UMC where she said the care was incredible. She then went to rehab for a month before continuing her recovery at home. She returned to work on Nov. 1.

“It’s been a long time coming back,” Atkinson said. “It’s a lot better to be at home and even better to be at work than at a hospital and rehab center. I’m doing great. It’s great to be back at work and being able to do things again. I’ve learned I’m one of those people that would rather be at work than be at home. I really like to work. That part of my life I enjoy.”

Atkinson said she was on a respirator and was in critical condition, adding “it went downhill” for a couple of weeks since a rupture intestine causes material to go into the abdomen.

“I went from one kind of failure to another,” Atkinson said. “Once I started back up again, I have come back completely and recovered everything I had before. I feel very lucky. I’m pretty much 95 percent. I can do everything. I was using a walker for a while and wheelchair for a while. I’m back full time walking. I can go up and down the stairs. I do everything. I just get tired more easily. That’s the biggest thing now.”

During the course of her recovery, Atkinson said she appreciates how people have treated her and how positive they’ve been and complementing her efforts about the launch of the UNLV School of Medicine.

“It was a pleasure to hear people say what it meant to them to have the School of Medicine,” Atkinson said.

The senior executive team under Dean Atkinson operated the school in the aftermath of her hospitalization. On Aug. 2, the school named Dr. Shawn Gerstenberger as acting dean. It was intended as a temporary assignment in addition to his role as dean for the School of Community Health Sciences, a position he has held since 2013. He will continue to work with the School of Medicine, Atkinson said.

“I have got lots of things to do,” Atkinson said. “The to-do list gets bigger every day. We’re working on strategic planning. We’re working raising additional money for the School of Medicine, and we’re working on an affiliation agreement with UMC.”

That’s why Atkinson said she wants to stay a while and has no plans to retire at this time. There’s lot she said she hasn’t accomplished, especially with fundraising.

The school has raised $25 million from a donor, and that money was matched by the state. The goal is to raise $220 for a medical building.

“We have a long ways to go, but we have prospects,” Atkinson said. “We know that we’re going to do it, and we’re making plans to move along with in a nice timeframe. I hope it’s in nine or 10 months, but if it takes longer, it takes longer. One way or another we’re planning the building, and we think it’s going to be an exciting building.”

Atkinson said the school has received more than 1,000 applications for the second class in 2018, and those are being sifted through and evaluated. More than 300 of the applicants are from Nevada, she said.

The School of Medicine is negotiating with UMC for a new agreement that would create more residency and educational programs. They are also in discussions with Sunrise Hospital and Dignity Health for more or new medical education and graduate medical education as part of a residency and fellowship training program, she said.

Atkinson said the Oct. 1 mass shooting was “a tragedy and horrible experience for everybody,” but it’s amazing how well, UMC, Sunrise and other hospitals handled the medical response to the causalities.

“I was amazed how well things went,” Atkinson said. “You don’t expect to have that many casualties all at once. UMC was completely ready for it and so was Sunrise. All the hospitals managed to take care of more than 500 people. We’re really gave something positive for the city to look at it.”

How hospitals handled the mass shooting shows the health care system is much better than people have given it credit, Atkinson said. There aren’t many cities that could have handled the number of mass casualties as Las Vegas did, she said.

“Everybody pulled their weight and did whatever it took, and it was something to be proud of,” Atkinson said. “It has opened people’s eyes in the United States of the level of care given in Las Vegas. It has raised the awareness as a place that can handle a medical crisis.”

The care for patients in the mass shooting will help crystalize to medical school students the career their pursuing and how they can make a difference, Atkinson said. Students have already undergone EMT training and the incident will be more attuned when they undertake trauma training and dealing with such incidents, she said.

“It is a very important piece of what we see in our medical students for the future,” Atkinson said. “It was already planned for part of the curriculum. It will give an impetus to do it carefully and well. It drives home how important it is, and everybody is paying attention to it.”

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