May 23, 2022
New Internal Medicine Chair Dr. Conwell Has Heart for his Patients, his Trainees, and Appalachia
Darwin Conwell, MD, MSc, FACG, (pictured left) recently joined the University of Kentucky College of Medicine as a professor and the Jack M. Gill Endowed Chair in Internal Medicine.
A southern Ohio native with deep roots in western Kentucky tobacco, Dr. Conwell has enjoyed a full career in academic medicine with roles at the Cleveland Clinic, Harvard Medical School, and The Ohio State University. He arrives to UK with a passion for mentorship and patient-centered health care, as well as an appreciation for Appalachia.
You can learn more about Dr. Conwell, his path to UK, and his health care philosophies in the following Q&A.
Q: Can you share more about the path that led you to medical school?
A: My family was part of the great migration of African Americans north from farms to factories in the north. My father’s family moved from Alabama, where several of them later worked in the coal mines of West Virginia. My mother’s family were tobacco farmers in Trigg County who later settled in southeastern Ohio to work in the steel mills. I grew up in Ironton, Ohio, right across the river from Boyd County (Ashland, Ky.). I went to Ironton High School, graduated from there and went to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where I majored in chemistry. I really enjoyed small-town America. I remember visiting Columbus and Cincinnati for undergraduate school, and I was panicked. To me, those cities were like the biggest places in the world. I said, “There are too many people here. There’s too much concrete here!” I was a country boy who felt like I was in a foreign land just being out of the country. Athens was still in Appalachia and only 70 miles from my home, and I felt very comfortable there. So, I attended OU and loved it! After some maturing, I went to medical school at the University of Cincinnati. And I did my internal medicine residency at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati.
Q: Since then, you’ve served in a leadership position as division chief of gastroenterology at The Ohio State University in Columbus. How does that feel?
A: I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to serve. I have truly been blessed by God with amazing opportunities, parents, friends, and teachers and mentors. For example, I've had three endowed chairs, and that just blows my mind. I’ve been fortunate enough to have achieved all my academic goals: NIH funding, tenured professor, division chief, endowed chair, and now department chair! So, the real question is …What do you do when you've climbed your academic ladder? ... When you've reached the peak of your profession or the top of your mountain or accomplished your goals? Answer: You help other people climb their mountain, and you say, “Hey, I was there once. I was a medical student. I was a resident. I was a fellow. I had this dream of being a professor, of being NIH funded, of being tenured!” How do I help them? How can I make the road easier and the burden a little lighter for them? How can I help them avoid some of the hard knocks and things that I had to deal with?
That’s what it's about once you become a professor. It's really time to give back to help others achieve their goals. Teach others what you have learned … give back.
Q: What do you enjoy about working in health care?
A: I always said when I was interviewing fellows and faculty that the 76-year-old lady you're seeing in your office may not be your mother, or sister, or aunt, but it’s somebody else's sister, mother, or aunt. How would you want your mother, sister, aunt treated?
That is something that we need to really hold on to when we are wrestling with all of the changes in health care. When you save a life, you make a difference. When you make a difference in the life of a child, or the life of a husband, or a father, or a mother, there's no salary that can give you that level of joy. It just doesn’t exist.
Q: What do you think is special about working in academic medicine?
A: The big component of practicing medicine at an academic institution like the University of Kentucky is that we are a state university to the citizens. They depend on us. People don’t come here for Darwin Conwell. They don’t know me. What they know is, I’ve got to get to UK because that is the University hospital and there’s somebody at UK that can transplant my liver, that can help me with heart disease, or that can cure my cancer. If I get to UK, I’ve got a shot at beating this disease and spending more time with my family! Because that’s the hospital where I can get the best care in the area. That is where the medical educators, innovators, and scientists are working every day to change people’s lives.
Q: What have been some of the most pivotal moments of your career?
A: You have these pivotal moments in life, game changers. For me, one major inflection point was matching for GI fellowship and later joining the faculty at the Cleveland Clinic. The clinic environment was transformational. I was surrounded by people who really wanted to teach gastroenterology. It was a great learning environment. I started the pancreas clinic there. We built that program. I started seeing two pancreas patients a week, and that developed into five clinics a week.
From there, I was invited to join the faculty at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard. I tried to get into Harvard as an undergraduate and for medical school and couldn't get in. And now, I was asked to join the faculty at one of their teaching hospitals. That was a huge honor for a kid from southern Ohio, Appalachia, to do that. I mean that was huge. The Cleveland Clinic helped me become a good clinician, and at Harvard, I really became an academician. You really learned how academia was practiced and how to teach and put together presentations, how to write grants, and it was wonderful.
Another pivotal moment was being selected as division director at The Ohio State University. Over eight years we built a top-50 U.S. News and World Report gastroenterology division. And that was just a blessing from God. Our goal was to rebuild the division and try to do it the right way, and our mission was “treating others as ourselves.” We were patient-centric in our approach. Whether you are a basic scientist or translational researcher, educator, or clinician, it did not matter. Everything you did had to be focused on the patient. Over the eight-year period were grew and developed numerous programs and won numerous national awards from our major GI societies and were awarded many grants. Our liver transplant volumes went from about 23 to 150 and endoscopic volume rose from 13,000 to over 40,000 per year.
Diversity was a major concern for us as we grew. I always said that I wanted the division to look like the United Nations when I leave. We worked hard on recruiting female faculty. We looked into recruiting people from all over the world that reflected our diverse university, so our patients felt comfortable that their culture was represented within our division.
Q: You have now been at the UK College of Medicine and UK HealthCare since early April. What has the experience been like?
A: Everybody here in Lexington has been so nice. It's a hidden secret. I mean, it's great to be here and go shopping, out to restaurants, and to the grocery stores. People have manners here. It’s nice for someone to say, “Thank you,” “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “How are you?” “Yes, sir,” “No, ma'am,” “May I help you?” That feels good, and it kind of warms you up on the inside. My wife and I love it. It was how we were raised as kids growing up. I am looking forward to making a major contribution to the overall health care, medical education, and research to the people of Kentucky.
There’s so much new information that I am receiving, at times I feel like I've been drinking through a firehose. Internal medicine is a big department here, but we've got some strong faculty, and the Office of the Chair staff here are very good. They know the ropes and have helped guide me through this as I try to get my arms around the department.
I was walking in one morning as Dr. Mark Newman was walking in. He had a smiling face and looked over at me, and he said, “This is a lot of fun.” And I said, “Yes, It's a lot of fun.” And we both just smiled and kept walking into work. You have to enjoy your job. It's a lot of work, but that's what it's all about. I'm excited to be here. It’s a new challenge with new opportunities. I think we need to enjoy the journey that we're on and do our best to make a healthier Kentucky. That's what we're here to do.
Q: Outside of medicine, what are some of your hobbies and interests?
A: I have a beautiful wife, Kathy, who keeps me balanced. And a wonderful Airedale Terrier – Major. We're looking for a church – our faith is very important to us – but there's no shortage of churches in Lexington. So, I am confident that will happen.
We love the outdoors. A typical pre-COVID weekend for us was to get up on Saturday morning, take a nice walk, and go play tennis or play golf, or hiking in the woods. Usually it’s church on Sunday. Last Saturday, we played tennis at Shillito Park, and we had a great time. We want to get back into golf, get some lessons, and get our swing back.
We have a lovely modern farmhouse with an acre of land in Nicholasville surrounded by cows and thoroughbreds. Our Airedale loves to run around the grounds. There will be plenty of backyard BBQs this summer for sure with the staff, friends, trainees, and faculty!
We have been blessed and we hope to be a blessing to others. We are thankful for this great opportunity at UK.