Ret. Col. William T. Browne, MD, promised one thing before his uncle died—he would take care of his papers. But his objective was larger. Deep down, he knew he was also being trusted with ensuring that the mission of his uncle’s life’s work continued.
The Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) is proud to have helped Dr. Browne fulfill both of these objectives. Max Harry Weil, MD, PhD, MCCM, was, after all, considered to be a father of the critical care specialty and a founder of SCCM. Dr. Browne, who also served as chairman of the board for the Weil Institute, and the Society both found great solace in crossing paths to preserve the past and future of critical care.
Dr. Weil passed away in 2011. Dr. Browne said he could not be more pleased about having helped preserve his uncle’s legacy. “It was an incredible amount of work, but it turned out better than I ever expected. If you asked me to write down the results I had hoped for at the start, I don’t think I could have even imagined this,” Dr. Browne said.
With the creation of the new SCCM-Weil Research Trust, the Society helps ensure that Dr. Weil’s legacy will flourish. It also marks a new and exciting chapter in SCCM’s ongoing commitment to being part of the discovery and innovation processes needed to help secure future advances in the intensive care unit.
Funds from the newly created trust will go toward the SCCM-Weil Research Grant (formerly called the Vision Grant), which offers up to $50,000 in funding to members who conduct basic, translational or clinical research specifically related to the organization’s mission to secure the highest-quality care for all critically ill and injured patients. Earnings from investments of the trust’s assets will allow the Society to increase the amount of funding given out in the form of research grants.
“Advancing our mission to improve patient care, in this case through research, is extremely exciting, especially since we can simultaneously honor a founding father,” said SCCM President Todd Dorman, MD, FCCM. “Increasing grant funding for our members is but one aspect of our strategic plan dedicated to advancing care through research.”
Applications for the SCCM-Weil Research Grant have increased nearly fourfold since the criteria was broadened in 2014 to include projects related to basic and translational research in addition to clinical research.
It’s a fitting tribute to Dr. Weil that the grant named in his honor supports young investigators. “The thing he was most proud of in his career wasn’t the publications or the recognition,” Dr. Browne noted. “It was the fact that he trained more than 475 fellows who are now in leadership positions in critical care and research all over the word. If you go through a “who’s who” list of leaders in the field, his thumbprint is on most of those training programs.”
Certainly, Dr. Weil had a hand in molding the career path of his nephew. Dr. Browne fondly remembers meeting his wife’s uncle for the first time at the couple’s wedding.
“I was a budding orthopedic surgeon in medical school. When I met my wife, she said her uncle was a prominent cardiologist. I didn’t really have any idea of what that meant in the grand scheme of things,” he recalled.
“For a graduation gift, he paid for me to attend his annual critical care symposium in Las Vegas. I went and didn’t miss another one for the next 28 years.” After spending time with the giants in critical care at these meetings, he decided to change his focus from orthopedics to internal medicine and to become an intensivist. Dr. Weil encouraged him to focus on medical students and resident education within critical care. “That’s really what I’ve done for the past 30 years now.”
Indeed, Dr. Browne went on to serve as chief of medicine at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, Georgia, USA, before moving to the University of Minnesota. Before retiring from the U.S. Army, he also trained U.S. military and Kuwaiti physicians before the war in Iraq.
Weil Institute: Worldwide Reach
The trust was announced alongside news that the Weil Institute has opened two locations—a new site at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia, USA, and another at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, where the Weil Institute already had a strong presence. Both are being overseen by Wanchun Tang, MD, who worked with Dr. Weil for nearly 30 years.
The VCU partnership seemed a natural fit that was aligned to the goals of the Weil Institute, and the University’s council voted in April 2016 to create the Weil Institute of Emergency and Critical Care Research. With strong critical care and emergency departments and an established basic research program, VCU was able to offer convenient access to the resources and tools needed for success. “VCU was the best fit for the Weil Institute for the long term. We now have access to a basic research department that is very easy to collaborate with, as well as access to a clinical base at the hospital,” explained Dr. Tang.
“It was going to be very difficult to continue our research and teaching efforts in California. We just couldn’t recruit the critical mass of people to go there,” Dr. Browne said. “VCU offered to move all our laboratory equipment, gave us more space and agreed to keep the research fellowship program going. It’s in a vibrant university city that will help us recruit scientists and physicians much more easily. It was just a natural affiliation.”
Joseph Ornato, MD, FACC, FACEP, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at VCU, was instrumental in helping move the Weil Institute to the university. He pointed to those same benefits, putting special emphasis on the incredible research possibilities.
"I think the move here presents the opportunity for serious translational research capability," he said. "If a discovery is made in a basic lab, the next logical step is to translate that into clinical studies to show if it can indeed help humans and save lives."
Likewise, as clinical practitioners at VCU develop ideas, the research arm now offers great access to test those hypotheses.
"I was very enthusiastic about the idea," Dr. Ornato said. "We have a strong resuscitation program, and the more we talked, the more we realized the potential for marrying a clinical resuscitation program with a strong basic science lab. It seems a wonderful opportunity for both sides. We're thrilled it's happened."
The official grand opening of the Weil Institute of Emergency and Critical Care Research at VCU will occur in fall, but the group has already hit the ground running and just earned full institute status at the university. Additional administrative staff have been hired, fellows are working in temporary labs awaiting their new spaces, and grant writers are working on proposals. Projects on the horizon include trials related to treating cardiac rhythm disturbances, collaborations with the bioengineering department, and the potential development of a new drug for cardiac arrest. The Weil group eventually will enjoy a physical space built to its specific needs, with enhanced equipment such as an MRI machine and PET scanner.
Dr. Tang has been overseeing the VCU program, with the help of Drs. Ornato and Mary Ann Peberdy, MD. After the program is successfully and fully established, Dr. Tang will eventually split his time between VCU and the Sun Yat-sen University location, spending the majority of his time at VCU.
The China location has been operating for more than two years. It was unveiled as the Tang Wanchun Laboratories of Emergency & Critical Care Medicine in February 2015. The new name solidifies a long-standing relationship with China. The Weil Institute in California accepted fellows from all over the world. Dr. Weil personally mentored more than 475 fellows throughout his lifetime. In the past decade, the majority of them came from China. While it became harder for European students to get funding to study abroad, China was eager to send fellows to enhance its budding critical care community.
The close global relationship will continue with the launch of the new centers. The two research laboratories in Virginia and China will work on the same goals and will share information. “We communicate with each other on a daily basis,” noted Dr. Tang. “It’s just like being at a large multistate institution, but our reach is global. It’s very unique.” Eventually, it is expected that all research fellows will spend one year in the VCU location and one year in China.
For Dr. Tang, who started as a fellow from China and went on to cultivate a nearly 30-year relationship with the Weil Institute, his new role brings great satisfaction. “I am very happy. I think Dr. Weil deserves this. He is the father of the critical care specialty and of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. I feel honored to carry on his legacy and to make this specialty even better,” Dr. Tang said. “It’s not only an honor, but also a responsibility. He was more than a teacher and colleague; he was like family.”
Preserved for History
The Society and the Weil Institute truly are united, in that they both owe their creation to Dr. Weil and both have great interest in preserving his legacy.
The Society has recovered more than 10,000 items of historical significance from the California location before it was sold and proceeds donated to the new institutes. SCCM staff flew to California in October 2015 to gather photos, awards, letters, patents and photographs, all of which have been logged and recorded in its historical archive. Many significant items were recovered, including Dr. Weil’s personal scrapbook, his original membership card and meeting minutes recounting the creation of the Society. Early handwritten correspondence between Dr. Weil and emerging leaders in the field (such as Jean-Louis Vincent, MD, PhD, FCCM) have been preserved. Patents for medical equipment developed in part by Dr. Weil, such as a chest compressor, a system for predicting the success of defibrillatory shock during cardiac arrest, and a carbon dioxide measuring device, are preserved for safekeeping.
These efforts ensure that the dawn of the critical care specialty is well documented and also serve to chronicle SCCM’s own history.
“Dr. Weil created these two entities—the Institute and the Society. They are so close in every aspect. I think we should really work closely with each other as we always have,” said Dr. Tang.
SCCM Immediate Past President Craig Coopersmith, MD, who traveled with SCCM staff to the California location and helped oversee the implementation of the Weil-SCCM Research Trust during his term, said, “I did not know Dr. Weil personally, having met him only a single time—to get his autograph at the 40th Critical Care Congress. I treasure that memory since it is the equivalent, for an intensivist, of getting to meet George Washington. As SCCM and critical care in general moves on to generation Xers like me and millennials, it is important that we take the time to understand where we came from and then to boldly go into the future together. Thanks to the Weil family, we will be able to do that. I am confident Dr. Weil would have been proud,” he concluded.
To learn more about donating to the SCCM-Weil Research Trust and supporting future research, visit www.sccm.org/Weil