A mix of humility and gentle humor was on display at this year’s Fairfield County Doctors of Distinction awards ceremony, which was held on May 16 at The Water’s Edge at Giovanni’s in Darien. Westfair Communications, the publisher of the Fairfield County Business Journal, co-presented this year’s awards with Quinnipiac University.
The ceremony opened with a keynote address by Kevin Scanlan, a health care life sciences consultant for IBM Watson. Scanlan noted the long history of apprehension regarding the use of technology as a replacement for a human workforce, starting with the machine-destroying factions of the Luddite movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. But he assured the medical professionals at the ceremony that technology should not be viewed as a prelude to a pink slip.
“Are machines going to replace humans on a scale that we’ve never seen before?” he asked. “Are we going to no longer need doctors? The short answer is no.”
Scanlan described his work in developing a natural language processing tool for the medical field that would be able “to convert human language that we speak on a day-to-day basis into computer language.” Its goal would be to relieve physicians of rote tasks involving data entry and paperwork filings. “The place of Watson and other providers of artificial intelligence is not to take the place of physicians, but is to streamline the overwhelming administrative and data-crushing burden,” he continued. “With Watson, the focus of the physician is to return to treating the patients rather than performing these administrative paperwork functions.”
Following Scalan’s speech, the award presentations to the doctors began with Julia Varughese of Stamford-based Americares receiving the No Land Too Far Award. In accepting her award, she praised her colleagues for their commitment to “improving health for those affected by poverty or disaster all around the world. It is a privilege to do this work every day, whether it is volunteering at the Americares clinic in Stamford or helping to support over one thousand volunteer medical trips overseas, with free medicine and supplies.”
The first of the evening’s two Female Trailblazers Awards went to Camelia Lawrence of Bridgeport’s St. Vincent’s Medical Center. She quoted from Charlie Plumb’s short story “I’m No Hero,” in which the celebrated Navy fighter pilot is recognized in a restaurant by a man who packed his parachute during a Vietnam War mission. “I am standing here today receiving this award because so many people along my journey packed my parachute for me,” said Lawrence. “My only request is that with the advances of technology that they could add a GPS so I could go forward.”
The second winner in this category, Katherine Vadasi of Greenwich-based Orthopedic and Neurosurgery Specialists, recalled her efforts to encourage more young women to pursue medical careers. “I’ve spent a lot of my time working with high school, college and medical school females and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and not be afraid of the challenges they will face,” she said. “They will have colleagues and friends and mentors around them who will support them.”
Salvatore Del Prete of Stamford Hospital received the Cutting Edge Award for research and clinical trials. While acknowledging that he felt “a little funny accepting an award” for doing something that he loved, he used his acceptance remarks to pay tribute to the patients who helped him in his work.
“They’re the ones who put it all on the line and they have done a wonderful job,” he said. “Instead of survival times measured in weeks and maybe in months, we can now measure survival times for many diseases in years.”
The All in the Family Award was shared by Kelly Harkins-Squitieri and Rafael Squitieri, who are both connected to St. Vincent’s Medical Center. Squitieri noted that the couple moved to Connecticut 18 years ago, and living in the state has given them an extra benefit that was missing when they lived and worked in New York City. “One of the things that we really looked forward to (when moving here) was living in the community where our patients live,” he said. “As opposed to being in New York, where we trained for so long — we never ran into our patients.”
Harkins-Squitieri’s remarks were brief but succinct. “I am very grateful and honored to have a nice career and to be able to give back to the community,” she said. “It has been a great journey to work with Ray at St. Vincent’s. We’re very fortunate.”
Nicholas Viner of Bridgeport Hospital was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. “I was smiling when I heard about this and I’ve been smiling ever since,” he said. “A medical career continues to be an amazing journey. It’s a trip of a lifetime. I have absolutely the best partners that anybody ever had — the backup team is like no other, and the hospital has always supported us.”
Patricia Calayag of Greenwich Hospital scored the evening’s strongest laugh when accepting her Caring for All Award. “I really never thought that I would see the day when I won Best Actress,” she said with a deadpan expression. Playing on the theme of “it takes a village,” she added that her work was part of a wider network.
“Caring for All is a great name for this award because it is exactly what our collaborative team does,” she said. “Between Greenwich Hospital and Westmed, we created a cohesive co-management team that integrates physicians, nurses and administrators to promote vital issues and continually improve health care delivery to women, whether they are inpatients or outpatients.”
Corey Hassell of Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine received the Promise for the Future Award. He used his acceptance speech to apologize for sending his family on an unexpected journey. “My family just got here seconds ago after I told them to go to the Water’s Edge up in Westbrook, Connecticut,” he said.
Hassell, who is about to enter his fourth and final year in medical school, added, “It is very humbling to be recognized alongside all of these physicians, and I hope that I can achieve half as much in my career going forward.”