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Smoothing the road

Medicine@Yale, 2008 - May June


To advance orthopaedics, couple bequeaths estate to the School of Medicine

For someone who spent a lifetime in orthopaedics, mending hands, knees and hips damaged by age or trauma, Michael J. Cummings, M.D., a 1965 graduate of the School of Medicine, has adopted a rather bone-jarring hobby in retirement. He and his wife, Susan, a retired practitioner, educator and consultant in acute-care nursing, are enthusiastic participants in extreme off-road driving events arranged by AM General, the Indiana company that manufactures the military and civilian versions of the Hummer truck/SUV.

Cummings was smitten by the Hummer in 1993, when he saw television coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger (who owned the first Hummer built for civilian use, and now drives a hydrogen-powered model) and wife Maria Shriver elegantly emerging in tuxedo and gown from a jet-black Hummer at the Academy Awards. “That was impressive,” he says.

In 1997, Cummings became a proud Hummer owner himself, and the following year he and Susan took the first of their annual off-road adventures, which Michael says offer “great camaraderie and very difficult driving.” The couple have braved snowstorms at high elevation in the Rockies in Utah and Colorado, and once drove four and a half hours to traverse a mere quarter-mile of a boulder-strewn Virginia riverbed.

Now, to help ensure that the paths taken by the physicians and scientists of Yale’s Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation are a bit less hazardous than those the Cummingses have surveyed through many a mud-spattered windshield, the couple have bequeathed their entire estate to the School of Medicine.

The Cummingses met on a blind date at a church coffeehouse when Michael was in medical school and Susan was receiving clinical training at Yale-New Haven Hospital as a nursing student at the University of Connecticut. Michael says his interest in orthopaedics was fueled by the late John Hartley Moore, M.D., a gifted clinical instructor with a practice in Stratford, Conn., whose teaching skills earned him the School of Medicine’s Francis Gilman Blake Award in 1964.

Although Susan Cummings never officially attended the medical school, she still considers Yale to be an alma mater of sorts. “Quality faculty, clinical practice, research and education, are all necessary to positively impact health care,” she explains. “Even though I’m a graduate of the University of Connecticut, with a master’s from the University of Washington, Yale is where I really learned about nursing and medicine, where the opportunities to engage in clinical practice were provided to me.”

“Susan and I decided that we’d like to leave some sort of legacy by funding a chair in medicine,” says Michael Cummings. “Even though I didn’t do my orthopaedic residency at Yale, I was fascinated by the idea of funding clinical people to do part-time research—doctors who would spend part of the week in the lab and the rest of their time in the operating room and seeing patients—as opposed to just having straight bench scientists. This really struck home for both of us, because orthopaedics is an area of medicine that needs people who can translate basic science into clinical applications for real patient scenarios.”

Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine, says that the Cummingses’ intentions align squarely with the School of Medicine’s goals. “Physician-scientists are crucial to the future of medicine, medical research and medical education. It is becoming more and more difficult, especially in procedure-intensive specialties such as orthopaedics, to be a master in both medical care and research,” Alpern says. “Michael and Susan’s gift will provide much-needed support for such an individual, and we are grateful for their generosity and commitment to the medical school.”

Gary E. Friedlaender, M.D., chair and Wayne O. Southwick Professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, says that the Cummingses’ gift is thoughtful in both senses of the word. “What makes great donors is a combination of generosity and vision. Without both of those, a gift doesn’t reach its full potential. Michael and Susan Cummings are generous and visionary,” Friedlaender says. “Gifts like this allow us to pursue our missions—in the clinical arena, as well as in educational and research—with increased vigor.”

The department’s longstanding strength in biomechanics research has led to advances in the treatment and prevention of injuries. In the case of the spine, Friedlaender says, “our basic understanding of the mechanics has provided a basis for us and for others to expand on those observations and make the world a safer place, both in how we can best take care of patients with spinal injuries and protect their neurologic function, and in terms of how we can redesign our environment to help prevent some of these injuries, whether by designing a new seat or headrest for a car, or a new piece of athletic equipment for the playing field.”

During the past 20 years, the biomechanics faculty has been complemented by a first-rate group of biologists who seek to understand how musculoskeletal tissues are assembled at the cellular and molecular levels, as well as how bones grow and repair themselves in health and disease. “The synergy between these two groups, the form and the function, the way things are put together at the cellular and molecular level and the way they function at the macro level” will directly improve well-being of patients, such as the large number of people over age 60 who have some degree of osteoporosis, says Friedlaender.

Joint replacement surgery is extremely well developed, Friedlaender says, “but the time will come when we regenerate joints rather than replace them.” To do that, he explains, “we need to learn how to regenerate cartilage so you wind up with a ‘genuine GM part’ rather than a metal-and-plastic replacement. That’s going to involve tissue engineering: understanding how pluripotential stem cells recreate themselves into populations of cells that make up tissue-like cartilage and then maintain it for a lifetime.”

Friedlaender sees the clinical and research missions of his department as tightly intertwined and mutually reinforcing, and gifts like the Cummingses’ as crucial to continuing the department’s tradition of excellence. “Sometimes we turn to basic science and at other times we turn to clinical process, product or procedure development—a new operation, a new implant, an improved way of treating patients,” he says. “There’s not a single subspecialty of orthopaedics that’s not important, or that can’t be improved in terms of our ability to treat and prevent disorders and diseases.”