The Courage to Care

The 2018 Emory Medalists volunteered to serve on the front lines of the epic battle to defend human health

Emory honors (from left) Crystal Johnson 00N, Laura Mitchell-Spurlock 95OX 97N, Jason Slabach 13N, and Kenneth Walker 56Ox 58C 63M 65MR 70MR 71MR (pictured in inset) with the Emory Medal, the university's highest alumni award.

These alumni take “critical care” to a whole new level.

For more than seven decades, the Emory Alumni Association has honored alumni who embody the highest ideals of service to the university and the community with the Emory Medal.

“All the recipients are fine examples of both Emory’s global reach and global leadership,” says Sarah Cook 95C, senior associate vice president for alumni affairs. “They exemplify the best of our alumni.”

The first of the two medals goes to a group of nurses—Crystal Johnson 00N, Laura Mitchell- Spurlock 95Ox 97N, and Jason Slabach 13N—who demonstrated both bravery and skill when treating patients with Ebola virus disease at Emory University Hospital.

The second 2018 medalist is Kenneth Walker 56Ox 58C 63M 65MR 70MR 71MR, a doctor who has spent his career mentoring medical students, serving a major hospital, and shoring up the medical education system in a nation hobbled by conflict, corruption, economic instability, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“I am proud to be a part of the selection committee for these winners,” says Ashley Grice, Emory Alumni Board president. “These recipients are amazing examples of what Emory excellence looks like.”

“Emory Medal recipients represent the noblest achievements and highest aspirations of our community,” says President Claire E. Sterk. “I am thrilled that we have the opportunity to honor and recognize this year’s winners. They have demonstrated courage, creativity, and perseverance in the midst of daunting challenges. We are grateful for their example.”

Brave Hearts

In late summer 2014, Ebola virus disease was taking a heavy toll in parts of Africa. As the medical community monitored the crisis, Emory Healthcare teams had been practicing and training in anticipation of need.

So when an American medical missionary based in Liberia, Kent Brantly, contracted the disease, Emory University Hospital (EUH) was prepared to admit him for medical care in its highly specialized Serious Communicable Diseases Unit.

Hospital staff members were given the chance to volunteer for the challenging assignment, which would require intensive training, extraordinary safety precautions, and some degree of risk.

Nursing school graduates Slabach, Johnson, and Mitchell-Spurlock raised their hands. The training that followed was even more rigorous than they had anticipated. As Mitchell-Spurlock put it in a later interview, “That’s how our team became a family in one afternoon.”

Despite public concern, Slabach said, “I was very glad they brought Dr. Brantly to Emory. He’s an American citizen, and I’m a believer in taking care of our own. And he’s a health care worker and a missionary. I wanted to support that.”

“We teach our nurses to be leaders,” says Linda A. McCauley 79N, dean of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. “These three had full-time jobs, but still stepped up to volunteer.”

When Brantly was able to leave EUH after nearly three weeks of treatment, “That was the ‘wow’ moment,” Johnson said. “He hugged us all without any of the Tyvek suits on, then he turned and grabbed his wife’s hand and they walked down the hall like they were getting married again. That was just beautiful.”

The three nurses went on to help educate and calm a nervous public by doing media interviews and appearing on the Today Show to demonstrate safety measures.

A Georgia Doctor

Walker, professor of medicine at Emory’s School of Medicine and chief of internal medicine at Grady Memorial Hospital, recalled in a recent video interview how he also became executive director of Partners for International Development and the champion of the Atlanta- Tbilisi Partnership.

“The dean of the medical school called one day in 1992 and said, how about going to Tbilisi for me next week?” Walker remembers. “And I said, sure, Jeffrey, where is Tbilisi?”

As part of a US outreach effort to help stabilize the former Soviet Union, Grady and Emory’s medical school had been selected to partner with a Georgia hospital. When Walker first arrived, the newly independent nation was struggling; the economy was faltering and necessities including medical goods were in short supply.

“We visited all these hospitals, and I saw that Georgia was a small country and that the health care system was something that one could deal with as a unit,” Walker said.

Under Walker’s leadership, the Atlanta-Tbilisi Healthcare Partnership has launched a wide range of projects that foster sustained interaction, resource and knowledge sharing, and medical student exchange opportunities between Emory and Georgia health care institutions. In 2004, then-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili named Walker an honorary citizen.

“Ken is the consummate Southern physician,” says Leon Haley, Emory School of Medicine executive associate dean of clinical services for Grady Memorial Hospital. “He has taken his concern and his compassion from Atlanta, to the state of Georgia, to the Republic of Georgia.”

Walker also was one of the early innovators of electronic medical record-keeping and serves on the Board of Regents of the National Library of Congress, with a focus on the presentation of medical knowledge.

“He’s extremely committed to his life’s work,” says Perry Rahbar, founder and CEO of the analytics company dv01 and a longtime friend to Walker. “He’s an inspiration. He works relentlessly toward all of his goals while managing to make family out of everyone he comes into contact with.”

In 2016, Walker received the Lifetime Heroic Achievement Award from the Georgia Hospital Association. In the accompanying video, Walker said, “When I wake up in the morning, I think of a cartoon I once saw of Lyndon Johnson. It showed him sitting on the edge of his bed, getting up, and saying, ‘World, I’m coming—ready for me or not.’ ”

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