Sidney Smith, chair of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine board, reflects on his career and service
February 24, 2017
In a career spanning more than four decades, Sidney Smith has seen – and even been a driving force behind – some of the major improvements in cardiac care in the United States and globally.
The world-renowned cardiologist serves as chair of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Board of Directors.
“The progress at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine since its inception six years ago has been impressive,” Smith said. “The outstanding students and faculty, as well as nationally recognized research, are setting a standard for development of new medical schools. It is a great pleasure to be a part of this.”
Smith is a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a past president of the American Heart Association and also the World Heart Federation. But his family roots and college education were what prompted him to serve in a leadership role at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, which welcomed its first students in 2010.
While Smith grew up in Delaware, his family was from Virginia; his father was a Virginia Tech alumnus.
“Every summer, we would drive down to Virginia to visit my aunts, uncles, and cousins with my mother singing ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’ in the front of the car,” Smith said. “I had a strong sense of Virginia, even though my southern cousins accused me of being a Yankee.”
When it came time to apply for college, Smith was drawn to engineering, like his father. He received a prestigious National Honor Scholarship at Cornell University, but ultimately said he felt the pull of his family’s home state.
“I came down and visited campus in the fall and it was absolutely beautiful. I knew immediately why the colors of Virginia Tech are what they are when I saw the beauty of the leaves changing color.”
Smith came for Virginia Tech’s engineering reputation as well as a chance to play Hokie football. But two years into studying chemical engineering, he made a life-changing decision while spending the summer in Japan as part of a Episcopal Church student project led by R. Baldwin Lloyd – he wanted to become a doctor.
Smith assumed the new focus would mean he would have to leave Virginia Tech to attend a school with a robust premed curriculum.
“In those days, it was very rare for someone to not study premed before going to medical school,” Smith said.
He met with Fred Bull, a professor and dean of the chemical engineering department.
“Professor Bull said, ‘I think you ought to stay here and we will load you up with the kinds of courses that people in premed take. Get your chemical engineering degree, and I’m sure you’ll get into medical school somewhere,” Smith recalled. “Looking back on Virginia Tech, it was absolutely the best place I could have been. Not only because of the education, which equipped me very well to get into an excellent medical school, but because of the faculty and other people that I knew there.”
Indeed, the decision did not hold back Smith. He graduated in 1963; went on to Yale School of Medicine; and completed his medical internship, residency, and cardiology fellowship at the Peter Bent Brigham (now Brigham and Women’s) Hospital, a Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital.
“Studying engineering before going into medicine was unusual at the time, but it was a fantastic background for me, and I believe it has contributed to my success in medicine – the science and the process,” Smith said. “Think about what’s happened in cardiology – the artificial hearts that we use, the stents that we place, are polymer coated. There are many applications that are an extension of chemical engineering.”
Smith has won multiple accolades for his contributions to cardiology over the past four decades. He has served as president of the American Heart Association and also of the World Heart Federation.
He has seen major advances in what hospitals can do for intervention during cardiac emergencies as well as for prevention.
“Now in the U.S., the premature morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease are declining, in spite of the fact that worldwide they are on the increase,” Smith said. “We have made changes and advances in treatment and prevention for cardiovascular disease and, as a result, there is now decline in premature death from heart disease and stroke in the U.S., which means we are doing the right things.”
As Smith moved into his post as president of the American Heart Association in the mid-1990s, he saw the advances being made in hospital intervention, but realized there needed to be a greater focus on prevention, which he outlined in his inaugural presidential address.
“It became a passion for me to see that we did a better job in medicine not just in the emergencies, but in the preventative areas,” Smith said. “We are much better now, not only taking care of patients in the hospital, but also in knowing what we can do to prevent them from needing to be there in the first place and in keeping them alive after they leave the hospital.”
Smith has also tapped once again into his engineering background to be at the forefront of developing quality improvement programs and guidelines to help hospitals and physicians improve treatments. “This is basically an engineering problem – taking science of known value and translating it into recommendations that can be used by physicians and hospital systems.”
In recent years, Smith has been in demand for his expertise internationally.
“The United Nations began to realize that the cardiovascular disease that had been limited mainly to the United States and Western Europe is now a major killer worldwide,” Smith said. “I thought that our programs in the United States, which have been so effective, could benefit other countries.”
Smith has been part of several projects in China during the past 15 years including three recent Person to Person meetings with China – led by former Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Vice Premier of China Liu Yandong – to explore opportunities for collaborative programs in medicine as well as other areas. He is now working with the American Heart Association and the Chinese Society of Cardiology in 150 hospitals in China to improve cardiac care. He is engaged in a similar project in Brazil and is in discussion with potential programs for Chile and Japan.
While meeting with the Ministry of Health for the People’s Republic of China, Smith was tapped for another major project.
“The Chinese representatives said, ‘We see what’s happening in the U.S. You have grandchildren saving their grandparents’ lives with CPR. It’s just fantastic. We want to train our people,’” Smith recalled. “We asked him what he had in mind, and he said, ‘Well, not too much. If we could get one out of 10 trained to do CPR, that would make a big difference.’”
Of course, one in 10 people for a population of more than 1.3 billion entails training more than 100 million Chinese how to perform CPR. Smith is currently helping coordinate an American Heart Association team to set up training centers in China for the large undertaking.
To top off his busy schedule, Smith still sees patients and teaches at the medical school and Heart and Vascular Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He also gives to his first alma mater in a variety of ways, notably as chair of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Board of Directors.
“It’s amazing being able to come back and work with the school, which did not exist when I was a student. Now there’s a medical school here and it is incredible to be a part of this,” Smith said.
In addition, Smith is serving on Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Committee of 100 and Academy of Engineering Excellence and held roles on the boards of the Alumni Association, Chemical Engineering Advancement Committee, and Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences Advancement Committee. He was honored with the Virginia Tech Distinguished Achievement Award in 1996, the Virginia Tech College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2007, and the Virginia Tech Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 2011.
“Many who have graduated from Virginia Tech are now at a point in their life where they can give back,” Smith said. “Just as we benefitted from the contributions of those before us, we now have a chance to do something that will make a difference for those that follow us. Whether it is supporting research, student scholarships, or the expansion of buildings, there are many opportunities where we who have graduated from Virginia Tech can find a way to help advance the programs and opportunities for the students that follow us. This can be a fulfilling experience.”