2021 Distinguished Alumni
Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award - Ron Romanelli, MD
Ron Romanelli, MD, has three degrees from SIU and was president of the Orthopedic Center of Illinois in Springfield for more than 20 years. He held leadership roles and served on numerous committees at both Memorial Medical Center and HSHS St. John’s Hospital. Most importantly, his career has been filled with mentoring scores of young learners, contributing in countless ways to the knowledge of SIU students and resident physicians.
His impact is seen in orthopedic practices around Illinois and the U.S., filled with confident physicians who benefited from his expertise. Nationally recognized for his surgical skills, Romanelli has been described as an “icon” of the orthopedic division, which recently established a trauma lectureship in his honor.
His medical journey has been bookended with personal traumas. Originally from West Chicago, Romanelli was on a trip to Florida with his mother when his appendix burst. Hospitalized for 31/2 weeks, his complications led to severe weight loss and rounds of doctor visits. The 20-year-old refocused his energies and enrolled at SIU Carbondale, intent on becoming a physician. He was admitted to SIU School of Medicine on his third try. Since then, Romanelli says, “I’ve been blessed.”
He remembers medical school as hard, but also “a lot of fun.” The no-grade format removed the air of competition and put everyone on the same side, to learn. “At the time it was a three-year program, and we bonded into a tight-knit group that first year in Carbondale. Our class was one of the best.”
Orthopedic surgeon Shannon Stauffer, MD, served with Romanelli on the SIU admissions committee and became “like a second father.” Stauffer and other surgeons worked with him during a five-year residency. In 1996, Romanelli started the Shannon Stauffer Foundation in recognition of his mentor, the orthopedic division’s founding chair.
Following residency, Romanelli joined the Orthopedic Center in Springfield and helped it grow, ultimately relocating to its new 50,000 sq. ft. building at Koke Mill. His commitment to the community fostered solid working relationships with staff at both hospitals, where he advanced the service lines.
“There were some long meetings with administrators and growing pains, but ultimately I think we raised the level of orthopedic care in the community,” Romanelli says. “If you keep the focus on the patient, things will work out.”
Throughout, he has mentored students and residents from his alma mater. Romanelli considers teaching a way to complete the circle from his own residency. “The beauty of our program is that it’s community-based. I loved my academic teachers, but I learned a lot from the people who were out doing the job. Watching everyone’s different techniques helped me develop my own. Now they could watch me.”
A work-related injury ended his surgical career in 2020. During a total hip replacement, a retractor torqued and injured his wrist. In retrospect he now sees the accident in a positive light. “I probably wouldn’t have quit otherwise,” he says.
Romanelli met his wife, Therese, in 1983 during his last year of medical school, and they have three sons – two in medicine and one getting an MBA at Washington University. The self-described workaholic found ways to be both present and accounted for. “I went to most of my boys’ games and sporting events through the years. I might not have been there right at the tip-off, but I made it there eventually,” he says, smiling.
His advice to the new physicians in the Class of 2021 would be to recognize their own work habits and strive for balance. “It’s difficult but achievable. Put family first, then your patients.”
Distinguished Alumni Service Award - Dr. Constance Shabazz
Dr. Constance Shabazz has devoted her professional life to health care and social justice, working in and with underserved communities of color. She has partnered with a number of organizations serving those living with HIV and AIDS as a member of the Southside HIV AIDS Resource Providers, advocating for equitable services for all marginalized communities. She has been involved in innovative treatments of substance use disorders while working at the Chicago Addictions Treatment Center, and she served as the CMO at Aunt Martha’s Youth Services in the south suburbs of Chicago, helping to expand the program from three small clinics to a federally qualified health center with multiple sites.
Most recently, Shabazz founded and serves as CEO of the Salaam Community Wellness Center in Chicago. It is an integrative model health center established in response to the impact that COVID-19 has had on communities of color on the city’s South Side that uses Western and non-Western modalities to address primary care, addictions, mental health and nutrition.
Shabazz has exemplified SIU’s mantra of lifelong learning by obtaining two master’s degrees from St. Xavier University and a Master of Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She used these skills to establish her own consulting firm, in 2009, through which she has provided technical assistance and program development to the federal government’s Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) for more than 17 years, working with 300+ health centers across the U.S. and Virgin Islands.
As an undergraduate, Shabazz relocated from Chicago to New York City to pursue her passion for helping others through a sickle cell foundation. Her parents supported these career explorations, and ultimately her application to medical school. SIU School of Medicine’s mission to help underserved areas was attractive to Shabazz, and she embraced its small class size that fostered camaraderie.
But she also remembers it as a tough time, when racial equity was being adjudicated through affirmative action, and students of color had to prove they belonged there. “Some of us would become chief residents later, to show those doubters ‘That which doesn’t make you bitter makes you better,’” she says.
She fondly remembers learning the value in taking a thorough patient history, viewing it as the opportunity to learn about a patient’s family dynamics and environmental circumstances, now referred to as the social determinants of health.
“The social determinants have been around for a long time, but they’re at last being recognized as factors critical to health,” Shabazz says. “It’s encouraging to see care providers and policymakers recognize that you need a comprehensive, integrated model to help improve people’s lives. It’s going to take time to develop and sustain new ways to address those inequities.” She believes patience and persistence belong in every physician’s skillset.
Speaking at commencement, Shabazz emphasized the parallels between health care and social justice advocacy. “The knowledge a physician brings to the patient experience is important, but it’s more critical to connect with patients at the human level. When you approach the patient’s problems with compassion, you’re forging trust with them,” she says, “and you’ll get higher compliance for their care plan. Without your health, everything else you need to fight for to improve equity is out the window.”
Early Career Achievement Award - Dr. Andrew Miller
Dr. Andrew Miller is a physician, scientist, author and editor, and he is the inaugural recipient of the SIU SOM Early Career Achievement Award. This new honor was initiated to recognize an alumnus/alumni who has made significant contributions through clinical service, research, education, public or professional service and/or administrative leadership within 15 years of graduation.
Miller is the facility medical director for the Department of Emergency Medicine at Alton Memorial Hospital in Alton, IL. He is also the editor-in-chief at the International Journal of Critical Illness and Injury Science. He is a well-known and respected researcher in the fields of emergency medicine, internal medicine, pulmonary, critical care, and medical ethics. His work has been incorporated into resuscitation guidelines published by both the American Heart Association and the European Resuscitation Council. Moreover, his work during the pandemic has been highly accessed and referenced.
In keeping with the accelerated tempo that is the norm in emergency medicine, Miller has produced an impressive amount of clinical research in a relatively brief time. His academic work includes 208 publications, including 100 articles in peer-review journals, 58 chapters, 1 book, and 51 abstracts.
During a virtual award presentation, his nominator Haneme Idrizi, MD, ’03, said, “I’m especially proud of all Drew has been able to accomplish to help his patients and his institutions since moving on from SIU, even in the past year that was hampered by COVID. SIU is lucky to have him as one of our graduates.”
Dr. Miller thanked his long-time mentor Amin Elamin, MD, who was faculty in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at SIU during his tenure. Miller credited Dr. Elamin with much of the guidance and support that propelled him early in his career. Moreover, he credited the problem-based learning approach to helping him develop a plasticity in his style to answering meaningful patient-oriented research questions. Miller also expressed his gratitude to the Alumni Board of the School of Medicine and offered some advice to current students and new graduates.
“As you are starting out, make a list of the three or four things that are most important to you in life. Pay attention to opportunities that may come your way and evaluate if they will help you to reach one (or more) of your specified goals. If an opportunity is good but does not help you reach your goals, it’s OK to pass on it. Not every good opportunity is a good opportunity for you. Don’t get distracted and stay focused on what is important to you.” he said. “If it’s important to you, pursue it. And let your family and friends be a part of the equation.”