What matters most to this doctor can be found in the heart

John Leschofs/VAS

Cardiologist Hannah Valantine spoke April 13 about medicine, religion and faculty diversity as part of the “What Matters to Me and Why” lecture series.

It's always painful for a doctor to hear that a patient has died, but Hannah Valantine, MD, remains haunted by the telephone call she received from the engineer's wife.

This heart transplant patient—an electrical engineer—was fascinated by the echocardiograms he received and loved to ask Valantine questions about her research in what was then a relatively new technology. Valantine, professor of cardiovascular medicine, was troubled by his "echoes," which she thought suggested that his heart function was declining. But at that time the gold standard for diagnosing transplant rejection was a biopsy—and his biopsies showed no problem.

Then, the man's wife called to say that his heart had stopped beating. To this day, Valantine wishes that she had trusted her instincts about the reliability of the pioneering technology rather than staying rooted in the routine of cardiac treatment.

"This really made me realize that when you find something new—when you want to push the envelope—you have to believe in your gut feelings," Valantine said in her April 13 talk for the "What Matters to Me and Why" noontime speaker series. "You have to believe that those feelings come from somewhere—probably spiritual, probably God—and have the strength and the willpower to push for cultural change."

That moment brought Valantine an epiphany that goes beyond the change in cardiology, where, due in part to her own research, tiny snippets of biopsy tissue now hold less sway and, instead, doctors now pay more attention to indicators of heart function. Valantine said she learned that change involves listening to your gut. It's a lesson that she said she plans to follow as she carries out her new job as the medical school's senior associate dean for diversity and leadership.

"Diversity really matters to me," said Valantine, who stepped into the new job in February. And while questions swirl nationally about whether a significant increase in the representation of women and minorities in faculty positions can be achieved, she described how she is already working to make it happen.

Born in the Gambia and educated in London, Valantine still carries an English accent. And while she spoke softly, the audience was engaged by her remarks, as evidenced by the questions that came from the crowd, in what was the springtime kick-off for the popular series of campus talks.

So what can be done to enhance diversity? The hinge point, she said, is "engaging our top leadership in this change of culture so they actually own it."

Borrowing a metaphor volunteered by an audience member, Valantine said her office may be the heart of the School's diversity-promoting efforts, but the faculty chairs on her new advisory committee will be the arteries. She's counting on them to take programs back to their home departments and to be the implementers of change.

She said her office's goals include:

  • Increasing faculty representation of women and minorities—requiring close attention not only to faculty but also medical students who might one day be faculty recruits;

  • Decreasing the sense of isolation among women and minorities and increasing their sense of connection, and

  • Improving faculty opportunities for career development, leadership and mentorship.

  • In her vision, diversity will be represented not just in numbers, but also in a culture of inclusiveness where all students and faculty feel included and valued.

    But Valantine's talk did not dwell solely on diversity. The director of the post-transplant clinical research program also discussed the personal aspects of her life that support her work.

    "What matters to me is achieving my true potential," she said, crediting her devoutly Christian mother. "I've always striven for excellence." That trait shows, she said, in her hard work affecting the cultural shift that translated her research observations into changes in clinical practice.

    And none of that could have happened without her family and community, Valantine said. She credited husband Denis, who was in the audience, with being particularly important in supporting her and her work. Valantine said the couple married soon after meeting here in California: "I don't know whether we were both desperate, or just souls joined in heaven." They were quickly blessed, she said, with two wonderful daughters.

    Valantine said her faith community, too, has been "so incredibly supportive." Its members offered comfort and sage advice at a difficult time in her career, when she was frustrated and demoralized. "Had it not been for my church family," she said, "I might have gone down a terrible path of conflict." Instead, she said, she shifted her focus from areas of frustration to areas of support and excelled in her research.

    The issue of health disparity, Valantine said, also matters to her: "This is a huge one." She cited studies recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine: African-American patients are less likely to receive evidence-based medicine than their white counterparts. Non-whites are less likely to undergo angiocardiography. And gender disparities, she said, are even more poignant.

    Yet fewer than 50 percent of cardiologists believe there's a problem. "There are health disparities," Valantine said, "and this office through its educational missions will, I hope, help to address that."

    If the audience's warm reception was any indication, the cardiologist's two-decade stint at Stanford has paid off.

    Valantine said she's looking forward now to engaging with the medical school for change that's truly needed and that will be for the greater good.

    "The issue around diversity here, I think, is one of growing into a more inclusive environment," she said, "one that values diversity in all its many forms."