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50 years after Virginia’s first heart transplant, $1M gift breathes new life into historic lab

The Cottrell Surgical Innovation Laboratory at the VCU School of Medicine will support pioneering surgical education, research and services.

The former laboratory of Richard Lower, M.D., the pioneering surgeon who performed the first hear...
The former laboratory of Richard Lower, M.D., the pioneering surgeon who performed the first heart transplant in Virginia in 1968, will be transformed into a $5 million suite of research facilities. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

“How in the world do you thank anyone for saving your life three times?” It’s a poignant question for David Cottrell.

When Cottrell arrived at VCU Medical Center, he thought he had the flu. He had no idea just how ill he was — or how much time he would spend in the hospital. His actual diagnosis: a staph infection, which led first to bacterial spinal meningitis, then spread to his heart valves. He experienced multiple strokes and began to experience multisystem organ failure.

The outlook seemed bleak, but a large, diverse team at VCU Medical Center oversaw Cottrell’s care, navigating each challenge and complication that arose. Through the most harrowing times of his illness, he and his wife, Christy, never gave up. “We never lost faith in the quality of the care or team that surrounded us,” Christy Cottrell said. And the couple took advantage of the academic health center’s collaborative approach, listening to the team and knowing that the team was listening to them. After 10 months and four surgeries ­­— including three open-heart procedures — David Cottrell was truly on the road to recovery.

“I have been able to retire, spend more time with my family, travel and focus on the things I love,” Cotrell said of his life today. “I was able to walk my daughter Leah down the aisle. I owe the teams at VCU my life.”

From left: Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., chair of the VCU Department of Surgery; Christine and David Cottrell. (Courtesy photo)
From left: Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., chair of the VCU Department of Surgery; Christine and David Cottrell. (Courtesy photo)

The couple found a profoundly meaningful way to express their gratitude to VCU — a $1 million leadership gift to create the Christine B. and David E. Cottrell Surgical Innovation Laboratory at the VCU School of Medicine. The lab will support the latest in surgical education, research and testing services.

The Cottrell Surgical Innovation Laboratory embodies a rich, long-standing tradition of innovation at VCU and VCU Health. The space it will occupy in Sanger Hall has housed decades of landmark research, including the groundbreaking work of Richard Lower, M.D., and his research partner Richard Cleveland, M.D., who pioneered heart transplantation for the world.

 Richard Lower, M.D., in his laboratory in the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Tompkins-McCaw Library Collections and Archive)
Richard Lower, M.D., in his laboratory in the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Tompkins-McCaw Library Collections and Archive)

Lower performed the first heart transplant in Virginia and one of the first in the world. He helped lay the foundation for the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center — which to date has performed more than 5,000 lifesaving transplant surgeries — and the second-oldest heart transplantation program in the U.S., which is part of the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center.

With the generosity of the Cottrells and other donors, 6,000 square feet of historic laboratory space will be transformed into a $5 million suite of research facilities. It will support collaboration within VCU and with industry and community partners. Faculty of all surgical departments at VCU Medical Center, the VCU Schools of Medicine and Pharmacy, as well as the VCU College of Engineering, will be able to make use of the lab.

The lab’s surgical education center will bring the latest, most advanced surgical education and human simulation technologies to students, as well as courses for continuing medical education for faculty, staff, community professionals and industry partners.

“At the VCU School of Medicine, we educate the next generation of physicians and scientists not only through traditional methods but through innovative scholarly activities and diverse educational context,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “The Cottrell Surgical Innovation Laboratory will support our mission by expanding the cutting-edge education technology available to our academic community. The human simulation technology, in particular, will create a uniquely experiential environment for future surgeons to put their thoughts into practice.” 

Research spaces will support a full range of laboratory investigation, from hypothesis testing for basic cellular and molecular work all the way to pre-clinical and clinical trials.

"We are very excited to have a facility like this at VCU," said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of VCU's College of Engineering. "Our students are committed to innovating technologies that have an impact on health, which happens best when they have the opportunity to work together with physicians and surgeons. What better place to do this than in the Cottrell Surgical Innovation Laboratory?"

Research is a fundamental priority for each discipline the lab will serve. The updated facilities will support even greater levels of collaboration and innovation.

“The Department of Surgery has made a far-reaching impact on modern surgery, developing groundbreaking surgical techniques since the Civil War. We are excited to begin work in the Cottrell Surgical Innovation Laboratory and explore the opportunities it will provide to build on this legacy,” said Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., Stuart McGuire Professor and chair of the VCU Department of Surgery. “The lab will fuel the new inquiries, discoveries and partnerships that drive innovation in surgical care, education and research.”

The surgical testing center will support FDA-sponsored testing of new devices and drugs for human development — creating a revenue stream to drive long-term financial security for the lab beyond grants and other funding.
The surgical testing center will support FDA-sponsored testing of new devices and drugs for human development — creating a revenue stream to drive long-term financial security for the lab beyond grants and other funding.

The surgical testing center will support FDA-sponsored testing of new devices and drugs for human development — creating a revenue stream to drive long-term financial security for the lab beyond grants and other funding.

“One unique aspect of the lab is the multifunctionality of the space,” said Martin Mangino, Ph.D., professor and associate chair of research in the Department of Surgery. “We can run a very sophisticated surgical innovation program under one roof. We’re educating, we’re coming up with ideas, we’re translating those ideas into useful clinical aids to help our patients, and we’re offering services for ourselves and other industry partners.

“Surgery is a science, but it’s also a very clinical discipline,” Mangino said. “When we do research in surgery, we always have an eye to our patients. We test ideas so that we can develop new treatments, then take them across the street and provide more advanced care to our patients.”

All three aspects of the Cottrell lab’s work ultimately will benefit future patients — those who receive their care from VCU Health and others throughout the world.

“We want to show our appreciation for the exceptional care David received,” said Christy Cottrell. “And we are thrilled that this space will enable surgeons to be entrepreneurial, to innovate and ultimately to help more patients like David to have positive outcomes. That is the ultimate goal.”