To say June was a momentous month for Dr. Paula Termuhlen is a bit of an understatement.
Just a month earlier, Termuhlen, 58, had taken the helm as only the second dean to lead the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine (WMed), replacing Founding Dean Hal B. Jenson, who retired after establishing the school and running it for 10 years.
But it was in June, more than three decades after she graduated from medical school, that Termuhlen finally paid off her student loans. And thanks to a $300 million gift to WMed that same month, future medical students at the school won’t have to repeat Termuhlen’s financial experience.
The gift is part of a $550 million Empowering Futures Gift that Western Michigan University received from anonymous donors. It’s aimed at promoting diversity, equity and inclusion at the university, with a chunk of the $300 million earmarked for scholarships to reduce financial barriers for future doctors and allow the medical school to recruit more diverse student cohorts. Over time, the gift will help expand the percentage of WMed students who receive full scholarships to 50 percent, according to WMed. A little over half of WMed students received a merit and/or need scholarships for this academic year, four of which were full tuition scholarships and all five students in the Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences program received full scholarships, according to Laura Eller, WMed’s Director of Communications.
It’s an ambition that goes hand-in-hand with WMed’s goal of increasing the diversity of the physicians it trains, in order to be more reflective of the populations they will serve. For the medical school to meet that goal, many of its students will come from communities traditionally underrepresented in medicine, communities that often have low socioeconomic status, so financial support and scholarships are critical.
“As a first-generation college student, providing this kind of financial support for young people is personal to me,” Termuhlen says. “We have students whom we worry about experiencing food insecurity. They don’t have family resources, and they can’t work and be focused on their studies at the same time. We have to start to think about how we can do a better job of alleviating the financial burden.”
A relatively new medical school in the state and in the U.S., WMed is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It’s one of 29 medical schools established since 2006, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Termuhlen says the anonymous gift positions WMed to become a “leader among medical schools” through its trailblazing work to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion into all it does.
“It is something that all medical schools are being called upon to do today, but I think we really have a chance to be leader in this,” she says. “We have really taken on this work around diversity, equity and inclusion and are making it a core value of who we are. It gives us an opportunity to establish an identity and a trajectory that can help us distinguish ourselves from other medical schools.”
Room to grow
WMed’s newness is one of the things that attracted Termuhlen, who had served since 2015 as the regional dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus, where she led faculty and staff educating 130 students in their first two years of medical school. Termuhlen says WMed has a strong foundation, but there’s room to grow.
“I can help craft the vision for WMed by creating the identity and position it to distinguish itself,” Termuhlen says.
This won’t be her first foray into implementing such a vision. During her six-year tenure in Duluth, Termuhlen helped boost the regional campus’s emphasis on helping underserved, rural communities meet their health-care needs. Her efforts include facilitating a robust program focused on Native American health and recruiting and training Native American students to become physicians.
Her leadership of the 50-year-old campus was marked by progress and growth, according to Dr. Peter Nalin, who became co-interim regional campus dean in Duluth after Termuhlen’s departure. A major construction project initiated there during her tenure improved the facilities and included the creation of new educational spaces.
“We have a brand new, modern lecture hall, new student lounge space and an expansion of student study spaces,” Nalin says. “We have new conference rooms for meetings and distance education, connecting either to our community affiliates or our central campus in the Twin Cities.”
At the same time, Nalin says, the campus’s “outcomes and reputation,” which were enhanced by Termuhlen, have been a boost to enrollment.
“In the past, the class size was 45 or 50, but in recent years we are admitting 65 students quite successfully,” he says. “Because of our mission-focused campus, we devote more specified effort to our admissions process, to find students who will succeed in our program. We don’t struggle to fill our class, and that’s great.”
‘Influenced by health’
“Mission-focused” is a term that could be used to describe Termuhlen. The older of two children raised by working-class parents in Dayton, Ohio — her father was a tool-and-die maker and her mother worked in a physician’s office — Termuhlen became interested in medicine at a young age. Her brother, Matthew Marcheski, was born prematurely and required around-the-clock care from her parents. Termuhlen’s father was also ill, requiring hospitalization off and on, dying of complications after surgery for ulcer disease when she was 12.
“I was definitely influenced by health,” she says. “I have friends that say from the time I was in kindergarten, or certainly by first or second grade, I was telling everybody I was going to be a doctor. I had this Barbie van, and sometimes they’d be in an accident or there’d be a tornado or something, and the Barbies would end up in the hospital.
“I read everything I could possibly read about: How do you get into medical school? How do you be a doctor? What’s the life of a doctor? All of that. I grew up living in the local public library. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for public libraries.”
Termuhlen was in the inaugural class of the Scholars Program at St. Louis University — a program that allowed her to apply to the university’s medical school after her second year as an undergraduate. She was accepted to the medical school and went on to receive an undergraduate degree in biology. But after she became engaged to her now-husband David and wasn’t sure where he, a biomedical engineer, would get a job, she gave up her acceptance to St. Louis University and applied to other medical schools. When David ultimately got a job in St. Louis, Termuhlen ended up going where she had originally intended and specialized in surgery.
After graduating, Termuhlen completed her surgical training at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. She then completed a surgical oncology fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center before joining the faculty at the University of Nebraska. She served on the faculty at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Ohio, where she became medical director of the High-Risk Breast Cancer Center.
During this time, she and her husband adopted three children, two from Bulgaria and one from India. Because her career was taking the family to multiple locations, she says, her husband found opportunities to try new things in his career as well.
“When I was matched to my residency in Texas,” she says, “he had the opportunity to either continue in the same field at the Texas Heart Institute or do what I call ‘the family business,’ which was to go into teaching. And so he began his teaching career, teaching math and science subjects at one of the Catholic high schools in Houston. He’s done everything from teach part time and full time at high school, be adjunct faculty at local universities, and actually be a full-time, stay-at-home dad.”
A full plate
Along the way, Termuhlen expanded her areas of specialty from surgical oncology to medical school education and rural health care and built a resume that’s 20 pages long and includes dozens of published articles and papers, books and book chapters she’s authored, and nearly 100 invited lectures, workshops and presentations. Her experiences at Duluth showed her there was a need for regional medical campuses — there are 155 in the U.S. — to be able to share best practices and their unique perspectives and challenges, so in 2018 she helped to create the online open-access Journal of Regional Medical Campuses, serving as its editor-in-chief. That same year, she was elected to the inaugural class of the American College of Surgeons’ Academy of Master Surgeon Educators.
It is evident that the woman has had a very full plate in her 36-year career.
When asked about balancing it all, she laughs. “Well, I certainly wasn’t doing all of that all at one time,” she says. “I have advised a number of medical students over the years about career choices, particularly young women, and I tell them, ‘You can have it all, but often you can’t have it all at once.'”
So it should surprise no one that Termuhlen’s next step was to lead an entire medical school.
According to Western Michigan University President Edward Montgomery, who chaired the 12-person selection committee charged with finding a new dean for WMed, Termuhlen “percolated strongly to the top as an exciting candidate” during a search process that was greatly complicated by Covid-19. The process, which normally would involve in-person interactions, had to be conducted virtually — everything from interviews and holding town hall meetings with candidates to hearing feedback from stakeholder groups.
“Founding Dean Jenson had done an amazing job getting the school established, getting it fully accredited in the shortest time period possible and jumping through all those hoops,” Montgomery says. “It was an incredibly arduous ordeal. But now that we’re established, the question becomes, What’s Chapter 2? How do we build on that? What will be our particular points of distinction? Where do we want to be building new partnerships?
“Dr. Termuhlen had a range of experiences, not only as a cancer surgeon and highly skilled in medicine, but also heading up the Duluth regional campus for the University of Minnesota. She had extensive experience not only getting that program going but building connectivity to the Native American community, because there is a big indigenous community there. Diversity was very much part of how they built their program, and it had a track record of not only serving the community, but making sure it served all of the communities and providing doctors who look like the people that they serve.
“That commitment to diversity was very important to us in the search process, as well as finding somebody who had a proven track record of building partnerships. WMed started as a partnership between Bronson Healthcare, Borgess Hospital (now Ascension Borgess) and the university and has always had a strong relationship with the community. Her ability to build those partnerships and her track record were key things in her selection.”
From Termuhlen’s point of view, taking the helm at WMed was attractive for a number of reasons.
“The easiest answer is I was running half a medical school and it seemed like the next step should be to run a full medical school,” she says. “Beyond that, the specific attraction of WMed was partly because of its location. Kalamazoo keeps us within easy driving distance of a lot of our family. But in particular I had been part of developing new medical school campuses in my past, and I know how messy startups can be. They’re really messy. And there’s a lot of stuff at the beginning that you have to do, some of which isn’t very fun. But coming to WMed, I came into a place where a lot of the messiness is already over.”
That WMed had established itself as a community-based medical school strongly aligned with local hospitals was also a lure for Termuhlen.
“It’s a class of medical school that I personally have thrived in and I find to be very important in the United States,” she says. “These schools work side-by-side with their community physicians, and that gives our students and residents the opportunity to learn truly what it’s like to be a physician.
“In my career I’ve worked for medical schools that are very research-intensive and doing all kinds of really complex clinical work. I’ve also worked for medical schools just like WMed, where we’re very proud of producing physicians that are going to be the doc on the corner that you’re going to go see when you have a cold. I find this kind of an atmosphere really lends itself to creating a class of physicians that know from Day 1 exactly what it’s like to be in practice, because most physicians practice in community settings; very few of us actually are part of medical schools.”
Finally, Termuhlen says WMed’s newness affords her the chance to “do the fun part”: molding the school’s work of integrating its core values of diversity, equity and inclusion into its future growth.
“We’re not weighed down by our history, like … long-established schools,” she says, “so we’ve been able to start from the get-go with some of the most contemporary best practices that are out there. And that’s actually another exciting reason to be here.”
The $300 million that WMed will receive from the Empowering Futures Gift was “a vote of confidence” in Termuhlen, according to Montgomery.
“The gift not only gave a vote of confidence to what had already been established by Dean Jensen, but also a vote of complete optimism for the future, that the medical school will continue to play a key role in our community and produce the cutting-edge doctors of the future,” he says. “And that it will not only do great science and great medicine but also look like and reflect our community’s diversity.”
When the gift was announced in June, Termuhlen praised it as integral to boosting those efforts, saying, “We need to create a workforce that reflects the populations we serve. That means building diversity, equity and inclusion into our medical school, not just with our students but with our faculty, residents and staff. This will not just transform WMed but can also help to transform Kalamazoo.”
Just how WMed will change the community and medical education is yet to be seen, but Termuhlen, who admits to having a competitive streak, is ready to lead the charge.
“I love being the underdog, if you want to call it that.”