VUMC mourns loss of critical care leader Wheelerby John Howser Dec. 21, 2015, 8:54 AM
Arthur P. “Art” Wheeler, M.D., professor of Medicine and the longtime director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Adult Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), died Thursday, Dec. 17, from cancer. He was 58.
A nationally recognized leader in critical care medicine, Dr. Wheeler’s studies contributed key findings that changed how ICU patients everywhere are managed. His research helped determine optimal mechanical ventilation for the management of patients suffering from adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and questioned the value of the routine use of pulmonary artery catheters and of chlorhexidine bathing of patients to reduce infection rates.
“In addition to the pioneering research he conducted leading to care pathways that created substantial efficiencies and reduced costs, as the director of our Medical ICU for the past 22 years, Art created an atmosphere of professionalism where there is equal respect for all who play a role in the support and care of our patients. He was on a first-name basis with everyone in the unit. He knew their work and personal histories,” said longtime colleague Gordon Bernard, M.D., associate vice chancellor for Research (clinical) and director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.
“He constantly advocated for changes that improve patient care or the work of the MICU, while he would vehemently resist change that did neither. He wouldn’t change care unless there was evidence to support it. If there was no evidence, he would generate it. He was so committed to the MICU and its people that he would work all hours of the night and day. No task was too small. He was involved at all levels,” said Bernard.
After completing his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Maryland, Dr. Wheeler joined VUMC in 1982 as an intern in the Department of Medicine. Completing his residency as a Hugh J. Morgan Chief Resident in 1987, he then completed a research fellowship in the Division of Pulmonary Medicine before becoming a member of the faculty in 1989.
Dr. Wheeler was the co-author, along with colleague John J. Marini, M.D., of the University of Minnesota, of the definitive textbook “Critical Care Medicine The Essentials,” an integral training guide for critical care practitioners. The book is now in its fourth edition.
Throughout his career at VUMC, in addition to the exceptional, life-saving care he provided MICU patients, Dr. Wheeler played an integral leadership role within the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and elsewhere in the Medical Center, lending his expertise through mentoring, teaching and training and to other efforts where his extensive knowledge of critical care medicine helped shape decisions about the delivery of care.
“Art was dedicated to his patients, peers, trainees and family and driven by deeply held personal values. He will continue to be a role model for me,” said Nancy Brown, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Medicine.
Among his many contributions, Dr. Wheeler led the Pulmonary and Critical Care fellowship training program; was vice chair of the of the Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee; served on the Laboratory Services Committee; served as medical director of the Clinical Trials Coordinating Center; and was director of the MICU Nurse Practitioner Program.
“Art was a major part of the fabric of our Division for 30 years, positively impacting each of us and helping to make this a rewarding place to train and work. In addition to being an international leader in Critical Care Medicine, he was a great friend, colleague and role model who will be missed for a long time to come,” said Timothy Blackwell, M.D., professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine.
Contributing significantly to the body of knowledge of the care of critically ill patients, Dr. Wheeler was an author or co-author of 138 original investigations. He participated in more than 300 national and international presentations. He was a frequent lecturer at VUMC, having given nearly 200 presentations on a host of topics.
Dr. Wheeler was a fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians and member of the American Thoracic Society, Society of Critical Care Medicine and American Federation for Clinical Research. In October, he received the 2015 Presidential Honor Lecture Award from the American College of Chest Physicians during the college’s annual meeting in Montreal.
Especially supportive of the role of nurses and nurse practitioners in the critical care setting, he was proud to have built an alliance among nurses and physicians who serve the MICU. When the MICU grew from 26 to 34 beds as the Vanderbilt University Hospital Critical Care Tower opened, Dr. Wheeler designed and developed a new nurse practitioner program, now a national model, that provides around-the-clock coverage for many of the MICU’s patients.
In 2010, Dr. Wheeler was awarded the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Friend of Nursing Award and in 2011 he was the recipient of the Nursing Team Award. He also served as co-director of the Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Intensivist Fellowship Program for the School of Nursing.
“Every nurse, care partner, medical receptionist and every member of our MICU health care team was touched by Dr. Wheeler,” said Julie Foss, MSN, R.N., manager of the Medical Intensive Care Unit. “I have vivid memories of him sitting with a nurse, care partner and medical receptionist answering questions about a patient’s disease process or the rationale for the medical treatment we were giving to a patient. He knew everyone by name, even as the size of the staff grew to more than 100 members.
“He was a very strong advocate for nursing. I knew that if I had the data to support an initiative he would be in my court backing up my decision and would help me present to senior administration. He always had time to talk with me about unit operations. And he consistently sought out my thoughts and opinions on ideas that he had for the unit. I feel like we had a true partnership, both having an equal voice,” Foss said.
On Nov. 11, Dr. Wheeler received the Medical Center’s Five Pillar Leader Award, which is given for leadership in service, quality, growth/finance, innovation and the promotion of staff and faculty satisfaction and commitment.
In addition to being a licensed, instrument-rated commercial pilot, Dr. Wheeler coached basketball, soccer and was involved in Boy Scouts in his community. He also served on the board of Governing Members for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
He is survived by his wife, Lisa A. Wheeler, a research coordinator in the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, and their sons, Aaron and Eric.
On Dec. 3, with Dr. Wheeler and Lisa Wheeler in attendance, the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine honored his numerous contributions with a portrait unveiling and through the creation of the Art and Lisa Wheeler Critical Care Research Fund. The new fund will support an annual lectureship to be held in Dr. Wheeler’s honor, and will establish a funding source for critical care research to be conducted by nurse practitioners, residents and fellows.
Prior to his death, Dr. Wheeler was named a Giant in Chest Medicine by the leading journal CHEST. The distinction is reserved to highlight the achievements of individuals who have made groundbreaking contributions within the fields of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine. An audio interview with Dr. Wheeler and an accompanying profile will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal.
Arrangements for Dr. Wheeler’s memorial are as follows: An informal memorial will be held at the Williamson Memorial Funeral Home, Franklin, Tennessee, on Dec. 27 from 4-8 p.m. A celebration of life event will be held in the spring.
Contributions for the research fund may be sent to the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary & Critical Care Med in honor of Arthur and Lisa Wheeler. Please send checks payable to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, with a note designating for “Division of Allergy, Pulmonary & Critical Care Med in honor of Arthur and Lisa Wheeler,” to:
Vanderbilt Gift Processing
2301 Vanderbilt Place
Nashville, TN 37240-7727