In her new role as dean, an ob/gyn feels like a student again.
A year ago, Roxanne Vrees ’98 MD’03 RES’07 could not have imagined that she’d be where she is now, serving as associate dean for student affairs at the Warren Alpert Medical School. And yet, when she looks back over the trajectory of her career, it makes total sense.
“I love working with the trainees—the med students, the residents,” Vrees says. She began this new role on September 1.
Vrees became interested in medicine as a child, when she began comparing her experiences with the health care system in the US with those in Jamaica, where she lived until she was 10. In high school, she learned about Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education from an older student.
After concentrating in psychology as an undergrad, she thought she’d go into pediatrics—until she did her pediatrics rotation and realized that her affinity to pediatrics was based on her desire to have a family of her own. She chose obstetrics and gynecology instead, because, she says, “it’s such a diverse specialty with a little bit of everything. You’re doing primary care, you’re doing surgery, and you get to take care of women across their entire lifecycle … and there’s nothing more exciting than delivering a baby!” (She got the family, too: Vrees and her husband, Matthew Vrees MD’97, a clinical associate professor of surgery, have two children.)
She matched to the residency program at Women & Infants Hospital, where Donald Coustan, MD, the department chair at the time, became an “incredible mentor.” Vrees says she’s not sure she fit the blueprint for what a Women & Infants resident looked like on paper or in person, but Coustan “saw something in her.”
That’s true, Coustan says. “When I met Roxanne, I saw that she was an active thinker. She has an inquisitive nature, and she related well to patients. She’s very bright.”
After a year and a half in private practice, Vrees returned to Women & Infants to work in their specialty emergency room. Much like a general emergency department, Vrees says, “You never know what’s going to roll through the door—you’re a first responder. It might mean life-or-death decisions in the moment.”
It also means sometimes caring for women who have been sexually assaulted. “We were able to build a sexual assault nurse examiner [SANE] program. In Rhode Island we are the only emergency room that has a comprehensive SANE program and post-assault follow-up clinic for all of our survivors,” she says. This work has become her primary area of interest and clinical expertise; she became medical director of emergency obstetrics and gynecology at Women & Infants in 2011. On the academic side, Vrees was the associate residency program director and ob/gyn core clerkship director until becoming associate dean.
Though she completed all of her education and training at Brown, Vrees feels like there’s much about the Medical School that’s still brand new to her. “I’m kind of feeling like a medical student again,” she says.
One thing that’s different is that there’s more support and focus on student wellness, she says. Another thing that’s slowly changing is the stigma around mental health issues, especially for physicians. “We have students who struggle with anxiety, depression, eating disorders,” Vrees says. “I think we’re having more open dialogue about some of these really challenging issues, but also having support and resources for students who are struggling.”
Those resources include a learning specialist on staff, as well as a Counseling and Psychological Services therapist dedicated to medical students. “These are all things that we didn’t have that I think have really elevated the culture of wellness and student support at AMS,” Vrees says.
Since her appointment, Vrees has been in the listening phase, learning more about student needs and working on her vision for the student affairs office. One thing she knows is she wants students to see her as a success story. “I wasn’t a PLME student who just coasted through and everything was great. There were bumps in the road. I’m a first-gen college student, only physician in my family. I want students to look at me as what can happen on the other end despite the struggles, despite the challenges.”