February 7, 2023

Dr. Upchurch is retired now, but not quite

By  John Guy LaPlante

Some 35 years ago, when I was living back in Worcester, Mass., I became quite ill.

Dr. Upchurch and husband “Tak” and grandson. Retirement is nice. But so is MAVEN, she found out.

My family doctor, at a loss, referred me to Dr. Katherine Upchurch, a rheumatologist at then Memorial Hospital.

All my doctors had been men. She became my first woman doctor.

Very thorough. She asked questions, checked me out, ran tests. And came up with a diagnosis of temporal arteritis. I had never heard of that. Not a good thing. I’ll leave it at that.

She put me on Prednisone. A massive dosage. Told me I might need 3 months or so to lick the problem. Well, it took 13 months.

Finally my monstrous rheumatology problem was over. What a relief.

Dr. Upchurch was a wonderful doctor. I had been very blessed to have been referred to her.

Well, she had gotten to know me quite well. She knew I was a journalist and writer.   She got to see some of my articles as they got published.

When I started my blog, she became one of my readers.

As you know I blog on this and that. On whatever happens to pique my curiosity. My posts go off to many people.

Now and then she would send me a comment.

I enjoyed her comments and would email her a quick note of thanks.

For some time she had been signing off as Dr. Katherine Upchurch, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. A five-star med school.

She had started teaching there even before my illness.

Now she had risen to full professor.

I found that impressive indeed. It indicated that her skills as a diagnostician and case manager had become widely known to the large medical community there and had led to her eminence at the school.

There were some 125 physicians and surgeons on the faculty. But only a handful were women. And she had risen to the very top. My!

Well, not long ago I got a note from her that was particularly nice. I emailed her back that we had a lot of catching up to do. Possible to have a telephone chat?

She said she’d enjoy that and sent me her cell phone number.

We had been on a Doctor Upchurch / Mister Laplante@yahoo.com basis. We were now on a Kathy / John basis.

I called her and she filled me in. She told me she had recently retired from clinical practice, a few years early, mostly as the result of a strange accident.

And that her husband, Dr. Ronald “Tak” Takvorian, a medical oncologist, was still practicing at Massachusetts General Hospital.

About that accident. She was out walking her dog, a big mixed breed, using a retractable leash. He suddenly bounded forward and pulled her down hard. Her right collarbone was broken and all the nerves to her right arm and hand were seriously damaged.

Though improved, she continues to have very bothersome symptoms.

After almost over 45 years, it was time to start enjoying the flowers. She resigned her clinical position, but she made sure that her patients had other rheumatologists to continue to provide care.

Though retired from practice, she hopes to teach at UMass in the future.

When I asked, she told me she was delighted to have become an M.D.

How had that come about?

“Oh, I always enjoyed school. Back in high school I found I was good at science, and I loved people!  And that’s what eventually led me to Duke Med School.”

It had worked out wonderfully well. Now she was enjoying her new leisure. More time with her children and grandchildren. Traveling and so on. All the while continuing to slowly recover.

“And know what, John? Something very marvelous came up. I found a unique way, a really wonderful way, to continue working a few hours a week as a doctor. A way I learned of a few years before retiring but in which I’ve become more involved in recently ”

“My! What’s that?”

She chuckled. “You’ll be surprised. I’ll send you an email about it.”

I got the email within a couple of hours. She called it “My claim to fame!”

What it was was a link to a PBS Health Hour of last October.

I didn’t waste a minute opening it. Found myself looking at a program entitled “MAVEN meets the Peace Corps!”

That really struck me. I served in Peace Corps. A full hitch in Ukraine.  Knew she had never served and Peace Corps. ???!!!!.

Well, I put 2 and 2 together. MAVEN made that Peace Corps comparison to make itself better understood.

Peace Corps was about helping needy people in other countries.

MAVEN is about helping Americans in great medical need. Folks who don’t have insurance or money for advice from top specialists.

Doctor Upchurch was a star of the show. She didn’t call herself a star. The show didn’t call her a star. But that’s what she was, a star.

So exactly what is MAVEN? It stands for Medical Alumni Volunteer Expert Network.

It was founded by Dr. Laurie Green of San Francisco, an Ob-Gyn, back in 2012 when she was president of the Harvard Medical School Alumni Association.

And here’s what MAVEN is about.

Even with Obamacare, there are many people who are left wanting.

Oh, they may get to see a primary care physician but what they need is a fully credentialed specialist.

Often it takes a long time to secure an appointment. They may not have coverage. May not have the money. May not have transportation to get to the specialist.

Well, many retired specialists are delighted to be out of the trenches after many years.

But they like the idea of keeping their skills sharp, all while helping people in great need who just can’t pay or who don’t have access.

When first founded in 2014, MAVEN volunteers actually saw patients remotely through a platform known as “telehealth.” This is becoming more widely used in medical care today.

Now, though, in order to best utilize volunteers (to make it possible, for example, for them to use their skills in states where they don’t have licenses), MAVEN physicians confer online with primary care physicians. They answer questions they may have about their patients and the diseases which affect them.

Primary care physicians can even review lab results and X-rays and CAT scans with specialists from MAVEN.

MAVEN doctors also teach caregivers via teleconferencing!

Dr. Upchurch told me she had given a conference to nurse practitioners in Idaho, all the while sitting in her own living room!

Finally, MAVEN volunteers also mentor primary care providers who work at subscribing health centers. They do this to make sure they take time to take care of themselves and don’t burn out! .

In the PBS show, Doctor Upchurch is shown teleconferencing with a primary care physician.

Also seen is another telehealth conference with another volunteer specialist.

How dramatic and wonderful!

Now, here is the link to that show. Click on it and you will see exactly what I got to see.


Yes, Doctor Upchurch called it her brief claim to fame.

I beg to differ. Back in her long years in active practice, she had many, many claims to fame.

And that’s why whenever I’ve received an email from her, I have instantly recalled how she had patiently, tenaciously used her skill for many months to save me from a very, very nasty illness. And permanently.

So again, thank you very much, Doctor Upchurch. Excuse me. Thank you, Kathy.

Keep it up as a MAVEN volunteer!

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