A photo of the Cottrell family with Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., Stuart McGuire Chair of the VCU Department of Surgery

Couple’s gift advances surgical innovation, research and education

The VCU School of Medicine Christine B. and David E. Cottrell Surgical Innovation Suite opened in May 2022 following a $5 million renovation that transformed existing space on the MCV Campus into a 6,000 square foot state-of-the-art research laboratory.

The facility ensures today’s VCU Department of Surgery faculty will continue to advance the field in the same way as the pioneering surgeons and transplant surgeons who came before them. Designed to support collaboration within VCU as well as industry and community partners, the suite will welcome researchers from the School of Pharmacy and College of Engineering, who will partner with School of Medicine and surgical faculty.

The suite’s namesakes, Christy and David Cottrell, provided a $1 million leadership gift to the Department of Surgery to advance improvements in surgical innovation, research and education. The Cottrells experienced the benefit of VCU’s expertise and inter-disciplinary collaboration firsthand when David Cottrell was hospitalized for 10 months in 2014 for a serious case of spinal meningitis. Following his full recovery, the couple expressed their gratitude for the care he received by investing in the culture of innovation and collaborative discovery that made a lasting impression during their experience.

Since the Cottrells’ initial gift, an additional $3.2 million in philanthropic support was raised to bring the Surgical Innovation Suite to life.

Much of that support comes from donors who, like the Cottrells, have a personal appreciation for the innovative spirit embodied by the space, which was formerly the research lab for pioneering transplant surgeon Richard Lower, M.D., and is located in Sanger Hall.

One such donor is Roger King, M.D., (H.S.’69), a retired surgical oncologist living in West Virginia. He completed his surgery residency on the MCV Campus in 1969 and later served on faculty for three years. King cites surgical oncologists Jose Terz, M.D., and Walter Lawrence Jr., M.D., founding director of VCU Massey Cancer Center, as his greatest influences while in Richmond – primarily because of their commitment to educating and mentoring young physicians.

“They were busy doctors and it took a lot of effort on their part to invest in the students,” King says. “Because of them I was able to find my specialty and build a career. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to be part of their legacy.”

This gratitude inspired King’s $25,000 gift to support the Cottrell Surgical Innovation Suite. “Those two made the biggest impact on my life and my career. I just really wanted to do something to honor them,” he says. The research lab was the perfect fit for King’s tribute, as it seemed to be a 21st century reflection of the progressive approach he associates with his mentors.

“During my time at VCU, Dr. Lawrence created the first separate division for surgical oncology at an academic medical center in the United States. That was a brand new approach at the time, and it opened up an exciting way to care for patients – and for me to focus my career.”

Likewise, the Surgical Innovation Suite and its three main components – a surgical education center, a surgical testing center and an organ reanimation laboratory (where kidneys, livers, pancreases and hearts can be reconditioned for transplant) – were created to catalyze new approaches to surgical education and research, with the ultimate goal of improving patient care.

“Providing an environment conducive to generating innovative breakthroughs in surgical care and educating future and current generations is central to our mission,” says Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., Stuart McGuire Chair of the VCU Department of Surgery. “Our vision is to foster an interdisciplinary, collaborative lab for faculty and fellows to work side by side.”

The full-circle nature of the Surgical Innovation Suite is not lost on Kasirajan. “This is exactly what Dr. Lower and his fellow VCU physician-scientist pioneers used to do in this space,” he says. “They took patient problems to the lab, efficiently studied them and then turned them into treatment breakthroughs."

A version of this article was previously published by the VCU School of Medicine.