Recap of Emory Medal 2018

Contributions to health, both on a local and global level were the focus of the 2018 Emory Medal celebration and ceremony.

By Elizabeth Cobb Durel

Jason Slabach 13N, Crystal Johnson 00N, and Laura Mitchell-Spurlock 95Ox 97N

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On a recent evening, the Atlanta History Center was filled with an intergenerational crowd, all gathered to honor a trio of alumni nurses who used their skills to serve during a dangerous time and a physician who, in equal parts, was a doctor, a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. Crystal Johnson 00N, Laura Mitchell-Spurlock 95Ox 97N, and Jason Slabach 13N volunteered to care for the first Ebola patient treated on American soil. H. Kenneth Walker 56Ox 58C 63M 70MR 71MR, not only had a deep impact on the local Emory community, but was also instrumental in reviving medical education in Georgia, a small country more than 6,000 miles away from campus.

The Emory Medal, Emory’s highest alumni award, is the recognition of the pinnacle of service to Emory and to community. This year's recipients worked with Emory to forward the mission of global health. In both large and small ways, they channeled the resources to do good works and underscored collaboration is invaluable to achievement, and in these cases, vital.

Looking across the atrium, many of Emory’s 100 Senior Honorary, the graduating campus leaders soon heading out into the world to start their next phase of achievement, posed in front of Emory logos. Longtime colleagues from Emory's School of Nursing and School of Medicine greeted each other with hugs. A group who had traveled from Tbilisi mingled in the crowd, meeting some of the people Dr. Walker had impacted over the years.

Emory Alumni Board President, Ashley Grice 97PH 03B, was the evening's host, while the Emory community, colleagues, family, and friends honored the recipients with speeches, medals, citations, video, and applause. Dr. Claire E. Sterk, Emory’s 20th president, served as keynote speaker and addressed the medalists’ roles in Emory’s leadership in global health.

“It's our responsibility to advance human health, to develop and nurture innovative partnerships, partnerships that foster research and discovery, more important partnerships with commitment” said Dr. Sterk. “Tonight's medal recipients have lifted that commitment to advancing human health. They have done it globally, which by the way, includes locally.”

Dr. Sterk also spoke of how the recipients are examples of Emory’s best. “They remind us that being part of this incredible Emory community is a privilege,” she said. “That privilege comes with incredible responsibility, so Emory is well positioned to support the work of tonight's leaders, past leaders, and leaders of the future.”

Team Ebola

Just a few short years ago, Ebola, a nearly always fatal disease, was rapidly spreading throughout western Africa. Several American citizens, there to provide medical services, contracted the disease. While the world was on the verge of panic over the thought of a possible pandemic, Emory opened its doors to welcome the patients. Johnson, Mitchell-Spurlock, and Slabach were among the first to volunteer for positions on the communicable disease team. Their work not only helped to save all four of the patients, but also set the standards and created protocols for the treatment of this class of disease.

After a video detailing their work on Team Ebola, Dean Linda A. McCauley 79N of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing came to the podium.

“At the nursing school, we prepare students to graduate feeling that they are prepared to respond to any scenario, from the routine to the unexpected, with the same grace and skill,” said Dean McCauley. “We educate nursing leaders. Crystal, Laura, and Jason represent the best of Emory Nursing through their volunteerism, their care and the service they provide.”

She read their citation, noting their work as “courageous nursing pioneers.” Dr. Sterk then presented a medal to each one. “We were grateful for the strong teamwork, constant collaboration, and the Emory leadership,” said Johnson speaking for the group. “All of this shaped who we are today and will inform who we become. Please know we are just getting started.”

H. Kenneth Walker

Kenneth Walker

H. Kenneth Walker 56Ox 58C 63M 70MR 71MR

Medal recipient, Dr. Ken Walker, who passed away suddenly the week before the ceremony, was an Emory stalwart for more than six decades. With the exception of two years of service in Vietnam, once Walker arrived on the Oxford campus in the fall of 1953, in one way or another, he never left. When he found himself on Emory’s campus, he found his second home.

After earning five Emory degrees, Walker taught in the medical school and mentored residents at Grady Memorial Hospital, where he served in various capacities. In his own words, he reckoned that he taught almost 10,000 medical students and that those careers took them from the South Pole to the Earth’s orbit.

Over those sixty years, he wasn’t just teaching.

Walker pioneered electronic medical record keeping. He revitalized the medical education system in Georgia, a country decimated by the fall of the USSR. But, over and over, the common theme in all of his work was his commitment to his students.

In Walker’s absence, Dr. J. William Eley 79C 83M 86MR 89MF 90PH, the Executive Dean of Emory Medical School, who was also a student, a colleague and a dear friend for almost four decades, spoke, bolstered by the notes Walker wrote in his final days. 

As a child, Walker, always a voracious learner, was surrounded by piles of books when he wasn’t helping shuck corn or milking cows on the family farm. When he got to Atlanta, he found that “Emory provided for his mind, while Grady provided for his soul.”

And, for all he was given from Emory, he gave back exponentially. When Walker was asked to go to Tbilisi for the first time in the early 70s, first he said "yes." Second, he asked where Tibilisi was. In the years following, Walker orchestrated the construction of a medical education system from literal rubble. He trained physicians and mentored them back in Atlanta. He set up Women’s Wellness centers and made sure there was internet to keep connected.

The underlying theme of Dr. Walker’s life’s work and legacy, was not only doing good, but also influencing others to work for good as well. “He used his persuasive powers and exuberant prose to propel all of his students to the next level,” Dr. Eley said.

While Dr. Walker worked to further Emory’s mission, in his notes he had written about his “enormous gratitude for the role that Emory played in allowing him to connect and the flourish with this friends and family from Georgia.”

After a video of Dr. Walker’s career highlights, Dean Vikas Sukhatme of the Emory School of Medicine read the Emory Medal citation noting Walker's work as a “transformational physician-educator.” Dr. Sterk then presented the medal to Dr. Archil Undilashivili, a fellow physician who met Walker as a colleague on the Georgian AIDS Institute, but over the course of two decades came to consider him family.

To close the program, the audience was led in the alma mater by No Strings Attached, Emory’s all-male a cappella group, and Reverend Lisa Garvin shared a benediction, extolling the audience to “hold fast to that which is good.” Then the crowd lingered over dessert and visited until the lights were dimmed one last time.

Watch a recording of the Ceremony

More video footage and information of the award at alumni.emory.edu/medal.

Do you know someone who demonstrated distinguished service to Emory or the Emory Alumni Association, service to the community, or outstanding professional achievement? Submit a nomination for the 2019 Emory Medal award.