Rob Michel, MD ’87, Res ’91 and Joey Michel, SMD’23
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Rob Michel had never visited the University of Virginia when he arrived in Charlottesville as a transfer student in 1980. He was seeking a quieter campus scene than he had experienced at Temple University in his first year as an undergrad and a place that provided fun activities outside the classroom. He found both at UVA, and Charlottesville has been his and his family’s home ever since. His family includes his son, Joey, who is currently a fourth-year medical student at UVA.
As an undergrad majoring in Chemistry, Rob Michel took part in a work-study program as part of his financial aid package. He worked in Dr. Joyce Hamlin’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry preparing buffers, cleaning equipment, and providing basic lab support. A connection he made in the lab enabled him to visit the OR. Michel also worked in the hospital as part of the weekend “Bed and Bath” team giving him the opportunity to interact with patients.” Together, these experiences opened his eyes to the life of a medical student. “I got to see the interaction between the students, the housestaff, and the faculty, and that kind of drew me to the School of Medicine here,” he says. “UVA was the best school that I got accepted into, so it was a pretty easy decision to stay.”
As a medical student, Michel had an interest in a career in primary care, based in part on making house calls with his own family doctor when he was in high school. “I tried to be as open as I could to all the rotations. When I got onto the pediatric service as a student, I just felt like I was home. I enjoyed thinking about pediatric problems. Plus, the pediatric health staff and the faculty I worked with all seemed very happy,” he says.
After graduating from medical school in 1987, Michel did his residency in Pediatrics at UVA, serving as pediatric chief resident from 1990-91. He stayed on as a member of the pediatric faculty for eight years. “I look at that as a very long fellowship where I got to work shoulder to shoulder with some very bright people to continue to teach me,” he says. In 2000, he and Gretchen Brantley, MD, opened Piedmont Pediatrics, which has served families in Charlottesville and Albemarle County for the past 22 years.
Despite the fact that both of his parents went to UVA (his mother, Ann, is a 1985 alumna of the School of Nursing), Joey Michel says that he chose to attend UVA for his own reasons. “I was looking for a large school with a good social culture, that had a capella groups, that could open doors, and had strong academics. UVA really was the complete package for me,” he says.
Initially interested in a career in physical therapy, he studied Kinesiology in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development. During his second year as an undergrad, he decided to switch gears. “I’d had a lot of mentorship and gained a better understanding of what a medical student was. I had the idea that everyone had a 4.0 and that they are gods in the classroom and have everything going for them at all times,” Joey Michel says. “I think I needed some perspective. You can be whoever you want to be as long as you’re caring for patients. That’s what matters. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to do it. He said, ‘If you want to do medicine, you’ve got to be all in. You have to give it 100%.’”
Rob Michel says that Joey’s decision to be a doctor didn’t cause him concern, despite knowing the demanding nature of a career in medicine. “I knew that Joey was going into this with his eyes open and for all the right reasons. If I felt that he was doing it because he had some obligation to follow what I did, that would be wrong. That’s why I said he had to be all in because you really have to want to do this. Whatever type of medicine you’re practicing, it’s demanding,” he says.
Joey Michel considering leaving Charlottesville for medical school to gain an educational experience outside of UVA, but several things made him stay: the connections he had already made as an undergraduate, the collaborative energy in the classroom, and the opportunity to participate in the Generalist Scholars Program, which develops student leaders who intend to pursue a career in Family Medicine, General Internal Medicine, General Pediatrics, or Med-Peds.
In August 2019, both Michels had the opportunity to take part in the Class of 2023’s White Coat Ceremony, endowed by the Class of 1965. Rob Michel recalls that it was a much different experience than receiving his white coat, which didn’t involve a ceremony. Instead, he went to the basement at McKim Hall with $25. This time around, he was able to coat his son on the stage at Old Cabell Hall, wearing the 30-year old white coat he had worn during his residency. “It was quite a privilege. It was a very happy day for our whole family,” he says.
Joey Michel agrees. “There’s no other way I would have loved that day to go, and I think it made it feel a little more concrete. I’m blessed that he put zero pressure on me ever about my career and what would make me happy in terms of my life trajectory. To have him coat me was very much metaphorical and symbolic in a lot of ways,” he says.
The Michels also attended Family Day in October 2019, which included a visit to the School’s Medical Simulation Center. “It is just a game changer in the way this generation of physicians are being taught,” says Rob Michel. “To have the opportunity to work on these simulated mannequins that can respond to the mistakes you make and respond positively to the correct decisions you make, it’s just a remarkable technology to help them learn.”
Five months later, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Virginia. For Rob Michel, his private practice saw a drop in patient visits and changes to protocols that involved seeing patients in the parking lot and creating separate sick and well visit entrances. For Joey Michel, it meant a shift from the classroom learning he thrived on to Zoom sessions and breakout rooms. It also meant moving back home with his parents temporarily.
“Once we started clinical rotations in February 2021, we were thrown into the thick of it, just as any other medical student would be, but with the added knowledge of how to put on PPE correctly so that we could actually see patients,” Joey Michel says. “Overall, COVID didn’t impact my medical education as much as I thought that it might. We were spared from some of the more challenging aspects.”
During his inpatient pediatric rotation, Joey Michel was placed at the School’s Inova campus in Northern Virginia. While certainly proud of his father’s legacy at UVA, the temporary move gave him the anonymity he didn’t have in Charlottesville. “It allowed me to really stand on my own two feet as a learner in a way that I did not experience at UVA,” “When I’m at UVA, everyone who talks about Rob Michel in the setting of his residency or his time on faculty is always glowing and that’s hard to even consider trying to emulate. But it also has brought stories to my attention that I had never heard before and provided a richness to my experience here.”
Now in his final year of medical school, Joey Michel’s plans include a trip to Costa Rica to work at the Hospital Nacional de Niños, serving on the admissions committee, and a three-week rotation at Piedmont Pediatrics. He’ll also be focusing on residency interviews in his chosen specialty: pediatrics. “I find so much reward from hanging out with kids, making sure that they’re happy and healthy and set up for success. I’m excited to go into residency and learn how to best do that. It’s incredibly terrifying, but I think that anticipation is more just excitement.”
Rob Michel shares that excitement, knowing that his son is well-prepared for his career in medicine due to changes made in the curriculum since he was a student. “The way our teaching was done was a harder way to learn and synthesize,” he says. “I applaud the School of Medicine for looking at the curriculum and incorporating adult learning theory and collaboration because it makes so much more sense. They really did a great job.”
As he watches his son go through residency interviews and prepare for life after medical school, Rob Michel is reminded of a conversation he had with a friend when Joey was starting medical school. He told him that in four years Joey would know more medicine than he knows. “He said, ‘What do you mean? You’ve been practicing for almost 30 years.’ I said, ‘I don’t keep up with adult literature and cutting-edge stuff with adult medicines, and he’s going to know all that. I’ll know more clinical things about children. I’ll be a better pediatrician when he graduates from medical school, but he’ll know more medicine than I know. That’s a little uncomfortable but also really kind of neat.’”
Graduation is now just months away. Soon there will be two doctors in the family, and Rob Michel is looking forward to it. “Joey’s humble, he’s compassionate, he’s thoughtful. He’s got open ears and an open mind, and that’s what it takes. He’s going to be a great doctor.”