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Ralph G. Dacey, Jr., MD ’74

Ralph G. Dacey, Jr., MD (left) and former mentor, John Jane, MD

Ralph G. Dacey, Jr., MD, is the recipient of the 2015 Walter Reed Distinguished Achievement Award from the UVA Medical Alumni Association and Medical School Foundation. At the age of 38, he was appointed Chairman of Neurosurgery at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He is currently the Henry G. and Edith R. Schwartz Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis.

Why did you choose to attend medical school at UVA?

That was in the early 1970s,a long time ago. I met some people I was very impressed with who were UVA grads – both from the medical school and the university – and it seemed like a great place to be. I had grown up in Massachusetts and I was convinced then – and have been very convinced since then – of the importance of moving around and being someone who has been exposed to multiple institutions. Basically, though, what it came down to was my personal connections with people who represented UVA very well.

What led you to your specific area of concentration?

When I started off in medical school, I met a number of neurologists and basic neuroscientists. I was very impressive with these people at that time, including Dr. T.R. Johns, the former head of neurology and an outstanding clinician, and Dr. John Jane, who mentored me over the years. I became interested in brain science and spent some time as a first year medical student doing research with a couple of people and one thing led to another. I eventually settled on an interest in the brain. I also was very interested in surgery so it was a natural for me to become a neurosurgeon. There were great models and mentors at UVA on the faculty and that had a huge impact on my career choice.

What was your experience like at the UVA School of Medicine?

There was a great sense then of being part of a thing that was bigger than yourself and being a part of the institution and the brand. I remember the excitement of the basketball team at the time, and the whole idea that we were part of something special.

The other thing is that I remember a sense of excitement about learning about all of the facets of medicine. In the early 70s, there was an explosion in therapies and knowledge about cardiology, and I remember so vividly being exposed to faculty who conveyed that great excitement – it was palpable. Maybe we were more naïve then but we just ate it up, and it was a great time.

The class size was smaller, about 100 people; we all liked each other and played off each other. We all felt that were being trained to be doctors, and the main thrust from the faculty and residents was that you have to be a doctor for the individual patient you are taking care of. That stuck with me for many years. That’s still part of the distinctive characteristic of UVA School of Medicine graduates — we understand the value of what we do.

What advice would you have for medical students just starting their careers at UVA?

I sense that today’s medical students are concerned about having work-life balance, and that’s a very good thing to be evaluating in your career. But a potential downside of that is that it prevents you from jumping in with both feet and really going at it when you’re young and building a foundation of great skills and knowledge. You want to get the most out of your career for a long time. Having chosen neurosurgery, I will sometimes be asked if is too intense. I don’t think so. I’ve gotten so much out of working in a demanding specialty and I am grateful. So I would say to consider lifestyle and work balance but know you’re going to get great rewards and spend a lot of time in becoming a physician and honing your skills.

What is keeping you most excited about the field of medicine today?

In my own field in neurosurgery and the neurosciences in general, we’re gaining new knowledge all the time and taking better care of patients than ever before. That’s the most exciting thing that I do. The emphasis on patient safety and really improving our performance and the safety parameters of what we do is exciting, and we’ve really seen a lot of progress in terms of improving care. Plus, the terrific people that continue to enter medicine as students and residents are just outstanding. They’re really a pleasure to work with and are stimulating.

You received the 2015 Walter Reed Distinguished Achievement Award. What does this recognition mean to you?

Before I found out about the award, I actually already knew a little about Walter Reed. He was a really outstanding person, scientist, physician and patriot. He was a military person who did a lot of great things. I have been a visiting professor at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC too, so I had a little connection with him because of that. The award means a lot to me – it is recognition from a group of people at the School of Medicine for my contributions and it means a lot. In 2013, I became an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. These two honors, which are related to my personal history and institutions that I think a lot of, are very important to me.

Would you like to add anything?

People who are associated with UVA and the School of Medicine, should be very proud of the school and its heritage and traditions. Over the years, I have noticed that the physicians trained at UVA are special, and I think people should know that and feel proud of their association with the University.

Originally published: October 2015