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Along with a first-place winner, there are two honorable mentions in the VF’s 2021 Recognizing Excellence in Diagnostics (V-RED) award program. Now in its eighth year, V-RED has grown into a powerful awareness campaign that recognizes medical providers worldwide for making a critical, early diagnosis of vasculitis.

“Each year I have the privilege of reading every submission—many detailing the frustration of not being heard, of receiving treatments that didn’t work, and diagnostic guesses that missed the mark,” said retired VF board member and program founder Karen Hirsch. Karen created the award program after her son, Michael, was diagnosed with granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA) in 2011 by Juanita Mora, MD, an allergist/immunologist at the Chicago Allergy Center. Dr. Mora’s quick diagnosis helped Michael receive timely treatment, which helped lead to his remission.

“It brings me right back to my family’s journey 10 years ago,” Karen added, “and each story has that health care practitioner hero, who with their diagnostic detective work, saves the day. We are forever indebted to them for helping us get the appropriate care for such a rare disease like vasculitis.”

The 2021 V-RED Winners

First Place Winner: Adam Maass, MD
Endocrinology, Cave Springs, Arkansas

For then 17-year-old Hunter Keen, it started with coughing on day one. By day two, there was some light blood coming up with the cough. At the time, it was a little more than a week before Christmas in 2017 and the Keen family’s primary care physician (PCP) was away for the holidays. The Keen family, who live in Rogers, Arkansas, were referred to their PCP’s nurse practitioner who diagnosed Hunter with bronchitis and prescribed an antibiotic Z-Pak.

Three days later, the cough grew more intense with dark, bright blood in the sputum. The Keen’s PCP was still unavailable so Hunter’s mom, Sherri, called her son’s endocrinologist, Adam Maass, MD, who had been taking care of Hunter since he was diagnosed at age 12 with type 1 diabetes. Dr. Maass was also away but he recommended that Hunter go for an x-ray of his lungs and lab tests, and stressed that he would place the order himself if the PCP was reluctant to do so.

At the next day’s PCP appointment, a different nurse practitioner told Sherri that Hunter’s lungs sounded good and were clear. “She refused to order the labs and an x-ray until I told her that Dr. Maass, our endocrinologist, would order them,” Sherri explained. The x-ray was taken and an hour later the Keens were told that Hunter had pneumonia in both lungs. He was given another medication that seemed to slow down the coughing, only to have it come back with a vengeance four days later with small blood clots. Sherri took Hunter to see another doctor who immediately sent them to the ER. The ER doctor suspected tuberculosis, called for an ambulance, and Hunter was rushed to the state’s children’s hospital.

Hunter spent five days in the hospital undergoing various tests. The Keens almost lost him twice. The pediatric rheumatologist ordered testing for GPA. Sherri believes that if it hadn’t been for Dr. Maass demanding tests early on, Hunter could have easily been misdiagnosed with pneumonia and died. “We will be forever grateful for Dr. Maass’ close scrutiny and concern for our son’s health.”

Honorable Mention: Alison Whitman, MD
Primary Care Medicine, Abingdon, Virginia

Pam Breeding’s husband, Tom, had a sinus infection that treatment did not improve—even after he sought care from an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Tom’s PCP, Alison Whitman, MD, had a growing suspicion that GPA could be the reason for his lingering symptoms.

From mid-June through July 2020, Dr. Whitman ordered tests, made referrals, and continued to voice her unconfirmed, yet ultimately correct diagnosis of GPA. “She was familiar with this rare disease as she already had more than one patient in her practice with it,” Pam explained. “She knew what was needed to receive the definitive diagnosis—a biopsy and anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic antibody testing.”

Pam and Tom, who live in Cleveland, Virginia, thank Dr. Whitman for her knowledge, sensitivity, investigative skills, and persistence, and Dr. Whitman continues to be involved with Tom’s treatment. “Our locality is rural, so travel is necessary for care with specialists and treatments, but Dr. Whitman and the rheumatologist work well together to give Tom excellent care.”

Honorable Mention: Scott Beegle, MD
Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Albany Medical Center, Albany, New York

Mary Meliski of Stillwater, New York, has been a patient of Scott Beegle, MD, since 2009. Dr. Beegle is a pulmonary/critical care physician in Albany, New York. When Mary was admitted to the hospital in February 2009 with severe jaw, ear, neck and back pain, as well as wheezing and shortness of breath, a month went by with no doctor being able to make a diagnosis. “At one point, my previous PCP told me all my results were normal, that I must be depressed, and that it could all be in my head,” Mary said.

Dr. Beegle’s team performed a lung biopsy on Mary. When the results came back, they found the antibodies, and the lung biopsy was consistent with eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (formerly Churg-Strauss syndrome). Mary was finally released in March 2009 with an answer—her illness was not all in her head. “Since the beginning, Dr. Beegle has been dedicated to my care and has a bedside manner unmatched by other providers. His knowledge and understanding assure me that my care is in the right hands.”