With more than 2,200 graduates and a faculty that includes local physicians, this school continues to leave an outsized impact on its hometown.
Education, innovation and service to the community are hallmarks of the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford. As the institution marks its 50th anniversary this year, it continues evolving with the ever-changing realities of health care – and pushing toward an exciting future.
The College of Medicine, 1601 Parkview Ave. in Rockford, is housed in the former Rockford Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. In 1971, the University of Illinois at Chicago purchased the campus and transformed it into a medical school. The first class arrived a year later.
“The College of Medicine at Rockford began in response to a lack of sufficient physicians in downstate Illinois, meaning the suburban and rural areas of the state outside of Chicago,” says the school’s current dean, Dr. Alex Stagnaro-Green. “The first class had 20 students, including one woman, but it did not have any underrepresented minority students.”
In five decades, the College has graduated close to 2,200 students, including 429 family medical resident graduates.
Among those graduates are 420 people who’ve been part of the Rural Medical Education (RMED) program, which is now a national standout.
“About 25 years ago, we started a rural medicine program in response to the need for physicians in rural areas of the state,” says Stagnaro-Green. “The RMED students receive additional classroom and clinical training in medical topics specific to rural communities and rural hospitals.”
As part of their training, RMED students take a No Harm on the Farm field trip where they’ll experience firsthand the sorts of health issues they might encounter on a working farm.
“The day includes a simulated tractor rollover accident with first responders coming in to extract a dummy pinned under the tractor,” Stagnaro-Green says.
The current class of 104 students is “the largest rural medicine program in the nation,” adds Stagnaro-Green.
“We recruit for the RMED program by establishing relationships with high school and college students from rural communities,” he says. “The RMED program is recognized nationally and internationally as having one of the highest success rates for students returning to rural communities to practice after completing their medical training.”
Research is another pillar at the College of Medicine. Indeed, its ongoing commitment to vaccine development and disease research is exciting, but little-known beyond the medical establishment.
“Research has always been a core component of our mission,” Stagnaro-Green says. “We train not only physicians but also scientists and clinician investigators who study diseases to improve a community’s overall health.”
Among those contributions made on campus, the development of a shingles vaccine stands out to Stagnaro-Green. Dr. Abbas Vafai developed the Shingrix vaccine on campus.
“Shingles is a reactivation of the chicken pox virus in adults that causes painful blisters and can lead to blindness and death in severe cases,” Stagnaro-Green says. “Without a vaccine, one in four individuals will get shingles, and the CDC recommends the vaccine for people over 50.”
Currently, researchers at the college are developing vaccines for heartworm disease in dogs and a condition called lymphatic filariasis. “This disease, commonly known as elephantiasis, affects hundreds of millions of people, mostly in India and Africa. Individuals with this disease are disfigured, disabled and often shunned by their population,” he says.
Other research at the school covers immunotherapy and cancer of the lung, prostate and cervix. Clinician researchers also staff the regenerative medicine and disability lab, the nanomedicine lab and the bioprinting lab. “We encourage our medical students to work with our researchers as part of their training to become physicians,” Stagnaro-Green adds.
As part of their studies, medical students and residents at the College of Medicine function as community clinicians at Rockford’s three main hospitals and other local medical facilities.They also work alongside practicing physicians at the Mile Square Health Center-L.P. Johnson Rockford facility at Ninth and State streets. “This is a federally funded family medicine clinic that gives a higher level of health care to low-income people in our community,” says Stagnaro-Green. “The L.P. Johnson Center offers medical, dental and psychiatric services.”
The Medical Evaluation Response Initiative Team (MERIT) for abused children and Correctional Health Care Services at the Winnebago County Jail are also part of the College’s clinical care programs.
It should come as little wonder that the College of Medicine maintains such a deep connection to its community.
“We work under the belief that as a state institution, we’re here first and foremost to improve the health and well-being of people in Rockford, Winnebago County and the state of Illinois,” Stagnaro-Green says. “We are very involved in community-related activities. Our students are proactive in dozens of nonprofit organizations where they provide care or teach.”
And, over the past two years, the school has provided care and support in response to COVID-19, particularly as the host of a testing site and lab.
“In 2021, the College took over COVID testing from the National Guard as part of SHIELD Illinois, and we still have about 600 people per week who come here for testing,” Stagnaro-Green says. He estimates the lab has processed more than 400,000 COVID tests over the past academic year.
“Because we have an on-site PCR lab, COVID-19 testing turnaround is about 24 hours,” he adds. “Rapid response time is critical as we often run tests for groups of students, and we have to have the results promptly.”
Furthering its connection with the community, the College of Medicine’s faculty is comprised of local physicians who live and work in the Rockford area.
“When physicians come from outside the community and work in our three primary health systems, these doctors want to join the College of Medicine faculty and be a part of an academic health science center,” adds Stagnaro-Green.
As a way of looking back at these past five decades, the College of Medicine is planning a 50th Anniversary Gala and All-Alumni Reunion for the weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 2. The fun includes campus tours, an alumni reunion, continuing education and a Saturday-night gala at Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront. Details and signup are available on online at go.uic.edu/comr50years.
The future is never far from mind at the College of Medicine, and its facility continues to evolve with the changing face of modern medicine. Plans are underway for a $100 million expansion that will bring a new building to campus in the next five to seven years. Building upon the school’s medical, pharmacy and nursing programs, Stagnaro-Green envisions adding a dental school and training in public health, allied health/occupational health, social work and nutrition.
“Bringing these additional colleges to the Rockford campus will allow us to expand the rural health program so that we will have dentists, therapists, social workers and nutritionists who will practice in our rural communities,” he says. “This is a significant step forward and underscores our commitment to serving the rural population and the entire northern Illinois region.”