Melvin S. Blanchard, M.D., has always been interested in how things work. As a child on the island of St. Kitts, he and a friend built a telegraph to communicate with each other using papaya tree branches as a conduit for the wires. He also commandeered batteries from old flashlights to light up handmade electronic carts.
But the day his little sister, Althea, critically injured her abdomen on a hook at the back door of their house, he became fascinated by medicine and its power to heal.
Blanchard saw his mother, a tiny woman, pick up his bleeding 7-year-old sister and run to a cab a mile away that took his sister to the nearest hospital.
“I thought I was going to lose my sister when I was very young,” he says. “I decided then that I wanted to become a doctor.”
Today, Blanchard is chief of the Division of Medical Education and director of the Internal Medicine Residency program at the School of Medicine, one of the largest training programs in the country.
Colleagues describe him as meticulous, knowledgeable, hard working and as a tireless champion of quality medical care.
“He is such an outstanding person,” says Amy Joseph, M.D., associate professor of medicine, who worked for Blanchard at the St. Louis VA Medical Center for eight years. “He is the person you want as your colleague, teacher, physician and friend. He also has a way of motivating people to achieve more than they thought they could with a mixture of high expectations and kindness.”
Kenneth S. Polonsky, M.D., the Adolphus Busch Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine, says Blanchard has had a major impact on the residency training program, of which he became director about two years ago.
“At the heart of his success is his passion for outstanding teaching,” he says. “He is deeply committed to making sure that our residents have a superb training experience, and that when they have completed their training, they are able to deliver the highest level of patient care. He also is a very compassionate and caring person who devotes many hours to our trainees to ensure that we attend to their personal as well as their professional needs.”
To be competitive in St. Kitts’ school system, Blanchard and his eight siblings had to work extremely hard. As early as kindergarten, children were divided into groups based on ability. In junior high, students were given cumulative tests at the end of each grade to see if they would progress. And at the end of high school, students’ cumulative test scores were published in the local newspaper.
Blanchard’s parents also had high expectations for their children. His father was an administrator at the local prison, and his mother could make anything with a sewing machine. Her customers would flip through Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, and she would make dresses and uniforms without a pattern.
Blanchard excelled in high school, but opportunities for graduates were limited. After teaching school for a year, he worked at a U.S. offshore factory that produced transducers and magnetic components for the aerospace and telecommunications industry. He was promoted a few times at the factory before moving to Nashville, Tenn., to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Trevecca Nazarene College in 1987. He chose the school because his company was based nearby. When he returned to St. Kitts, he managed the 250-employee factory for a year.
At the factory, Blanchard was exposed to industry quality standards. He also learned computer programming, which enabled him to write software that eliminated the paperwork needed to document piecework, manage inventory and the production schedule in the factory. Additionally, Blanchard started a computer school on the island.
Although he was enjoying his work, Blanchard decided to leave St. Kitts again to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. He earned a medical degree from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis in 1994.
When choosing a specialty, Blanchard considered obstetrics/gynecology, neurology and internal medicine. He chose internal medicine because he enjoyed taking care of the whole patient and thought developing lifelong relationships would be rewarding. He says he also felt as if he could have a much bigger impact on his patients by helping them change their lifestyles and exercise habits.
WUSTL was Blanchard’s top choice for his internal medicine residency. During his residency, Lewis R. Chase, M.D., then chief of medicine at the St. Louis VA, picked Blanchard as one of his chief residents.
Melvin S. Blanchard
Born: March 4, 1962, in St. Kitts in the British West Indies
Education: B.S., business administration, 1987, Trevecca Nazarene College; M.D., 1994, University of Tennessee College of Medicine, Memphis
University position: Chief of Division of Medical Education, director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program and associate professor of medicine
Family: Wife, Gwendolyn; daughters Jessica, 8, and Cynthia, 5
Pastimes: Talking to his far-flung family on Skype telephone system, exercising, flower and herb gardening
“Some of his outstanding qualities are his native intelligence, his knowledge of internal medicine and having as high expectations of himself as he has of others,” says Chase, professor of medicine.
After his residency, Blanchard joined the St. Louis VA medical staff and stayed for eight years. While there, he developed a training program in ambulatory care, supervised the house staff and headed the performance-improvement committee.
Kelly J. Schroeder, program analyst at the St. Louis VA, worked with Blanchard on this committee. She says Blanchard is a superior physician in part due to his engineering background and experience in industry.
“Melvin works very hard to improve performance for quality medical care,” she says. “He possesses the rare talent combination of competent clinical judgment, a sound understanding of statistical methods and an infectious optimism that draws people into initiatives that would otherwise prove impossible.”
Working with Seth A. Eisen, M.D., director of the VA Health Services Research and Development Service, Blanchard also began studying Gulf War syndrome, unexplained symptoms reported by combat veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They determined that individuals with Gulf War Syndrome were predisposed to certain stressors before the war. Before leaving the St. Louis VA, Blanchard was the principal investigator of a large follow-up study that looked at the effects of stress on health.
A positive difference
At WUSTL, where Blanchard returned in 2006, he supervises the care of 10,000 patients on the inpatient medicine service and in the internal medicine clinic. He is focused on improving the care of people with diabetes, which affects one-third of the inpatient population and one-fourth of patients in the clinic.
He has written a computer program to show each resident how his or her diabetic patients are doing.
“We want our residents to be able to learn from their practice,” he says. “If only half of our patients are meeting national guidelines on cholesterol, we need to make changes in how we’re treating them.”
Someday, Blanchard would like to do more outreach in communities that have large numbers of diabetics. In the meantime, he and his wife, Gwendolyn, help others through their church and area health fairs. They also have two young daughters, Jessica, 8, and Cynthia, 5.
Blanchard uses a Skype Internet telephone system to communicate with his far-flung family. Two of his sisters live in St. Louis, but he also has siblings in Anguilla and England, and his parents still live in St. Kitts.
“Sometimes there are eight or nine people on at once,” says Blanchard, the telephone operator.
Although he says he occasionally feels remorse about leaving St. Kitts, he’s pleased overall with the way his life has turned out.
“I just want to wake up every day and do the best that I can to be of service to others,” he says. “I want to make a positive difference wherever I am.”