Retiring Blank leads students to think and to serve

by Chuck Gordon

 

Medicine is such a fast-evolving industry that, in class, Dr. Roy Blank stresses to his students that facts are only part of the equation. After all, the guidance on cholesterol, cancer screenings and many other aspects of medicine can change within a semester.

“Almost everything I learned in medical school is wrong (now),” he says. “But why did I go? I got taught how to think. I got taught how to approach problems.”

As professor and medical director in Wingate’s Physician Assistant Studies program, Blank has been teaching Wingate students how to think about medicine for the past dozen years. Eschewing the regurgitation of medical facts, he has spent his time at Wingate imploring students to trust the scientific process and their own mental capacities.

Next month Blank is hanging up his stethoscope and grade book, retiring from Wingate seven years after he left private practice. He’s leaving behind a legacy of selfless service and of student-centered teaching that focuses on practical ways to approach medicine. He emphasizes problem solving and identifying the signal within the noise.

Blank’s students will be familiar with his repeated use of the song “Do-Re-Mi” in teaching an important concept (“start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”). Or his references to ’70s game shows (“We’re going to play Name that Disease. How many notes do you need to make this diagnosis?”) or board games (“I always tell students that internal medicine is two games: Trivial Pursuit and Twenty Questions.”).

Dr. Roy Blank with little girl at clinic

They’re memorable ways to train students to always use their head when treating patients. “It’s trying to teach that methodical, logical way of thinking,” Blank says.

“Dr. Blank has a passion for teaching and medicine that is indescribable,” says Allison Rickher (’14, ’16 PA), a physician assistant with Novant in Matthews. “He has impacted so many PAs that have gone through Wingate’s program with his desire to make sure concepts are understood at more than surface level, so they can be executed in real-world scenarios with patients.”

Blank never stopped learning or evolving as an internist or as a teacher. He was a late convert to hands-on volunteer work, but once he took the plunge he was all-in. A decade ago, Blank was talked into going on a medical mission trip to Haiti, to do crisis management in a poor country devastated by a recent earthquake.

Normally not one to leap into the unknown, Blank was touched by what he saw and experienced. He quickly agreed to become medical director for Bless Back Worldwide, which, in addition to its work in Haiti, also has a permanent clinic in Nicaragua.

“What happened with Bless Back opened my eyes,” Blank says. “My gift, I guess, is knowing how to take care of people. And so it just changed my direction.”

It also changed the direction of countless Wingate students. Blank arranged to have Wingate PA students such as Rickher accompany him on mission trips to Haiti and Nicaragua. There, they got firsthand experience providing urgent medical care to a Third World population, gaining invaluable training in an environment short on resources that forced them to think creatively.

Serving Union County

Closer to home, Blank served on the board of Community Health Services of Union County, where he also saw patients once a week. When first asked to lend his expertise at CHSUC, he had only one proviso: “I have to be able to bring students.” Eventually, Wingate undergrads and pharmacy students joined PA students in volunteering at the clinic.

Blank has served as a bridge between Wingate and CHSUC that has proved beneficial to both organizations: Community Health Services gets expert medical care at no cost, and Wingate students get valuable training in real-world medicine. Wingate now staffs a full-time PA at the clinic.

“A whole lot of people have gotten medical care over the past couple of years that wouldn’t have had it before,” Blank says.

Blank is likely to continue his affiliation with CHSUC, once the coronavirus pandemic permits his return. But in retirement, he says, nothing is certain. Except that he’ll get a lot more time on the pickleball court.

“I just have this feeling that something will come my way, as long as I stay healthy and everything,” he says. “I’ve spent my whole life knowing exactly what’s going to be next. I’m working not to do that right now and see what happens.”

Retirement wasn’t an easy decision. When pondering the end of his teaching career, Blank thought back to his boyhood football idols: Would he be Unitas or Brown? Jim Brown retired from the NFL at the height of his powers, only nine years into his career and coming off an MVP season. Johnny Unitas was still in uniform at the age of 40, lingering well past his prime.

Blank knows he could keep going, but he doesn’t want to overstay his welcome. After all, the rate of change in medicine isn’t slowing down.

“I’m six or seven years out of practice and I’m starting to teach too many things that I didn’t do,” Blank says. “I’m not comfortable doing that. My strength has always been to teach what I did, and then learning the new stuff is icing on the cake. The icing’s getting a little too thick.”

He’ll look back fondly on his contribution to the Wingate PA program, and he’ll miss the students dearly.

“Literally watching somebody go from just not knowing much medical at all to being a really knowledgeable person when they walk out the door,” he says, “is very satisfying.”

June 25, 2020