Pioneers of Hope

Published on January 27th, 2021 by Christina Echegaray.

At Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, our work extends beyond patient exam rooms. We are also searching for discoveries to offer better treatments, provide quality care and train the next generation of clinicians. The profiles here represent only a sampling of the tireless work performed daily to make Children’s Hospital a place of unwavering hope. In each issue, we also include a profile to highlight our longstanding partnership with our community pediatricians who help ensure all children receive the best care each and every day.



Wagma Dorani, RN, Patient Safety. Photo by Donn Jones.

Wagma Dorani, RN, was born and raised in Afghanistan, but to her, Nashville — and more specifically Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt — is home.

Twenty years ago, at the age of 20 and newly married, she left all that was familiar to her and came to the United States to settle in Nashville with her husband. She did not speak English and within three years she had three children. She recalls fondly taking them on sightseeing tours to Children’s Hospital where they would visit the butterfly garden and eat in the food court of the brand-new facility (built in 2004).

“This is the world of opportunity. It was a big change for me at the beginning,” she said. “Afghanistan is a Third World country, so to me Children’s is beautiful. Everything is just amazing here.

“I never thought I’d have an office here and work here one day. It’s a huge privilege to work here,” said Dorani, the senior program manager for the patient safety team at Children’s.

When her children started attending school, Dorani enrolled in Nashville State Community College and set about learning English.

“My husband made sure I got an education because he couldn’t go to school because he had to work a lot. As a child I wanted to be a doctor. When I got here (to the U.S.), I felt it was too late for that, but I could be a nurse and help others because I always wanted to help somebody in need.”

Dorani earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Tennessee State University and during her psychiatry rotation, she discovered a passion for caring for children and adolescents with mental health issues.

“That patient population just touched my heart. Coming from Afghanistan where no one even understands mental health — they don’t acknowledge it and there’s not a lot of treatment — here I just felt like I could make a difference. I could put myself in that situation, coming from a different background and facing a lot of difficulties. With this vulnerable population, this would be the best fit.”

Dorani started as a nurse in the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital on the child/adolescent unit where she worked from 2014-2019. She was given the opportunity to be a clinical staff leader for two years, and then in 2019, a position opened at Children’s Hospital.

“Vanderbilt is like — I’ve never felt like an outsider, like an immigrant. I feel like I’m always home. Having my family away from me, this is my family. I cannot be grateful enough. I’ve always been protected.”

In her role as senior program manager for the patient safety team, she manages 44 mental health specialists and technicians who take care of Children’s Hospital patients with mental health illnesses who present through the Emergency Department.

“The staff that are providing care for these kids are well trained. Those on the staff have compassion for this population so they can provide safe care. Safety for me is the main priority for this population. At the end of day, they are kids. They still need that help and are still vulnerable.”

Her three children who used to tag along with her for fun outings to Children’s Hospital are now 17, 18 and 19. Two of them are studying pre-med. She and her husband also have a fourth child, 8. Dorani is working toward her master’s degree in Nursing Management and Administration from Aspen University’s online program.

– by  Kathy Whitney


Michael Debaun, MD, MPH, Pediatric Hematology & Oncology. Photo by Susan Urmy.

When COVID-19 swept into the United States in March 2020, Michael DeBaun, MD, MPH, was ready.

That month the Vanderbilt-Meharry Sickle Cell Disease Center of Excellence he directs shifted to telemedicine. Thanks to a generous private donation, DeBaun and his colleagues distributed iPads and other technology so the families they served could access medical care safely and remotely.

Two months later, when the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked a national movement to confront systemic racism, DeBaun was asked to support VUMC leadership.

As co-chair of the newly established Racial Equity Task Force at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), his goals are to help improve upward mobility for all employees, increase the community’s access to health care and encourage diversity among trainees and other recipients of educational and research opportunities.

Being ready is nothing new for DeBaun, JC Peterson Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine and vice chair for Clinical and Translational Research in the Department of Pediatrics.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1960, DeBaun grew up in a family of teachers and doers. “I came from a family tradition where the focus on social justice and activism — specifically taking action to improve the lives of others — was part of our ethos,” he said.

DeBaun attended Howard University, where he graduated with honors. He earned his MD and master’s degree in Health Sciences Research from Stanford University in 1987.

At St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, DeBaun served as a pediatric resident, chief resident and hematology-oncology fellow. There he began his career-long focus on sickle cell disease (SCD), which afflicts Blacks disproportionately, causing severe pain, stroke, disability and premature death.

After earning a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Hygiene, he joined the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine, where he earned accolades for his research and mentorship of area high school students.

In 2010, DeBaun and his family moved to Nashville, where he founded the Sickle Cell Disease Center of Excellence jointly run by VUMC and Meharry Medical College. The center was one of the first to employ a medical care home model for children and adults.

DeBaun is internationally known for his work to treat and prevent strokes in children caused by blood vessel narrowing and sickle-shaped red blood cells, which can obstruct capillaries.

Three years ago, he and his colleagues reported that a multi-disciplinary approach reduced by nearly 90% the maternal death rate among pregnant women with sickle cell disease at a major teaching hospital in Ghana.

With Adetola Kassim, MD, MS, clinical director of the Adult Stem Cell Transplant Program, and a “learning collaborative” of clinician-researchers from Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, India and Brazil, DeBaun is evaluating a modified form of stem cell (bone marrow) transplantation to cure sickle cell disease.

The technique is haploidentical nonmyeloablative, meaning it does not require the same amount of toxic chemotherapy as other techniques. Equally as important, the donor only has to be a half-genetic match (haploidentical) with their relative, which dramatically improves access to the procedure to more than 90% of children and adults with SCD.

Preliminary results from the learning collaborative are encouraging, particularly for adults. “We have cured over 30 children and adults with SCD,” DeBaun said.

For his significant contribution to advancing the care of children and adults with SCD, he received the prestigious international 2014 Ernest Beutler Prize and Lecture in Clinical Science from the American Society of Hematology.

When asked how he juggles all of it, DeBaun answered, “The secret is faith and home. Home is my wife … She’s the anchor. She’s the compass.”

DeBaun and his wife, Sandra, have been married for 33 years, and they have two grown children.

– by Bill Snyder


Toni-Ann Wright, MD, Community Pediatrician. Photo by Donn Jones.

As a high school senior in Brentwood, Tennessee, Toni-Ann Wright, MD, had the opportunity to shadow a pediatrician, and it was after that experience she decided that she would become one too.

That fateful day at the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center in Nashville, Tennessee, showed her that a pediatrician could impact the immediate and long-term health of a child. A few simple words like “eat your broccoli,” had a different meaning when uttered by a pediatrician.

“I was just blown away by how much not only the parents respect the pediatrician, but how the kids listen to them, too,” Wright said. “So, the parent could say the exact same thing. But once the pediatrician said it, the kids were like, ‘Oh, well, the doctor says I have to eat broccoli.’”

Medicine wasn’t initially her intended career choice. Despite being surrounded by the medical field her whole life, Wright, the oldest of three daughters, planned to study marine biology. Her dad, Wycliffe Wright, MD, is an infectious disease doctor in Nashville, and her mom, Marie Wright, is a nurse. Her parents met while in school in their native Jamaica.

Born in the Bahamas, Wright’s family moved to the United States when she was 4 years old, first in Philadelphia, and later settling in Nashville when she was in eighth grade and where she and her family have remained since, with the exception of schooling. Now, as a pediatrician at Rivergate Pediatrics in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, she takes pride in caring for the community where she grew up.

After that day at Matthew Walker, where she shadowed Ida Michele Williams, MD, Wright decided to study pre-med at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. She went on to earn her medical degree at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California.

Entering medical school, she knew she wanted to care for children.

For a brief time, she thought she might want to be an OB-GYN. While she liked caring for women, she was more drawn to the infants. “I realized that after the baby was delivered, I was over at the warmer looking at the newborn baby.”

Wright returned to Tennessee to do a residency at University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, and subsequently stayed on there to work at the Memphis Children’s Clinic, while also moonlighting at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital Emergency Department.

“My goal was ultimately to come back, which is why I did my residency in Tennessee and then came back to Nashville. I like Nashville. I like my family; we’re pretty close knit. And so, to me, it was a no brainer to come back here.”

She returned to Nashville in 2016, working for two and a half years at the Vanderbilt Children’s After-Hours Clinics, where children and adolescents can be seen outside of their pediatricians’ normal business hours for non-life-threatening illness or injury. She stayed there until joining Rivergate Pediatrics in 2018, where she became the first African American physician partner at the practice.

Having worked with Children’s Hospital as an employee and now as a community pediatrician, she values the partnership between the two.

“I feel comfortable sending my patients there at night if they call and they need immediate care and our office is closed because I know the doctors that I worked with are wonderfully trained and are going to be very compassionate. And I’ll get a note the next day about what happened,” Wright said. “I think it makes a difference — the kind of care your child gets  from someone who’s trained specifically to take care of kids. They’re not little adults, which is what I try to tell all the parents.”

When she is not seeing patients, Wright spends time with her fiancé, Matthew McCartney, and enjoys salsa dancing, hiking, cycling and virtual book club.

– by Christina Echegaray


Wallace Neblett III, MD, Pediatric Surgery. Photo by Donn Jones.

For Wallace “Skip” Neblett III, MD, a five-decade career in Pediatric Surgery was, quite literally, the result of an accident.

Neblett was a biology major at Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and was making a little money during the summer break before his junior year. He was doing maintenance work for a natural gas company when his tractor flipped over and stranded him on the side of a hill with serious internal injuries.

Neblett was rushed to a hospital in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where his spleen was removed, then transferred to a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He spent 10 weeks recovering from an injury to his pancreas and spleen.

“That was really my first significant exposure to medicine and I would say undoubtedly is the reason that I ended up deciding that I wanted to go to medical school,” he said.

Neblett, a native of Greenville, Mississippi, was accepted into Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where fate intervened again his first year, in a very good way. He took a number of classes with graduate students in other majors. One student assigned to sit across from him, Margaret, would become his wife the following summer.

“That was a big year for me to get accepted to and attend the first year of medical school and then to find the person that I was going to spend the rest of my life with,” Neblett said.

Neblett received his medical degree from Vanderbilt in 1971 and completed an internship there the following year. He then served as a major in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps in Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage, Alaska.

He completed his VUMC general surgery residency in 1978 and left briefly to complete a general and thoracic pediatric surgery residency at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. In 1980, he returned to VUMC as a clinical instructor in surgery, becoming chairman of Pediatric Surgery four years later, a position he held for 27 years.

When Neblett began his surgical training at Vanderbilt, there was no such specialty as Pediatric Surgery. That began under James O’Neill, MD, who joined VUMC as the first pediatric surgeon in 1971 and brought Neblett under his wing.

“The combination of my interest in caring for sick and injured children and being exposed to what pediatric surgery involved by working with Dr. O’Neill during his first two years on the faculty here at Vanderbilt led me to subsequently decide that pediatric surgery was what I wanted to do in my career,” Neblett said. “I could not have chosen a more gratifying career or a better place to serve. Our team of caregivers and support personnel is exceptional and work continuously to improve care for our patients and support for their families.”

As chair of Pediatric Surgery, Neblett was key to establishing a pediatric surgical residency program in the Department of Pediatric Surgery, one of a select few accredited residencies at that time. In 2004, he received the prestigious John L. Sawyers Award for outstanding contributions to surgical education.

Neblett continues to be active on the Pediatric Surgery faculty, continuing his longtime clinical practice and mentoring surgical residents. When he’s not practicing medicine, he’s spending time with Margaret, his three children (Jennifer, Sandy and David) and 11 grandchildren.

Neblett has seen colleagues come and go from Vanderbilt over the years, but he never considered leaving.

“For me I always felt like being at Vanderbilt was like being at home,” he said. “I trained in general surgery here. I had my first job here. I was chairman of our group for a lot of years and have a very vested interest in ensuring that we continue to be clinically excellent in taking care of patients and providing for the educational needs of our students and residents.”

– by Matt Batcheldor

Hope – Winter 2021