From the Dean: Remembering Dr. Robert Eelkema

Welcome “back” and Happy New Year!

It’s a cliché to say that those of us in leadership positions stand on the shoulders of giants, but in the case of Dr. Robert Eelkema, it’s absolutely true. As you may have heard, the UND SMHS family lost Bob last week at age 91. He was a giant for our School, having played a major role in the creation of not only our four-year MD program, but our physician assistant and Indians into Medicine (INMED) programs and our Center for Rural Health, all in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bob was also the founding chair of what is now called our Department of Family & Community Medicine. As such, he was a giant indeed and second-to-none. It goes without saying that the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) wouldn’t be what it is today had he not dedicated his career—and life really—to our School and our state.

You can read more about Bob’s life and career here. He will be missed, and our hearts go out to Bob’s friends and family.

Even in the face of such a loss, we all continue to push forward as best we can — and celebrate the lives that have meant so much to us personally and professionally. On that note, congratulations to Grand Forks state Senator Ray Holmberg on being named the Grand Forks Herald’s “Person of the Year,” and Dr. William Mann, family physician at Altru Health System, on being named the newspaper’s 2021 “Sportsperson of the Year” for his work with Fighting Hawks sports.

A longtime ally of the School, the University, Grand Forks, and the entire state, Sen. Holmberg, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, is not only generous with his time, but he always can be counted on to do the right thing, which he has been doing since the 1970s. Likewise, Dr. Mann, as a clinical faculty member for the SMHS, has worked with UND Athletics since 1985 — more than 35 years! — and has been “an influential figure in keeping athletes’ well-being a top priority,” as the Grand Forks Herald put it.

I couldn’t agree more, and I tip my hat to these advocates for medicine in North Dakota, all three of whom have made enormous contributions to our School over their professional lifetimes.

In other news, as you probably know, the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to spread rapidly and unfortunately is now well-established in North Dakota. The good news is that omicron seems to cause milder symptoms, relative to other variants, in most of the people it infects. The bad news is that it is so infectious that it is contributing to the thinning of our already overburdened healthcare systems and providers. Hospital capacities remain tapped out in many North Dakota communities. And with influenza picking up steam, we’re looking again at a double-whammy of COVID and flu hospitalizations this winter, which is already causing long wait times in emergency rooms, delays in elective and other surgeries, and other complications. This is why I continue to encourage everyone to mask up in public, avoid large gatherings, and, of course, get vaccinated against this stubborn virus.

This all sounds like a lot of “dark” news, I know, and like “déjà vu all over again.” But keep in mind that the days finally are getting longer rather than shorter, and if omicron behaves in North Dakota as it has elsewhere, we are going to see a very rapid and large surge in cases followed by a rapid decline. So, please hang in there for a bit longer. And please – complete your vaccination series if you haven’t yet.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences