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‘Boomerangs’ fly back to Roanoke, New River valleys for medical careers

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Sarah Henrickson Parker describes herself as a bit restless by nature, so she always anticipated leaving her hometown of Salem to explore the world beyond it.

After earning a diploma from Salem High School, she headed off to college in Ohio, got a master’s degree in the Washington, D.C., area, worked at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, pursued her Ph.D. in Scotland and then returned to the nation’s capital to work in the health system there for a few years.

Henrickson Parker, 39, said when she was growing up, returning to Salem to settle down was not in her plans.

“I actively fought against that notion,” she said.

But becoming a parent changed things. Henrickson Parker and her husband wanted to raise their children near family. Hers is deeply rooted in Salem, with a father who served as the Roanoke College chaplain for upward of 30 years and grandparents who ran the former Lutheran Children’s Home.

“We kind of did that thing that I think a lot of folks who are having kids do, which is you get out your compass and you say, ‘My family lives here. What’s my radius around that particular point?’” she said.

So Henrickson Parker reached out to the executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute — which her family had mentioned to her on more than one occasion — and was invited to visit next time she was in town. Checking out the institute and the medical school, she began to feel excited.

“Folks are thinking differently and folks are pushing the envelope in terms of both science and then how do we translate that to bedside care for patients, which is really my bread and butter,” said Henrickson Parker, who studies human factors in health care delivery.

She realized the Roanoke Valley offered not just professional opportunities and proximity to family, but the other things she valued, such as a thriving arts scene — her husband is a musician, and Henrickson Parker does improv comedy — and easy access to the outdoors.

So Henrickson Parker returned to the region in 2015, where she and her husband are raising their three young children. She holds positions with the biomedical institute, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Carilion Clinic.

As the Roanoke Valley’s profile has grown in the health and biomedical fields, professionals with ties to the region, either because they grew up here or attended the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, have returned to the area to practice medicine, teach and conduct research.

John Hull, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, said the fact that people who previously lived, worked or attended school in the area are returning speaks to the quality of life here. It’s a desired result in the business of talent attraction. There’s even a name for it, he said, referring to such individuals as “boomerangs.”

“It’s really good to hear when folks have the opportunity to come back to this wonderful place we call home,” Hull said.

The pull toward home and family can be strong for those who are native to the region. But it can be a bit more challenging to attract professionals who don’t have that nostalgia factor or family nearby.

Business leaders tell Hull that if they can get job candidates to come for a visit, “a lot of times they bite, they make the commitment.” Higher education, including the medical school, can provide the same exposure, giving students a taste of what it might be like to build a life here.

It’s especially encouraging, Hull said, that graduates of the medical school are returning to the Roanoke Valley. They’re high-income and generally younger, an ideal population to attract.

Hull said the Roanoke Valley is “incredibly blessed” to have the medical school and research institute, valuable assets for economic development that most similarly sized regions lack.

Growth in the life sciences and biomedical fields offers a huge opportunity for the region “to bring in entrepreneurs, to bring in skilled talent, find the boomerangs, so to speak, the folks who have studied here, lived here, left and now could come back,” Hull said.

Jeanne Armentrout, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Carilion Clinic, said working with Virginia Tech to launch a medical school in Roanoke was an important strategic decision for the health care system.

“From the very beginning, our goal was to keep more of our world-class talent in the region. Now we’re seeing that decision pay off,” Armentrout said in a statement.

When Vistar Eye Center recruited its first Roanoke Valley native, leaders realized seeking out physicians with local connections could be a good strategy going forward, said Dr. Frank Cotter, a partner in Vistar.

“All the bells and whistles went off saying this has worked out great, because once he settled in he wasn’t leaving,” Cotter said.

And given the time and expense that goes into recruiting a physician, not to mention the disruption a departure can cause, he said, attracting a candidate who might stick around is good for business.

“If you can get somebody that you think is reliably going to stay, especially ones as qualified as what we’ve gotten, it’s a huge home run for the company,” Cotter said. “We love finding people who have local roots to recruit.”

While personal connections to the region have helped Vistar to attract candidates who have trained in top programs, it’s not the only factor. Cotter pointed also to the growing trend of private equity firms purchasing medical practices, which Vistar has resisted.

Dr. Vishak John wasn’t job hunting when Vistar approached him about joining the practice, knowing he had a personal connection to the region. John is a Cave Spring High School graduate whose family moved to the United States and settled in Roanoke when he was 13.

John was working in North Carolina at the time and was happy in his position there, teaching and running a fellowship program.

But he agreed to take a meeting when he next came to the area to visit his parents — it was only a couple hours away and he’d already be in town, John reasoned. He said he was blown away by Vistar’s facilities, the opportunity and the way the practice was run.

And the Roanoke he visited was much different than the one he remembered, with the greenway system, growth at Carilion Clinic, the establishment of the medical school and a robust restaurant scene. Plus, John and his wife thought it might be nice for their two young children to be near grandparents.

So John took the job at Vistar in 2017 and moved his family to the area.

Medical school and training had taken John, 40, from one metropolis to the next — Boston, Atlanta, Miami — making Roanoke seem small. But as he got older and his priorities shifted, it felt like a perfect fit.

“I like the pace of life that Roanoke offers,” he said. “Even when I travel to big cities, I’m always longing to come back to my life back in Roanoke.”

Dr. Andrew Moore, a member of the charter class at the VTC School of Medicine, said it’s unusual for doctors to choose to practice in the city where they attended medical school.

“All of the data really says that people end up practicing where they did their residency or where their mother-in-law lives,” he said.

After finishing medical school in Roanoke, Moore headed off to Chicago for his residency and then spent a few years in Portland, Oregon, nearer to where he grew up on the West Coast.

But when he began looking for opportunities in academic emergency medicine, Moore found himself once again drawn to Roanoke. It checked all of his boxes professionally in that he could be involved in an emergency medicine residency program and work with medical students, plus it offered the outdoor activities important to Moore, who was a ski patroller for a few years before attending medical school.

“There’s not a lot of level 1 trauma centers that you could technically mountain bike to work at,” Moore said. But Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital is one of them.

So last year, Moore, 38, moved back to the area with his family. He likes Roanoke’s small-town feel and working in a large academic hospital setting that’s still walkable and the kind of place where people know their neighbors.

Plus, Moore said, the patients he treats in Southwest Virginia are always so nice. The latest batch of residents even commented on it.

“We’re in the ER, so we’re generally seeing people on what’s probably considered the worst day of their lives and when they’re still friendly and patient and understanding of the crowding in our emergency department, it just makes life so much easier,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling to take care of the patient population down here.”

Moore said he understood officials hoped establishing the medical school in Roanoke would bring more physicians to the area. At the time, he was skeptical of that plan. But now, with several members of the charter class back in the region, he’s been proven wrong.

“This place has a magnetic pull,” Moore said. “It’s an amazing place to live and practice medicine.”

Dr. Jonathan Maher, who spent much of his childhood in Blacksburg, always thought he’d return to the area. After more than a decade in the U.S. Navy, treating Marines and Navy SEALs, and a fellowship in Boston where he was a team doctor for the Boston Celtics, Maher decided in 2015 to come home.

While they lack major professional sports leagues, Maher said he knew the Roanoke and New River valleys would be a good place for an orthopedic surgeon with a specialty in sports medicine like himself given the active, athletic population.

The region offers both world-class medical care, Maher said — he noted the two valleys have “the resources of a larger metropolitan area from a medical standpoint” — and easy access to the outdoors. A 20-minute bike ride from his Blacksburg home puts Maher, 47, in the Jefferson National Forest.

Another benefit of a smaller population that’s exercise-oriented: Maher said his patients are committed to doing what’s necessary to get better, following through on post-op plans and rehabilitation. Plus, he’s more likely to see patients again, which might not happen in a larger city.

While working as a team doctor for the Celtics was fun and glamorous, Maher said, it was also a lot of late nights and time away from family. He still gets to treat athletes in Blacksburg — just of a different variety.

“I get to take care of the high school that I went to instead of a professional team,” Maher said. “It’s fun to take care of your friends’ kids and your own kids and go back to your own school.”

Maher serves as the team physician for his alma mater, Blacksburg High School, where he played basketball and was inducted into the sports hall of fame.

Practicing medicine in his hometown means Maher counts familiar faces — former teachers and others from his childhood — among his patients. He said that relationship puts patients at ease and immediately establishes a level of trust.

Dr. Stuart Tims, who spent most of his childhood in the Roanoke Valley, said he didn’t necessarily plan to return to the area, but as he began to chart a path for his career during medical training, Tims realized doing so might make sense.

He knew Vistar Eye Center was a strong practice, and the region a nice place to live. So Tims kept in touch with some of the doctors there, keeping the door open should an opportunity come along. Building that connection was beneficial to Vistar, too.

“They knew that recruiting somebody who had ties to Roanoke meant a better chance to retain someone that was hired for longterm,” he said.

Tims, a cornea specialist, came to Vistar in 2012 for his first job after completing his training. Nearly 10 years later, he hopes to spend his career here.

When he was younger, Tims, 40, didn’t think the Roanoke Valley was the most exciting place to live. The things that make the region attractive to him now — affordable living, good schools, not a lot of traffic — aren’t usually top priorities for teenagers.

“The mountains are beautiful, the outdoor areas and activities are amazing. Growing up here I kind of took it for granted,” Tims said.

Tims said he’s especially grateful his three young children are near both sets of grandparents, as his wife is also a Roanoke Valley native. Tims’ parents still live in the Roanoke County home where he grew up.

“It’s neat to be able to raise a family in the place that you were raised and share a lot of things with your kids that you were able to experience in your own childhood,” Tims said.

It wasn’t until Dr. Robert Brown did his training in Baltimore that he realized Roanoke, where he attended medical school as part of the charter class, might be the right place for him to land.

While Baltimore was a great place to train in emergency medicine and he loved the people, Brown said he felt less sure of his ability to make a difference there. The landscape wasn’t quite right either, he said, noting “it felt sad to stand in the shadows of buildings.” Nothing compares to the rejuvenation of a walk in the wilderness, which he can take rather easily in Roanoke.

“Everywhere you go here, thank goodness for the geography, it’s not covered with people. It’s not developed to the hills. It’s not a concrete jungle,” Brown said. “It is just beautiful.”

So last year, he moved back to the Roanoke Valley.

Brown, 38, also said it’s uncommon for doctors to end up practicing in the cities in which they attended medical school, largely because they go off to do their residency afterward, generally someplace else. But several of his classmates have returned to Roanoke.

“They’ve welcomed us back,” he said. “We can go and we can do our training in other places and we can come in with a different perspective.”

“It’s really good to hear when folks have the opportunity to come back to this wonderful place we call home.”

-- John Hull, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or

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