Electing to make a difference in the world

Dr. Vulpe

His experience on a McGill elective in Ghana inspired Horia Vulpe, BSc’08, MDCM’12, to create opportunities for other Canadian medical residents to work in low-resource countries. (Photo courtesy of Horia Vulpe)

By Philip Fine

Radiation oncologist Horia Vulpe, BSc’08, MDCM’12, says that he always knew that he wanted to give back, but didn’t quite know how.

It wasn’t until he was a medical student at McGill that a path presented itself.

A roommate told him about an elective in Northern Ghana, and Vulpe realized that he, too, wanted to go.

The challenging working conditions in the West African country left an impression on him. “There was very little equipment. You needed all your clinical skills to make a diagnosis.”

Before returning home to Canada to pursue radiation oncology at the University of Toronto, Vulpe went to the capital city, Accra, where he visited a radiation centre. By chance, the director of the centre, a Ghanian, was also leaving for Toronto for radiation oncology training. The two, who would become colleagues, talked about the need for international exchanges, sparking an idea for Vulpe.

Back at home, Vulpe spearheaded a scholarship for Canadian radiation oncology residents and fellows working in low-resource settings. This scholarship, which is still going strong, is sponsored by the Canadian Association of Radiation Oncology, where Vulpe continues to play an active role.

While at the University of Toronto, he also launched a mentorship program pairing trainees in Ghana with mentors from the university.

Vulpe still visits Ghana to conduct research. He is, notably, the author of the largest study on outcomes for women with cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is in recognition of these achievements that the McGill Faculty of Medicine has named Vulpe, 32, the recipient of the Young Alumni Award for the 2018 edition of its Medicine Alumni Global Awards.

When Vulpe first arrived in Montreal at the age of six, he could speak only his native Romanian. The first day of school, his teacher handed gifts to each student, who replied with a merci. “I didn’t know what they were saying.” By high school he knew science would be his career path. His experience in CEGEP reinforced this conviction. “I learned about genetics, which I found really interesting.”

As an undergrad in physiology, he indulged his fascination, spending hours piecing together genetic code to implant it into bacteria and have the bacteria interpret it. But he wanted to explore clinical medicine as well. He applied to medical school and was accepted.

“I’m really grateful for the application process because I wasn’t somebody who had the best GPA,” he says, adding that his genetics competitions at MIT likely helped him land a spot in the MDCM program.

After a three-day course on radiation oncology, he knew that he had found his passion. “It was a perfect fit for me,” he says, explaining how the specialty is evidence-based with a high-tech feel. He also appreciates its human side and remembers admiring how the attending physicians took the time to sit with patients and explain the treatment’s side effects and benefits.

This past summer, Vulpe moved to New York. He is now Assistant Professor in Radiation Oncology at Columbia University, working out of the New York Presbyterian Hospital. He’s exploring Gamma Knife technology and has already co-authored a study on the experiences of the first 100 patients to undergo the therapy, which is used mainly for non-invasive brain radiosurgery.

He will also follow up on his research in sub-Saharan Africa by investigating the barriers to care for women with cervical cancer. He would also like to collaborate with colleagues in Romania to help bring more equity to the two-tiered system there. It seems safe to say that the same desire to give back continues to drive this proud McGillian forward.

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