UConn Health News

Tracking Opioid Overdoses in Real Time to Save Lives

psychedelic image od opioid


A pilot program led by the Connecticut Poison Control Center and UConn Health’s Emergency Medicine department has been tracking opioid overdoses in Hartford in real time to improve surveillance of the opioid epidemic. More than 1,000 people died from opioid overdoses in Connecticut in 2017, including 80 in Hartford.

The project, launched May 1, has emergency medical service (EMS) personnel in Hartford report overdose cases to the state’s Poison Control Center, part of UConn’s Emergency Medicine department, immediately after the incident. The Center’s poison information specialists ask the emergency responders a series of brief questions and record the data.

The test program is a collaboration with American Medical Response (AMR) ambulances, which provide coverage to two-thirds of Hartford’s communities, and nearby Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center’s emergency department.

“This new program is increasing our awareness of what is happening on the ground,” says Peter Canning, UConn John Dempsey Hospital’s EMS coordinator.

UConn Health hopes the program establishes an effective early warning system to alert public health and safety officials and community stakeholders of any sudden spike in overdoses or the potential threat of a potent batch of opioid drugs released in certain neighborhoods.

Since the program began in May, the AMR ambulance crews in Hartford reported 211 overdose cases to the Connecticut Poison Control Center. In 147 of the reported cases, emergency crews had to administer the opioid antidote naloxone to revive the overdose victims.

Early data attributes 98 percent of the overdoses where the substance was known to heroin and fentanyl, and 2 percent to other opioids such as oxycodone and methadone. The majority of victims — 77 percent — were male, 51 percent of whom were between the ages of 35 and 49. In addition, 67 percent of the overdoses occurred in public areas such as city parks, roadways, sidewalks, and restrooms. EMS also reported cases of victims who thought they bought cocaine, but instead overdosed on powdered heroin.

This fall the pilot program may expand to include Aetna Ambulance Service in the south end of Hartford.​

“This new program is an important step forward and a great example of multi-agency collaboration,” says Dr. Suzanne Doyon, Connecticut Poison Control Center medical director. “Rapid real-time identification of potentially troubled areas of the state is important to public health. Using the connectivity and round-the-clock expertise of the Poison Control Center is both novel and forward-thinking.

“We hope this becomes the model for reporting statewide. The ultimate goal here is to reduce overdoses and save lives.”

Connecticut Student Researchers Shine

CT researcher

Affrin Ahmed of Bloomfield, a UConn second-year international graduate student majoring in applied genomics, is seen working on her Partnership for Innovation and Education (PIE) summer research project.

Ahmed was among the local college students who presented their innovative projects to distinguished guests including state legislators at UConn Health Aug. 1 during Innovation Fellows Research Day, an event that showcased PIE, a newly launched statewide consortium.

The inaugural class of PIE summer program fellows comprises 79 students from UConn, Trinity College, University of St. Joseph, Central Connecticut State University, Southern Connecticut State University, University of Hartford, and Tunxis Community College.


Got Breast Milk?

Lactation consultant Marisa Merlo helps maternity patient Bekkilyn Toone breastfeed her newborn son in UConn Health's labor and delivery unit.

Lactation consultant Marisa Merlo helps maternity patient breastfeed her newborn son in UConn Health’s labor and delivery unit.


UConn John Dempsey Hospital is the first hospital in Connecticut, and only location in the Greater Hartford area, to serve as a milk depot for breast milk donations for newborns in need.

“Our new milk depot is going to benefit our tiniest patients in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) across Connecticut and the Northeast, including our very own, the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center NICU here at UConn Health,” says Marisa Merlo, lactation consultant for UConn Health’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

UConn Health’s milk depot, which opened in August, is the fifth in Connecticut to join Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast. The nonprofit community milk bank, accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, distributes donated, pasteurized human milk to babies in fragile health throughout the Northeast.

Women interested in donating their breast milk can contact Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast (milkbankne.org) directly to apply for eligibility and screening. Once women become eligible to donate, their breast milk donations are accepted by Merlo at UConn Health and safeguarded in the freezer of its new milk depot room. Merlo and her staff safely ship the frozen milk to Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast for pasteurization and distribution to their network of NICUs.

Not all mothers of newborns can produce a sufficient milk supply. Mothers with premature newborns especially can experience difficulty producing or pumping enough breast milk while their baby is in the NICU. Donor milk is a more beneficial substitute for fragile newborns than formula.

“This new milk depot at UConn Health will make it more accessible, easier, and stress-free for women to donate their breast milk to help other women and their babies,” says Natalee Martin, associate director of development for UConn Health. She chose to donate her breast milk for three months after her daughter turned one to help boost the health of NICU babies.

“I know just how critically important donated breast milk is,” says Martin, who used to work for the March of Dimes. “The fact that the donated milk is staying in the Northeast and Connecticut to help other moms is amazing.”

The new milk depot at UConn Health was founded and made possible with initial donations by Merlo, Martin, obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Christopher Morosky, and Carrie Ferrindino, nurse manager of Maternal Child Health, for the purchase of a milk freezer.

“The milk depot at UConn John Dempsey Hospital is a wonderful opportunity to provide to our community,” says Ferrindino. “Our goal at UConn Health is to do everything in our power to promote and support healthy moms and healthy babies.”

UConn Dental Alumna Gives Back

Dr. Carolina Giraldo


UConn School of Dental Medicine alumna Dr. Carolina Giraldo ’95 has always persevered.

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Giraldo and her older sister took care of themselves and their younger brother from an early age while their parents worked three jobs. Giraldo knew she’d have to work hard to be successful, juggling work and study to put herself through college and then dental school.

Now she’s paying it forward. Giraldo, who opened her own dental practice soon after earning her doctorate, recently made a $1 million planned gift to help students like herself. Giraldo established the Dr. Carolina Giraldo Scholarship in 2017 so dental students from underrepresented groups might have an easier time becoming dentists than she did.

“I want the minority population to grow in the field,” Giraldo says. “I want a bigger presence of women, of minorities, to get into the field and make a difference.”

Dr. Sarita Arteaga, the dental school’s associate dean for students, says scholarships like Giraldo’s help students with “the little things,” not just tuition.

“It also helps them to know that someone is investing in them,” she says. “They say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe somebody was in this position and not only wants to give back to the school, but wants to do the same thing for me.’”

To support the Dr. Carolina Giraldo Scholarship Fund, visit s.uconn.edu/giraldo.

UConn, JAX Confront Pain With First-In-State Consortium

illustration of older man holding back in pain


An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain — more than those affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined, according to The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. How best to manage that pain in the face of a nationwide opioid crisis is the question on many practitioners’ minds.

The Connecticut Pain Consortium — a translational pain research and education collaboration between UConn Health, the UConn schools of Medicine and Nursing, and The Jackson Laboratory — aims to help answer it.

Given the broad range of research interests and funding opportunities related to pain, the founders envision that centers across the University and nearly every UConn school and college — particularly the schools of Dental Medicine and Pharmacy — will join the consortium to build mutually beneficial collaborations. Experts from Yale University and hospitals including Connecticut Children’s Medical Center will also be involved.

“There is a clear need for more basic and translational research on human pain and pain management,” says the Consortium’s director, mathematician and computational biologist Reinhard Laubenbacher, a joint faculty member at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

“And there is a critical unmet need for education and training of providers and patients. This is a great opportunity to deploy our capabilities in pain research and addiction together with our Connecticut partners in an exciting and much-needed statewide initiative.”

The Consortium, the first of its kind in the Connecticut medical community, will establish a portal for pain-related health care data and facilitate research collaborations that leverage state and national resources. It will aim to translate that research into cutting-edge pain management solutions and raise awareness of the many facets of pain, pain management, and potential related ramifications including opioid addiction. The Consortium will contribute to a curriculum on pain research and management for health care providers.

The launch is being funded by a $55,000 planning grant from the Mayday Fund, whose mission is to support projects that close the gap between knowledge and practice in the treatment of pain, to the UConn Foundation. The Consortium has also received support from the UConn Office of the Vice President for Research, the schools of Nursing and Medicine, and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

“This new consortium builds upon strengths already existing in the School of Medicine, with an existing core of faculty focused on pain research,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the School. “Thanks to this grant, we believe there will be numerous opportunities for advancement in the study and treatment of pain.”

New Neuroscience Chair Establishes UConn’s First Alzheimer’s Lab

a digital rendering of orange amyloid plaque on blue healthy neurons.

In this rendering, healthy neurons afflicted with amyloid plaques are colored orange. Studies suggest this plaque leads to cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s.


Internationally recognized neurodegenerative disease researcher Riqiang Yan, Ph.D., joined the UConn School of Medicine this spring as chair of the Department of Neuroscience. He has established the medical school’s first research laboratory dedicated to studying and discovering new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Prior to his appointment, Yan served as the Cleveland Clinic’s Morris R. and Ruth V. Graham Endowed Chair Professor and Vice Chair of Neurosciences and professor of molecular medicine at Case Western Reserve University. His five studies that focus on identifying the biological culprits behind Alzheimer’s disease are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Yan’s studies build upon his co-discovery of the BACE-1 protein, the critical molecule that he revealed fuels the production of β-amyloid peptides, or plaque buildup, in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. Studies suggest that these peptides are toxic and lead to cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s.

Yan and his team are currently testing in mouse models the power and safety of several promising molecules to target BACE-1 and inhibit its biological function in order to prevent or stop further β-amyloid growth. Just before he arrived at UConn Health, Yan’s team published significant findings in the Journal of Experimental Medicine that showed that removing the BACE-1 enzyme in adult mice with Alzheimer’s reverses the plaque formation that inhibits cognitive function. The study was widely covered by national media.

In addition, Yan and his team are gaining greater insight into the important role reticulon 3 protein (RTN3) plays in the formation of dystrophic neurites in the brain, which can lead to memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly. The Yan lab is also exploring treatment that aims to enhance neurogenesis to replenish the loss of brain cells in patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“We welcome Dr. Yan to UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut, as he and his research programs are very highly respected by leaders and other scientists in the field,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of UConn School of Medicine.

Yan’s recruitment brings with it a host of research collaboration opportunities across the School of Medicine and its departments of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry; with the UConn Center on Aging; with neurobiology and brain investigators at the University; as well as with the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine on UConn Health’s campus.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues at UConn to expand creative research in neurosciences,” says Yan, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Rockefeller University. “It is my passion and desire to mentor our talented UConn neuroscientists and staff and watch their lists of research, discoveries, and accomplishments grow even greater, along with more national recognition of their efforts.”

He adds: “We all have a hope that in 5 to 10 years, with academia collaborating with pharmaceutical companies, we will indeed have an effective drug to finally treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

There has not been an FDA-approved drug to try to treat the disease since 2002, Yan says. “It’s our big hope, and we will continue to try hard at UConn to discover and test a new, effective drug therapy to make this hope a reality to help those struggling with Alzheimer’s and ease the burden of future patients and their families.”

Enhancing Delivery of Care with UConn HealthOne

UConn Health ONE - one place. One Record. One Reason. You.


UConn Health’s new integrated electronic health record (EHR), UConn HealthOne, launched this spring, making patient records easily accessible to all members of care teams and to the patient.

HealthOne represents a technological, clinical, and operational transformation aimed at enhancing the patient experience. At its heart is an EHR platform, powered by health care software company Epic, that facilitates collaboration, knowledge-driven care coordination, and continuous improvement.

The integrated EHR takes most paper — and the turnaround times associated with paper — out of the clinical process, making provider notes available in real time and lab and test results available quickly. For providers, that means a seamless flow of information following the patient throughout their encounter not only with UConn Health but also with other health care systems through HealthOne’s interoperable Care Everywhere tool. All members of a care team, including referring physicians, will have access to the same up-to-date patient information at the same time.

Patients using HealthOne get more efficient care and can access their test results and other health information at any time. Through myHealthOne, the new, secure online portal, patients can access tools they can use to message their care team, request prescription refills, and manage appointments.

A Dental Dean’s Legacy

Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil reflects with pride on his 12 years as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine and looks forward with optimism at where the School will go from here.

“Looking back, it has been quite humbling to be the dean of a dental school with such a great national reputation and part of such a distinguished university,” says MacNeil, who soon plans to take a sabbatical but will return as a faculty member. “It has been a phenomenal experience and a privilege to work with the talented faculty, staff, and students here.”

MacNeil joined the Dental School as a graduate student in 1986 after six years in private practice. He took his first role on the School’s leadership team, as associate dean, in 1998 and was named dean in 2007.

Since then, he has shepherded the School through three perfect accreditation reviews and seen it rise in the ranks to number 11 in funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The School was awarded the prestigious William J. Gies Award for Achievement in 2016, and MacNeil helped establish the cross-campus Biomedical Engineering Department in partnership with the UConn schools of Medicine and Engineering.

MacNeil also maximized Bioscience Connecticut funding to transform the physical infrastructure of the School with renovated academic areas, simulation training centers, state-of-the-art dental clinics, and advanced technology.

We should be the school testing new approaches and new models, being the leaders in this new world of collaborative health care.

“The physical renewal we have accomplished here lifts a heavy burden off the next generation of faculty and school leaders,” MacNeil says. “The focus can now be on attracting high-caliber people and supporting the talented people we already have to keep our school on the leading edge.”

MacNeil believes the School has a bright future. He foresees further growth in interprofessional training for students and residents and envisions a greater emphasis on how dentists can be part of patients’ broader primary care teams.

“We are the perfect place for such experimentation because of our integrated structure and our academic interests,” he says. “We should be the school testing new approaches and new models, being the leaders in this new world of collaborative health care. The key is looking beyond roadblocks and limitations and seeing the many opportunities that surround us and maximizing them.”

MacNeil will dedicate his sabbatical to his chairman of the board duties for the American Dental Education Association, which has more than 20,000 members across 76 U.S. and Canadian dental schools. MacNeil says he hopes to advance discussions on topics including reforming national dental licensure, encouraging student interest in academic careers, and expanding international dental education dialogue. The issues he’s most passionate about are innovating methods of assessing dental students and researching the benefits of integrating oral health care with primary medical care, efforts he says could have profound implications for dental education.

“My endpoint goal as dean was to leave the School in a better state than when I took office,” says MacNeil. “I am confident that has been accomplished. We are stronger than ever before, and I know we will keep pushing the boundaries of dental medicine to accomplish even more.”

Dr. R. Lamont Monty MacNeil

Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil will end his 12-year tenure as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine in August and remain on the faculty. MacNeil has been on the School’s leadership team for 20 years.


UConn has announced that on Aug. 31 Dr. Sharon M. Gordon will become the next dental school dean and first woman to serve in the role. Gordon, a distinguished educator, clinician, and scientist, hails from East Carolina University’s School of Dental Medicine where she serves as associate dean for innovation and discovery and chair of the Department of Foundational Sciences

Training Aims to Draw Young Women Into Orthopedics Careers

Program Spotlight

female physician points to spine model


Last fall, 40 female Connecticut high school students and more than a dozen female medical students got hands-on skills training in orthopedic surgery at UConn Health.

The program, which more than 250 high school students applied to, aimed to boost young women’s interest in medicine and science fields including orthopedic surgery. Currently, only 6.1 percent of fully accredited, practicing orthopedic surgeons are female.

The training, held in October 2017, ranged from suturing to simulated surgery training with pins and saws and was facilitated by UConn Health orthopedic surgeon Dr. Katherine J. Coyner. She organized the event as part of the Perry Initiative, a national nonprofit that originated in San Francisco in 2009 with the mission of inspiring young women to become leaders in orthopedic surgery and engineering.

As a member of the Initiative’s board of directors, Coyner believes early exposure to these exciting, hands-on careers is key to boosting diversity and introducing fresh eyes and new perspectives into life-changing fields such as orthopedic surgery. The Perry Initiative is named in honor of Dr. Jacquelin Perry, one of the first 10 women orthopedic surgeons in the country.

“It was really exciting to see the girls so interested and engaged,” Coyner says. “We had a lot of volunteers who spanned different disciplines, so these students got all the perspectives. And with the exposure from this mentoring program, they might see orthopedic surgery as a potential career path.”

Attendee Katelyn Miller from Lyman Hall High School in Wallingford says, “I appreciated the offer [from the orthopedic surgeons] to let me shadow them to see if this is what I really want to do. This made me excited to go to school for a really long time.”

Participating first-year medical student Julia Plourde chose UConn School of Medicine for its orthopedics program.

“The Perry Initiative program really demonstrated the positive environment that orthopedics has, especially the mentorship available to foster the growth of women in orthopedics,” Plourde says. “The exposure that the program provided to me certainly sealed the deal for me to continue on my path to orthopedics.”

The Power of Our Women

By Lauren Woods

Photography by Peter Morenus

Dr. Molly Brewer, Dr. Marja Hurley, Dr. Cheryl Oncken, and Dr. Laurinda Jaffe are among the women leading UConn Health’s departments.

At UConn Health, dedication to the achievements of women in medicine and science dates back to our founding in 1968. Efforts to achieve gender parity in our student body and among faculty and staff and their positions as leaders have grown over the decades.

Dr. Molly Brewer, Dr. Marja Hurley, Dr. Cheryl Oncken, and Dr. Laurinda Jaffe are among the women leading UConn Health’s departments.


In 2017, the number of women enrolled in American medical schools surpassed the number of men for the first time, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. And, UConn’s schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine were part of that demographic shift.

There are now more female than male students enrolled — 207 female medical students comprise 50.7 percent of the student body, while 94 female students make up 52.5 percent of the dental school’s student body.

Although the first class admitted to the UConn School of Medicine in 1968 was all men, the faculty has included women from the start. Over the years, the number and roles of women at UConn Health have grown significantly since four accomplished women stood among the founding faculty.

“Since UConn Health’s inception, highly accomplished and dedicated women have always driven UConn Health’s success in research, education, and the patient care mission,” says UConn Health CEO Dr. Andy Agwunobi. “These amazing professionals, and those who join us every day, are key to our past and future success.”

Today, 73 percent, or 4,098, of the total employees who fuel UConn Health’s clinical care, research, and education initiatives are female. Across the enterprise, 895 women hold faculty or community faculty appointments and 217 women are full-time UConn Health faculty. There are nearly 800 female nurses.

Among the women leading the charge are department chairs on the front lines of advancing medicine and cutting-edge research: Dr. Molly Brewer in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Cheryl Oncken in Medicine, Dr. Melinda Sanders in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Dr. Laurinda Jaffe in Cell Biology, and Dr. Sandra Weller in Molecular Biology. Many others serve as associate deans.

I have been able to achieve everything that I’ve wanted to at UConn Health, from becoming a leader to teaching and my efforts to enhance our student curriculum.

Dr. Marja Hurley, the School of Medicine’s associate dean for health career opportunity programs, was the first woman of color to attend UConn’s medical school in 1972 and one of eight female students in the class.

In addition to a stellar career as an NIH-funded physician-scientist conducting research on the molecular basis of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, Hurley has dedicated the past three decades at UConn Health to advocating for women and other underrepresented groups in medicine and science. Through health career opportunity programs including the Doctors Academy, High School Mini Medical/Dental School Program, and the Summer Research Fellowship Program, Hurley also works to expand the interest of high school and college-aged women and men in science and medicine.

“It’s been a pleasure to spend my education, training, and career here at UConn and to help diversify the schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine with more underrepresented groups, including women,” says Hurley.

Currently, groups that are traditionally underrepresented in medicine and science comprise 22 percent of UConn Health’s student body.

“We have made tremendous progress,” she says.

As an American Association of Medical Colleges liaison, Hurley in 2011 launched a Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS) chapter at UConn Health. Its mission is to connect women at the institution and promote their career success within the academic medical center by addressing issues such as salary and gender equity, recruitment and retention, awards and recognition, career advancement toward full professor, and work-life balance.

Recently, GWIMS member Kristyn Zajac, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, helped establish a “Mini Mentoring Program.” More than 70 senior faculty volunteered to serve as mentors to female junior faculty.

Dr. Ellen Nestler, internist and associate dean at UConn School of Medicine, was assigned to mentor Evelyn Neuber, Ph.D., an embryologist and clinical research coordinator at the UConn-affiliated Center for Advanced Reproductive Services.

“I was able to give her tips and tools on how to empower herself to lead and work more effectively with her new team members and management responsibilities in the laboratory,” Nestler says. “Women need mentors, and this new, unique program adds to a woman’s armamentarium.”

Says Neuber, “The mentoring program was really helpful. It was educational and also fun to meet with a fellow woman at work who has gone through similar work situations and to discuss the female experience relating to working in science and personal work-life balance.”

Melinda Sanders, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, joined UConn Health 26 years ago and was promoted to chair in 2010.

“I have been able to achieve everything that I’ve wanted to at UConn Health, from becoming a leader to teaching and my efforts to enhance our student curriculum,” she says.

Educating the new, more representative class is critical as they will be the next generation of providers.

“Here at UConn Health, we really do want to foster women and develop the careers of future generations of women in health and science,” she says.