Ten named Health Care Heroes by Triangle Business Journal

The Triangle Business Journal recently announced the winners of its annual Health Care Heroes awards. UNC Health Care was well represented on the list, with ten winners who will be honored at a banquet on March 16.


George Adams, North Carolina Heart & Vascular, UNC REX Healthcare
As a cardiologist who specializes in treating peripheral artery disease (PAD), Adams sees patients who are at serious risk of losing a foot or leg to amputation because of circulatory problems. With consideration for the individual needs of each patient, Adams utilizes a wide range of tools to reopen clogged vessels and reestablish blood flow to limbs.

He is one of the world’s leading experts in treating PAD, and also one of the busiest, helping hundreds of patients a year maintain their mobility and independence. He is also a leading researcher, training other physicians, and leading clinical trials on new treatments and procedures.


David Currin, UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases
David Currin, RN, ACRN, CCRC, jokes that he is known as “the hugging nurse” at UNC’s Global HIV Prevention and Treatment Clinical Trials Unit.

It’s a habit he picked up early in his career, noticing the power that touch had on his first patients with HIV. Over more than 15 years, this personal touch with patients has earned him a great deal of recognition, including the HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification Board’s 2016 Certified Nurse of the Year.

Certified as a research coordinator and an HIV nurse clinician, Currin has spent the past 15 years seeing patients participating in HIV research studies at UNC and at affiliated sites like the Wake County Health Department. At any given time, he sees participants from five to six studies. Throughout his career, Currin has watched as the research field has shifted from studies aimed at identifying the best treatment for HIV to those focused on prevention and a cure. He has also witnessed the demographic of those infected with the virus shift from an older population to youth. But, no matter, he treats each patient with the same personal touch.


Peter Finkelstein, UNC REX Healthcare
Peter Finkelstein believes passionately in the mission of UNC REX. Since retiring from the EPA in 2005, Finkelstein has volunteered more than 7,300 hours at the hospital. He has worked in a wide range of areas, including with cancer patients, stroke survivors, and newborns. He now helps train other volunteers in the UNC REX Emergency Department. Finkelstein was one of the founding members of UNC REX’s Patient and Family Advisory Council in late 2014, and works tirelessly to improve the hospital experience for patients, visitors and staff.


Zhen Gu, UNC School of Medicine/NCSU College of Engineering
Zhen Gu, PhD, wants to change the way we treat people with diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Gu, who came to the UNC/NC State joint department of biomedical engineering in 2011, has been on a quest to find better ways to measure blood sugar and deliver insulin without painful daily or weekly injections. Now, he’s looking for better patient outcomes for those who have a cancerous tumor surgically removed. His work, which has been featured in Nature and Science, earned him a “World Top 35 Innovators Under 35” distinction from the MIT Technology Review in 2015.


Richard Joyner, Nash UNC Health Care
The Rev. Richard Joyner is head of hospital chaplaincy at UNC Nash Health Care in Rocky Mount. He is also founder and executive director of the Conetoe Family Life Center, which feeds an entire community with healthy, organic vegetables and produce. In 2014, Joyner was recognized nationally with a Purpose Prize, and was a top 10 CNN Hero in 2015.


Joel Ray, UNC REX Healthcare
No one could ever accuse Joel Ray of being shy, or reserved. The Chief Nursing Officer at UNC REX, Ray is a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm. Fueled by a passion for improving patient care (and more than a little caffeine), Ray spends time every day roaming the hospital’s halls to talk with patients, families and nurses. He loves singing and occasionally gives impromptu performances in the halls, or during leadership and nurse meetings.


Jennifer Sollami, UNC REX Healthcare
As the nurse manager of the Emergency Department at UNC REX, Jennifer Sollami plays a vital role in improving coworker and patient satisfaction as well as expediting the department’s successful and seamless flow of services. She has been an integral part of the rollout of the Carolina Care initiative, which is focused on improving patient satisfaction. Jennifer also has led numerous initiatives to increase departmental efficiency.


Deborah Thorpe, UNC School of Medicine

Deborah Thorpe, PT, PhD, is an exemplary physical therapist whose work has changed the lives of children and adults with through her work at University Physical Therapy, a clinical site at the Orange County Sportsplex, operated by the Department of Allied Health Sciences, UNC School of Medicine.

At UPT, Thorpe’s clinical practice focuses on neurological rehabilitation in individuals with developmental disabilities. She has particular expertise in aquatic therapy. Many of her patients have age-related changes in gait and balance secondary to neurological or orthopedic disorders. Her research focuses on prevention of secondary conditions and improving fitness and wellness across the lifespan for individuals  with developmental disabilities,specifically individuals with cerebral palsy which guides her work in the clinic.

Thorpe’s motivation for her work and research in physical therapy is driven by her desire to create and enhance strong networks of support across the lifespan for her patients.



John Vavalle and Thomas Caranasos, UNC Health Care

In 2014, John Vavalle, MD, and Thomas Caranasos, MD, co-founded the UNC Structural Heart program, and jointly perform minimally invasive, catheter based, heart valve procedures. Though they come from different disciplines – Cardiology and Surgery – Vavalle and Caranasos have worked closely since arriving at UNC, jokingly referring to themselves as the “right and left hands” of the same body. Many of the patients they care for are elderly, complex, and considered too high-risk for conventional treatment. Vavalle and Caranasos are universally praised by their patients for their surgical skills, but, more importantly the way they take time with each patient to explain the necessary procedures and treatment options. The TAVR program, which they have built at UNC Medical Center, recently completed its 100th procedure. They have worked tirelessly to build relationships with referring cardiologists throughout the state, and the success of the program is largely due to these efforts.

Vavalle and Caranasos have worked extensively with anesthesia, nursing, nutrition, and physical therapy to develop a comprehensive Enhanced Recovery After Surgery program which focuses on optimization of nutrition, mobility and education of patients before, during and after surgery to decrease length of and increase patient satisfaction.

Because of the collaboration and dedication of these two physicians, patients that had little or no hope for relief from their heart problems are able to get treatment and regain their quality of life.

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