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Veteran UA system trustee named interim chancellor

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Finis E. St. John, IV, a veteran member of the Board of Trustees of The University of Alabama System, will become Interim Chancellor of the three-campus UA System effective August 1. He will succeed C. Ray Hayes, who announced his plans in June to transition his responsibilities to a Systemwide behavioral health initiative and other administrative priorities. 

A member of one of Alabama’s oldest and most established law firms, St. John will take an unpaid leave of absence from St. John & St. John, LLC in Cullman and will serve without compensation in the interim System position. His wife and law partner Gaynor, who has been with the firm for more than a quarter century, will continue to practice law in Cullman.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby issued a statement Monday afternoon describing St. John as “one of the most influential people” in Alabama. “Finis St. John is ideally positioned to lead the UA System as Interim Chancellor, advancing its mission and bringing higher education and health care to a new level,” Sen. Shelby said. “I am thrilled that Fess has been selected for this role and look forward to witnessing the tremendous impact he will have in every area of the UA System.” 

The Interim Chancellor’s appointment was among several items considered today in a called meeting of the UA System Board. Calling St. John’s academic and professional credentials impeccable, Trustee Joe Espy also cited his leadership in helping manage more than 450 significant capital projects, well in excess of $3 billion, and his valuable role on the UAB Health System Board, which has been crucial to the turnaround in rankings and research funding at UAB.

“The fact that Finis St. John is willing to serve as our Interim Chancellor without compensation is a tremendous public service,” Espy said. “We are extremely grateful that he is willing to step in and take on these complex administrative duties at a critical time for our campuses and the UAB Health System. As the state’s single largest employer and a proven leader in building Alabama’s economy, our System will be able to maintain our positive momentum without missing a beat.”

UA System Chancellor Emeritus Dr. Robert Witt strongly endorsed the decision. “Finis St. John is the perfect choice for Interim Chancellor,” said Witt. “He and I have worked side-by-side since I arrived in 2003, and the impact of his leadership is measured by strong academic programs on our campuses, the physical growth of facilities and student resources, and the global reputation of the UAB Health System. We are extremely fortunate to have him in this new role.”

President pro tem Ronald Gray thanked St. John for committing the time and energy to serve the System as Interim Chancellor: “Because Finis has agreed to accept this position, the Board can move in a deliberate and thorough fashion to evaluate all possibilities and secure the best possible candidate for the permanent role at the most opportune time for the System.”

Pro Tem Gray said the Board’s top leadership recruitment priority will be the search for a successor to UAH President Robert Altenkirch, who announced his plans to retire after the next president of the Huntsville campus is in place.

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In making the nomination, past President pro tempore Karen Brooks referenced multiple occasions when Trustees have been asked to fill the Chancellorship on an interim basis. In 1989, Emeritus Trustee Sam Earle Hobbs of Selma filled the Chancellorship, and John T. Oliver, Jr., who was a sitting Trustee from Jasper, was Interim Chancellor in 1996-97.

Originally elected to the Board in 2002, St. John was President pro tem from 2008-2011, during a period of exponential growth for the campuses and the UAB Health System. He has chaired numerous standing committees and played a key role in recruiting senior campus leadership, including UAH President Robert Altenkirch. 

St. John, who will continue to serve as a Trustee, currently serves on the five-member Executive Committee, the Physical Properties Committee and the UAB Health System Board Liaison Committee. He chairs the Athletics Committee and co-chairs the Legal Affairs Committee. St. John has been a member of the UAB Health System Board of Directors since 2008 and serves on both the UAB Athletic Foundation and the Crimson Tide Foundation Board.

A cum laude graduate of The University of Alabama in 1978, he was inducted to Phi Beta Kappa, Omicron Delta Kappa and Jasons. He received his law degree in 1982 from The University of Virginia School of Law and was chair of the Moot Court Board. Five generations of family members have served the state of Alabama in public service roles, and his late mother Juliet St. John was the first woman attorney in Cullman.

Finis St. John is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, which is comprised of the best of the trial bar from the United States and Canada. Fellowship in the College is by invitation only. He is also a Fellow of the American Board of Trial Advocates and has been recognized as an Alabama Super Lawyer since 2007. He is the long-time chairman of the board of First Community Bank of Cullman.

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Five patients with COVID-19 have died at EAMC hospital in Opelika

Chip Brownlee

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Five patients who were being treated for COVID-19 at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, Alabama, have died since Friday, the hospital said in a statement Saturday.

“Our hospital family expresses its collective condolences to the families of these five patients,” said Laura Grill, EAMC President and CEO.  “As everyone knows, this virus has taken a toll on our nation and world, and our community is not exempt from that. Our hearts and prayers are with these families at this very difficult time.”

Three of the patients were from Chambers County and two were from Lee County. The Alabama Department of Public Health is still investigating the deaths and has not updated their website to reflect them.

Hospital officials and ADPH are working through the process for official state determination before adding them to the COVID-19 death count.

“The ICU staff, respiratory therapists and physicians who worked most closely with these patients are especially struggling and we ask that the community lift them up today just as they have been lifting up our whole organization the past two weeks,” Grill said.

EAMC is currently treating 19 patients hospitalized with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. Five patients who were previously hospitalized with COVID-19 have been discharged. There are 22 patients who are currently hospitalized at EAMC with suspected COVID-19.

The number of hospitalized patients has more than doubled from seven on Tuesday. It anticipates more.

The county had at least 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by Saturday afternoon, more per capita than Jefferson County, Shelby County and Madison County. That number has also continued to grow. To the north, Chambers County, which falls under EAMC’s service area, has the most cases per capita in the state, meaning there are more confirmed cases per person than any other county. That county’s total stands at 17.

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Many of the patients who have tested positive, according to EAMC, had a common “last public setting” in church services.

“While there are no absolute patterns among the confirmed cases in Lee County, one nugget of information does stand out a little—the last public setting for a sizable number of them was at church,” East Alabama Medical Center said in a statement Friday night.  “Not at one church, or churches in one town, but at church in general.”

The hospital has urged churches to move online and cancel in-person services. Some churches have continued to meet, as recently as last Sunday, despite “social distancing” directives from the Alabama Department of Public Health that prohibited non-work gatherings of 25 or more people.

EAMC is urging the public to act as if they are under a “shelter-in-place” at home order, as the state has so far refused to issue such a directive.

“EAMC is asking everyone to shelter in place at home,” the hospital said in a statement Friday night. “Sheltering in place means you stay at home with immediate family members only and should not leave your home except for essential activities such as food, medical care, or work. You should not host gatherings of people outside of your immediate family. You should also maintain a 6-foot distance from other people as much as possible, wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds each time, and frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces.”

It’s also asking businesses that have access to personal protective equipment like gowns, masks, latex gloves and hand sanitizer to bring those items to a collection site outside of EAMC’s main lobby. The site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

This story is developing and will be updated.

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In Lee County, more cases, a filling hospital and a critically ill Medal of Honor recipient

Chip Brownlee

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Lee County, home to Auburn University, is one of Alabama’s hardest-hit counties. Lab-confirmed cases of the coronavirus continue to rise there, and the county’s largest hospital is seeing a spike in hospitalizations.

East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika has 20 patients hospitalized with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19. There are 21 more hospitalized patients, whom doctors suspect have the virus. Three COVID-19 patients have been discharged.

The number of hospitalized patients has more than doubled from seven on Tuesday. It anticipates more.

The county had at least 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by Saturday afternoon, more per capita than Jefferson County, Shelby County and Madison County. The number has continued to grow.

To the north, Chambers County, which falls under EAMC’s service area, has the most cases per capita in the state, meaning there are more confirmed cases per person than any other county. That county’s total stands at 17.

Since the onset of the outbreak in Alabama, Auburn and Lee County have struggled to contain the spread. Bars and restaurants stayed open longer than in Jefferson County, because the city’s mayor and the county said they did not have the authority to order them to close.

Auburn University canceled in-person classes beginning March 12, but several of the city’s most popular bars remained open until March 18. University officials have also had to urge students not to gather on the campus’s green spaces.

The city is also home to a growing retirement community and thousands of college-aged students who, according to data from outbreaks around the globe, are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Young people tend to survive infection but can spread the virus more easily.

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But many of the patients who have tested positive, according to EAMC, had a common “last public setting” — church services.

“While there are no absolute patterns among the confirmed cases in Lee County, one nugget of information does stand out a little—the last public setting for a sizable number of them was at church,” East Alabama Medical Center said in a statement Friday night.  “Not at one church, or churches in one town, but at church in general.”

The hospital has urged churches to move online and cancel in-person services. Some churches have continued to meet, as recently as last Sunday, despite “social distancing” directives from the Alabama Department of Public Health that prohibited non-work gatherings of 25 or more people.

The ADPH this week revised that directive to limit gatherings of 10 or more people.

“We know that being at church is very sacred to many people, but it’s also a place where people are in very close contact and often greet each other with hugs and handshakes as a ritual,” the hospital said. “With that in mind, we again are asking that church members please not gather until our region has been deemed safe for group activities.”

President Barack Obama bestows the Medal of Honor to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins in the East Room of the White House, Sept. 15, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller)

Meanwhile, one of Lee County and Alabama’s most beloved war heroes, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, is hospitalized in critical condition after being diagnosed with the virus. His family says he remains in critical condition as of Saturday afternoon.

He received the Medal of Honor in 2014 for his service during the Vietnam War. Adkins is one of the patients being treated at East Alabama Medical Center.

EAMC is urging the public to act as if they are under a “shelter-in-place” at home order, as the state has so far refused to issue such a directive.

“EAMC is asking everyone to shelter in place at home,” the hospital said in a statement Friday night. “Sheltering in place means you stay at home with immediate family members only and should not leave your home except for essential activities such as food, medical care, or work. You should not host gatherings of people outside of your immediate family. You should also maintain a 6-foot distance from other people as much as possible, wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds each time, and frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces.”

It’s also asking businesses that have access to personal protective equipment like gowns, masks, latex gloves and hand sanitizer to bring those items to a collection site outside of EAMC’s main lobby. The site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

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“I’m completely isolated”: A woman’s COVID-19 experience, from her hospital bed

Joey Kennedy

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Tim Stephens, left, Pamela Franco, right. (Contributed photos)

For the past five days, Pamela Franco hasn’t seen her fiancé except over FaceTime. She’s at UAB’s University Hospital on one of the floors set aside for those infected with the novel coronavirus.

Franco’s room is a typical hospital room, which she isn’t allowed to leave. The exercise she gets is from walking around that limited space.

Franco was admitted on March 23. She says unlike some of the 55-plus other patients, she has actually improved every day. But she still must be on oxygen, and until she’s off, she’ll remain in the hospital.

Doctors tried to wean her off the oxygen Thursday, but she started coughing, her oxygen level dropped below an acceptable, normal range, and her oxygen flow had to be increased. Today, the oxygen flow is back to the lower setting, and Franco said she feels OK.

Franco doesn’t want to be off the oxygen again, though, without somebody monitoring her, because the consequences of no oxygen are the dry, hacking coughs that leave her exhausted but, worse, leave her feeling like she can’t breathe.

Before she was admitted last Monday, she had been diagnosed with pneumonia but was sent home when her COVID-19 test came back negative. But after that, she developed a dry cough.

The cough got worse and worse. Her fiancé, Tim Stephens, took her back to the ER, where she was met by a worker in full personal protective gear — a mask, face shield, gloves, scrubs, and a disposable robe over the scrubs.

Stephens was told to stay in the car as Franco was escorted into the hospital. “I have never seen someone cough so violently,” Stephens said. “It shook her whole body, and it was non-stop. It was scary to watch, but it was terrifying for her – like drowning in the bed.”

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“The coughing got so bad, it was making the trunk of my body contort,” Franco said. “I don’t want to say twisted. But it just made me go into a semi-fetal position.”

Stephens said she was whisked into the hospital and immediately admitted. “Like that, she was gone. I haven’t seen her since. I wasn’t allowed to even say goodbye.”

Today, if Franco starts coughing, she calls the nurse to turn up her oxygen immediately because once the cough starts, it’s painful and frightening. “There’s no phlegm,” she said. “I don’t have a runny nose. That’s the thing about this virus.”

She coughs, but the coughs are torture, not productive like a chest cold cough.

Franco is 49 and, before a flu episode earlier in the year, then the COVID-19 this week, she was healthy. She exercises three or four times a week and has been on that routine for 15 years.

“I’ve only been in the hospital twice my entire life when I’ve given birth,” Franco said. “That’s the only time I’ve had to stay in the hospital.”

Franco and Stephens have been engaged since late last year. They live on Birmingham’s Southside, and they have not set their wedding date. The couple both sell software for Birmingham-based tech companies.

The novel coronavirus knocked Franco for a loop, though. She’s getting better and believes she’ll make a full recovery, but she knows she’ll have to work back up to her exercise routine after she leaves UAB and the virus is gone from her body.

“I’m completely isolated from everyone,” Franco said by telephone from her hospital room.

Pamela Franco, left, and Tim Stephens, right. (Contributed photos)

As of Friday morning, UAB had at least 55 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and about half of them were on ventilators. Thursday, it was more than 60. Many more are under observation for possible COVID-19 infection.

“When they come in, they come in full gear.” Like her greeter at the ER entrance when she was admitted, they wear full gear: Mask, face shield, double gloves, scrubs, and the disposable robe.”

The medical staff “are incredible professionals,” Franco said. “Every day I’m seen by a doctor or a nurse practitioner. Nurses take vitals and peek into the room. They’re treating me very well. I’ve been impressed. And grateful, because I know they’re putting themselves at risk as well every time they walk into the room of any of their patients.”

As for how national and state leaders have responded to the pandemic, Franco is frank.

“My own opinion is we were very slow acting,” she says. “The only reason why we’re having all these cases now is that they were slow.

“And now it’s spread,” she continues. “We’re going to run out of supplies, medication, all sorts of things. It’s snowballing. At this point, we’re elbows deep. We need to continue the isolation, the quarantines, and let people work from home if they can.

But she doesn’t like to be negative and look backward, Franco said.

“They need to do the best they can now to get this under control and to help the people,” Franco said. “I was so impressed to see that they have canceled school for the school year. I was very happy to see that they have postponed school for the rest of the year. I feel like that was necessary.”

“I want my voice to say to everyone who reads this,” Franco said, “at least abide by the rules. Stay separate. Stay quarantined. And wash your hands.”

Strangely, two of Franco’s sisters, who live in another state, also have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and Franco hasn’t seen them since last fall, Stephens said. The oldest sister was in an induced coma in ICU for several days, but is now awake, alert, and recovering, Stephens said.

Stephens, too, is developing that dry cough. He’s scheduled to be tested Sunday, but Franco said he hopes he can move it to an earlier day.

“This is not ‘just the flu,’” Stephens said. “It is a monster.”

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Montgomery orders “indefinite” curfew to slow spread of virus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed on Friday ordered a curfew for Alabama’s capital city, which went into effect immediately and will be in place “indefinitely” as city officials try to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

The curfew will be in effect from 10 p.m until 5.am. each day 

“We’re doing this as a measure to try to discourage unnecessary public gatherings, Reed said, adding that the city cannot keep up the current rate of the spread of the virus. 

Reed said those who break the curfew will have committed a misdemeanor crime and could face fines and jail time.

As of Friday afternoon, Montgomery had 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Statewide on Friday, there were 587 cases and at least three deaths caused by COVID-19.

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