A True Trailblazer

On a sun-drenched April afternoon in Las Vegas, as Dr. Barbara Frajola Atkinson shares what she knows about her Italian heritage, the windows in her third-floor corner office whistle in the wind.

Outside, on Charleston Boulevard, horns briefly blare as a fender bender is averted, but Atkinson, the founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine, ignores the traffic havoc below.

“My grandmother — she was Anna Fabri before marriage — came to the U.S. all by herself during World War I at the age of 16,” says the red-haired physician now doing what no other American woman has done, lead a medical school for the third time. “My grandmother had a lot of courage. She was from a  tiny town, Fossato di Vico. She got a loan from an aunt. She didn’t speak any English when she moved to Minnesota.

“My grandfather, Louis Frajola, grew up in Rome. He helped dig the Simplon railway tunnel between Switzerland and Italy to earn money for the trip to America. It was very dangerous — many men died. But my grandfather made it to Minnesota to work in the iron ore mines. My grandparents had a hard life there, but they persevered.”  The more Atkinson, a member of the prestigious National academy of Medicine, discusses the qualities she sees in her late Italian immigrant grandparents — tenacity, toughness, perseverance— the more you are reminded of the adage, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

This is a woman who didn’t even start medical school until her two children entered grade school, who came out of retirement in 2014 after a sterling 37-year career to create the first public academic medical center in Las Vegas, essentially the school’s only employee for months. She’s overseen the installation of the first-year school’s curriculum, kept accreditation on track, handled staff and faculty recruitment, managed philanthropy and community outreach and crafted the frameworks for the school’s clinical operations, graduate medical education program, hospital affiliation agreements and community teaching sites.

The only thing that slowed her down for a while is the rupture of her intestine 10 months ago.   fortunately, she says the superb care she received at University Medical Center — a key training facility for the medical school — kept the situation under control. She continues an energetic pace, looking forward to seeing UNLV’s inaugural medical school class graduate in 2021. The 60 students, on full scholarships Atkinson helped coordinate from donors , began classes in 2017.

Trips to Italy convinced Atkinson that the life of her grandmother on her father’s side of the family was far from easy.  Californian Carol Salmacia, Atkinson’s sister, says that when they took a train through the Simplon Tunnel in the Alps, Atkinson was stunned by what their grandfather helped create.   For most of the 20th century, the 65,000-foot tunnel was the world’s longest railway tunnel.

Historians say the tunnel — it actually consists of two single track tunnels built nearly 15 years apart — was built in nearly impossible conditions beginning in 1898. There were violent in-rushes of water, temperatures of 133 degrees, and constant threats of cave-ins. More than 100 men died either from injuries or disease.

“On the train, Barbara said, ‘Do you realize our grandfather was one of the men digging out this tunnel so he could leave Italy?’” Salmacia recalls.  Atkinson said that the fierce drive of her grandfather was  passed on to her father,  the man who had a huge influence on her. Though Louis and Anna Frajola had no formal education, their son, Walter, became a biochemistry professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. He would allow Atkinson to use the electron microscope in his lab after classes were out, which ultimately led to her interest in medicine. At Ohio State, she met the man she married, G. William Atkinson, a medical student who’d became a pulmonary internist as well as the father of her two children.

Though choosing not to study medicine until her children became of school age, Atkinson had already gotten some training in another important area — the culinary arts.

“My grandmother taught me how to cook,” says Atkinson, whose love of literature came from her English teacher mother, Ruth Cook Frajola, who was of English descent. “My mother even learned Italian cooking from my grandmother. We’d have spaghetti and meatballs every Thursday night. My dad loved it. He was very proud of his Italian heritage. I didn’t really get to know my grandfather because he and my grandmother divorced and then he died. My grandmother made noodles every day — she made all the pastas. I loved the large get-togethers we had. They taught me how to interact with people.”

The National Library of Medicine’s biographical entry on Atkinson — she was appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics — details her 1974 graduation from Jefferson Medical School and her rise to national prominence as a cell researcher, author and educator at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. That work led to a deanship at the Hahnemann University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. She’d then move on in 2002 to positions as executive dean and executive vice chancellor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, from which she retired in 2012.

Two years after her retirement began, it ended. Administrators with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas called. Political, academic and community leaders in Southern Nevada, which has long been the butt of jokes when it came to medicine — “Where do you go for good medical care in Las Vegas? The airport!” — wanted to phase out the joke with an academic medical center, by turning out talented doctors.

The overtures to head the school came at right time. Though an avid birder, Atkinson had grown bored in retirement.

When Atkinson learned Las Vegas had the smallest health-services sector of the largest 100 cities in the country — ranking in the bottom 10th percentile in most specialties — her interest grew.

“It was a challenge I wanted,” says Atkinson, who’d opened a new medical school campus for the University of Kansas. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help an entire community.”

Challenges, according to Atkinson’s daughter, Nancy Perkins, are something the family not only meet and overcome, but thrive on. She stresses that her grandfather, Walter Frajola, learned perseverance while growing up around the Iron Range in northern Minnesota during the early 1900s. There, tens of thousands of immigrants, including a large contingent from Italy, mined iron ore.

Histories note that life was hard on the Iron Range, where Louis Frajola worked. Miners worked long hours and received low wages. Hundreds died in accidents. Families lived in substandard housing. Immigrants also confronted prejudice. Italians were seen as physically and intellectually inferior by mining officials.

Atkinson said her grandmother Anna, who learned to speak English, could not read or write either Italian or English. Still, education was prized in her grandparents’ household as a way to a better life, as was evidenced by Walter Frajola’s earning a doctorate.

The stories Atkinson loved to hear from her grandmother revolved around wine. She had become friends in Minnesota with Rosa Mondavi, whose son Robert founded the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley, California. The Mondavi family always shipped grapes from California to friends in Minnesota so wine could be made there.

“My grandmother made her own wine,” Atkinson says. “Once she mailed a keg from Minnesota to my dad in Ohio. My dad told her never to do that again, that she could get in trouble.”

Perkins said her great grandmother — she called her, ”Nonna,” the Italian word for grandmother — visited the Atkinson family in Philadelphia right up until she died at the age of 91.

“I became an executive chef because of her,” says Perkins, who attended the famed Culinary Institute of America in New York before going to work in Florida. “When she came to our house, she’d spend all day cooking. We’d go to the Italian market at the beginning of every day to get the right ingredients. Nonna had to get it just right. She passed that on to her son, my grandfather. And he passed it on to my mother. You push and push until you get it right. You persevere.’

Aware Atkinson “works to get it just right,” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman is solidly in her corner. “She’s building our medical school the right way, she’s done it before. Soon donors will help us get all the new facilities we need — we’re going to change our medical culture.’

When she gets the time, Atkinson wouldn’t mind another trip to Italy. “I might learn more about my family.”

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