Dr. Louis Dell’Italia, Birmingham VA associate chief of staff for research since 2010, has dedicated his career to the betterment of the health of Veterans and others.
With a research focus on mechanisms to improve functions in failing hearts, his work has helped advance the understanding and treatment of severe cardiovascular disorders like myocardial infarction and heart failure related to valvular heart disease.
Dell’Italia is best known for his translational research, investigations that start at the bench and then are translated into groundbreaking changes in clinical care for Veterans. His studies span from biochemical and molecular mechanisms of cardiac remodeling to patient-oriented research that is based on hypotheses generated in his laboratory.
An example of this focus was Dell’Italia’s $18 million Specialized Center of Clinically Oriented Research in Cardiac Dysfunction, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health. He has been continuously funded for 30 years by the VA Merit Review and National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, with a recently funded Clinical Science and Research & Development VA Merit Review.
“You must care about people and want the best for them.”
“To be an effective researcher, you must first care about people and want the best for them,” Dell’Italia said. “Research encompasses preventing or caring for an illness or disease a patient may be experiencing and their entire socioeconomic background and environmental influences. You care for the entire package. That describes how we should practice medicine today.”
“When we came to Birmingham, there was a feeling of comfort.”
Dell‘Italia’s career spans over 40 years, from his first research project at the Audie Murphy VA Medical Center to recently being published in the April issue of the Birmingham Business Journal, “Diagnosing Disparity,” where he addresses the issue of health care equity.
“As colleagues in medicine – and growing together both with VA and the University of Alabama – Dr. Dell’italia is a pillar of the research community,” said Dr. Oladipo Kukoyi, Birmingham VA executive director. “He not only proudly accepts the distinction of a Barnwell recipient but brings great notoriety to Birmingham VA.”
The highest honor for clinical scientific achievement
Dell’italia is the 2021 recipient of the VA John Blair Barnwell Award. The award is the Clinical Science Research and Development’s highest honor for clinical scientific achievement.
Dell‘Italia and his wife Pat moved to Birmingham in 1989 where he served as an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). A few months later, his career began at Birmingham VA as the director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory. To this day, Dell’Italia maintains his joint appointment with VA and UAB.
“When we came to Birmingham,” he said, “there was a feeling of comfort. The city is warm and very ethnic. The professionals who interviewed me were down to earth but so accomplished, and many were VA investigators, including the Dean of the UAB Medical School Dr. James Pittman. I’ve had many opportunities to leave, but I chose to stay because the feeling of this campus and the partnership between our Birmingham VA and UAB is unsurpassed.”
Not a career, but a journey
According to Dell’Italia, a 40-year career doesn’t come without challenges.
“Research can be tough,” he said. “You’re constantly at the mercy of the peer review system, whether submitting a manuscript, or submitting a grant for funding. But being a part of our VA/UAB campus has its advantages. There is always someone available to help you. Collegiality is the key to success.”
“I was lucky to marry a wonderful wife. She allows me to keep a healthy balance of my love for medicine, and love for my family, he added. “When you have that to fall back on, the low points of your life and career don’t seem so low.”
In a profession of constant change, Dell’Italia welcomes the advancements of technology.
“Technology has had a huge impact on research,” he said. “However, technology shouldn’t preempt the patient. It all comes down to the physician and how they apply the technology to the patient in front of them.”
Dell’Italia prides himself on mentoring students, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and young faculty who wish to pursue a career in medicine or research.
“The focus of VA research should always be the Veteran,” said Dell’Italia. “Medical needs affect all people, but some are specific to Veterans and their military service. VA research supports four pillars: basic science, clinical science, rehabilitation and health care research. The future is now implementing our discoveries to the care of the patients.”
Words of wisdom for many, even for himself
“If I could go back and talk to my 15-year-old self, being raised in a house with grandparents who were immigrants from Italy, and my parents being first-generation Americans, I would tell Louie to follow his dreams and do what’s in his heart. That is the only thing that makes you happy.
“If I could fast forward and talk to 90-year-old Lou, I will tell him if he feels in his heart that he helped people and contributed every day in a meaningful way, then God bless him.
“I don’t like to call it a career, but a journey,” said Dell’Italia. “I’m happy about my journey so far. I help patients, I pursue questions, and I teach. And I still have a long way to go.”