Reflections on 40 Years in Medicine: Janis M. Orlowski, MD '82
Among the many guests at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel on a sunny September afternoon was Dr. Janis Orlowski, this year’s featured speaker at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) Alumni Reunion Weekend Symposium. “Just ten minutes ago, a gentleman in the elevator shared that he is here for his 25th class reunion and was shocked to learn I’m here for my 40th. It made my day!” she enthusiastically shares, radiating with pride and joy. “It feels like it was just yesterday.”
Since graduating from MCW in 1982, Dr. Orlowski has had an extraordinary career in academic medicine, most recently serving as the chief health officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) for nine years. In between her busy alumni weekend filled with celebrations, presentations, and campus tours, Dr. Orlowski took a moment to reflect on the past 40 years and her hopes for the next generation that will follow in her distinguished footsteps.
“I applied early decision to MCW while I was attending Marquette University. My husband, whom I was dating at the time, said we could get married if I went to MCW,” she says with a smile. “I knew that it was a good school and had a stellar educational reputation. As a biomedical engineering student, I did my capstone project with MCW faculty and worked in the Allen Bradley Lab on campus. It was a wonderful introduction to MCW through faculty.”
Following medical school, Dr. Orlowski completed her residency in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in nephrology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “I felt extremely well prepared when I went into residency thanks to my training at MCW. I was comfortable that I was at or ahead of my fellow residents.”
After her residency, Dr. Orlowski joined the faculty at Rush, where her talents and leadership potential were quickly recognized. “In my early 30s, I was asked to be in the Dean’s office. I started as the associate dean for medical sciences, with ten disciplines reporting to me. Within two years, I was elevated to become the executive dean. I had the wonderful opportunity to grow Rush, recruit stellar leaders, and expand their research platform.”
While her career took her from Chicago to Washington D.C., Dr. Orlowski never forgot her roots in Milwaukee. Eight years ago, she was truly honored when John Raymond, Sr., MD, President and Chief Executive Officer of MCW, asked her to serve on the Board of Trustees. “When I first started on the board, I had not been to MCW for a long time. When I pulled up in front of the building, I got a sweaty feeling, wondering if I had studied enough for an exam!” she laughs.
“As a member of the board, I’m very proud of the work that has been done to reevaluate our relationships with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital to grow us closer together,” she shares. “I think that my work at the AAMC on advancing the healthcare of the future greatly contributed to these discussions. I also can take a little sliver of credit for bringing together my two alma maters, MCW and Marquette, by strongly supporting the joint biomedical engineering department. This joint department has just flourished!”
Along with her incredible impact in Milwaukee, Dr. Orlowski had the unique experience of partnering with top medical schools across the country through the AAMC. With these national insights, she affirms that MCW stands apart from its peer institutions. “The lines between students and residents at other places may be hardened. MCW invites medical students into everything – research, education, community development. As a student, you get to stand right next to the dean and do different things, be involved with senior faculty. It's a place where students have unlimited opportunity.”
Starting with her time as a medical student, Dr. Orlowski broke gender barriers to attain one of the highest levels of leadership in academic medicine. “We used to think that if we made the women better, stronger, run faster, that we would have more women leaders,” she shares. “What we know now is that it’s really an institutional responsibility that starts with medical schools supporting women. This also holds true for leadership advancement of people of color.”
Reflecting on her career, Dr. Orlowski emphasizes the importance of mentorship, both as a mentee and a mentor. “It’s so important for women to have strong, confident female leaders to look up to. I benefited early on from people who took an interest in me and my career, who helped me with research and helped me grow as a leader. Throughout my career, I’ve talked to and mentored innumerable women. My message is you can have a wonderful career in leadership, and you can also have a wonderful life. I hope to pass this along to other women so they can continue to pay it forward.”
Dr. Orlowski is an engaged mentor and captivating leader with incredible wisdom to share with those fortunate enough to work alongside her. When asked about pivotal moments in her career, she recalls a fateful phone call in late January 2020 with the AAMC, the CDC, and several other federal agencies several weeks before the US declared a pandemic.
“One of the researchers at the CDC discussed hypothetical data about how many people could be affected by COVID and the alarming, estimated death count of 500,000 people. I just sat back and said, ‘This just can’t be!’ That’s when I knew we really had to start preparing; many long days, long nights, and weekends went into the work ahead. The proudest moment for me was when academic medical centers like MCW stepped up. They provided accurate information, engaged specialists on infectious diseases and critical care, and worked with health departments to ramp up testing and care.”
According to Dr. Orlowski, a lesson learned from this challenging time was the need to educate the public. “Everyone knows what the Kardashians are up to, but not everyone understands basic science and public health. I encourage the next generation to remind the public, congress, and investors about the importance of basic science research for predicting future pandemic viruses and making sure we are prepared with vaccines. MCW and our alumni can play a major role in this.”
Speaking of alumni, Dr. Orlowski’s enthusiasm for MCW and her fellow graduates is truly contagious. “We have amazing alums all around the world! Probably one of the most fun things for me is being at a national or international meeting and finding out that an attendee is from MCW. We have this wonderful bonding experience. Universally, people are excited and proud to talk about MCW.”
Dr. Orlowski encourages alumni to remain in touch with their classmates and MCW. “These are friends for life because you were in the trenches together. These 10, 20-year, long-term relationships are good for your soul. Anytime that I was looking for advice or input, I came back to MCW alums, faculty, and leadership for support.”
During this year’s alumni weekend, Dr. Orlowski presented on the future of academic medical centers and their important role in transforming the health of our communities. “Academic medicine is the center of healthcare for most regions of the country, offering trauma care, advanced surgical care, advanced cardiovascular care, and more. We bring together star physicians, researchers, medical students, and graduate students to create a hub for innovation. With the right components, wonderful things can happen.”
Her message for the next generation is one of hope, but also one of great challenges to overcome together. “The key for the future is equity in care. We all have a responsibility to be a part of the solution. Each one of us must take a look at and understand in our practice, hospital, or medical school how we can address the equity gap in health.”
Dr. Orlowski also shared how important it is for clinicians to feel supported in their work. “We know that healthcare is a wonderful profession – it’s satisfying and well-paid. However, the past two years have been extremely stressful, and many providers have left the field. People want to work in environments where they are respected, can work at the top of their licenses, and can contribute to a good cause. We need to develop this type of culture in all institutions and practices.”
While Dr. Orlowski recently celebrated her retirement from the AAMC, her commitment and dedication to medicine hasn’t stopped. She continues to care for patients in her nephrology practice, provide consultations to academic medical centers, mentor students and women leaders, and encourage her fellow alums to support their shared academic institution.
“I honestly think that we have a responsibility to continue to give back to MCW. It’s expensive to conduct research, maintain a competitive educational program, and dollars in clinical care keep getting tighter. We all have great careers thanks to MCW, so it’s our responsibility to keep the institution strong.”
Before heading to her next event of the weekend, Dr. Orlowski remarked that many people over the years have asked, ‘There are so many problems in medicine, why would you want to be a doctor?’
With her trademark humility and grace, she shared her inspirational response. “Looking back at the last 40 years, it has been a wonderful, satisfying, and challenging career. I feel very blessed that MCW launched me in this career. I can honestly say that I’d do it all over again.”