Laura Stephens, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, and Blood Bank and Transfusion Medicine director and Medical Executive Committee officer at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, was recognized at the end of 2021 with a “40 Under 40” Award.
Dr. Stephens was one of 40 Tucsonans under the age of 40 – including four from UArizona Health Sciences – recognized as “movers and shakers” for their demonstrated leadership and community impact. The awards are presented annually by Snell & Wilmer with the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Arizona Daily Star.
“I'm really humbled by this honor,” she said. “I've been incredibly fortunate to learn at incredible institutions and from the mentors that I’ve had. I am really fortunate to be in a supportive environment with my laboratory team, my pathology colleagues, medical center leadership and all of my trainees. I adore academic medicine. I'm really thankful.”
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of blood drives were cancelled across the country, including Tucson, which resulted in a dramatic drop in the availability of blood and put hospitals in a double bind, she said.
“The pandemic has been an immense challenge for everybody, the blood bank community included,” Dr. Stephens said. “Early on, it was a frightening time because our job is to ensure the stability and safety of the blood supply for all patients, and much of that, if not all of it, was out of our control. Meanwhile, there were a lot of dynamic changes in the demand for blood, because a lot of hospitals put moratoriums on elective surgeries, and they had restrictions on services and operations.”
The waves of patient surges from COVID-19 and its variants made recruiting additional blood donors and maintaining their donor base more difficult. With fewer available blood drive options at businesses, hospitals, schools and churches, she said, blood suppliers have had to be creative, including using social media more as a recruitment tool.
“We see blood shortages quite frequently, and it’s something that we worry intensely about every day. I’m really grateful to everyone who has contributed blood. It is completely correct to say they have saved lives.”Laura Stephens, MD
“And that continues to be a problem,” she added. “We see blood shortages quite frequently, and it’s something that we worry intensely about every day. I’m really grateful to everyone who has contributed blood. It is completely correct to say they have saved lives. The people who continue to donate selflessly for others during a pandemic really inspire me.”
Dr. Stephens calls transfusion medicine “a hidden gem within the medical field and pathology.” It is the most clinically oriented procedure for pathologists, with one in seven hospital patients requiring a blood transfusion. Her team supports patients by collaborating to provide convalescent plasma to COVID-19 patients, blood for those with rare blood types and special blood products for people fighting cancer or who may be victims of traumatic accidents.
She also finds teaching a joy. “I take very seriously my role as an educator and a mentor. I strive to do my very best for each of my trainees. Each brings a unique perspective, a unique skill set and a unique set of educational, or perhaps personal or professional needs. And it’s really a delight to meet those needs,” Dr. Stephens said.
She joined the UArizona Health Sciences faculty in 2018, after completing her fellowship in transfusion medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She did her residency training in clinical pathology at the University of California, San Diego and earned her medical degree from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.
Originally from Chicago, Dr. Stephens took a non-traditional route to medicine. Her undergraduate degree was in biological anthropology and anatomy from Duke University, after which she worked for a finance company and a health care consulting firm. The consulting work led her to pursue a post-baccalaureate premedical program at Goucher College in Baltimore, followed by medical school. She became a fellow of the College of American Pathologists in 2017.
Among other honors, she has received the John R. Davis, MD, Outstanding Residency Teaching Award from the Department of Pathology for three years in a row (2019-21). She also was recognized in 2021 with the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson Faculty Clinical Excellence Award. She has been a member of the Arizona Department of Health Services COVID-19 Creative Think Tank, and a leader on several national committees for transfusion medicine, apheresis and cellular therapy.