Faculty spotlight: Dr. Bethany Denlinger

Dr. Bethany Denlinger trains for a marathon in downtown Richmond.

Dr. Bethany Denlinger joined the health system faculty in 1995 and is an associate professor of internal medicine/cardiology. She is board certified in internal medicine, cardiology and echocardiography. In addition to serving as cardiology staff physician at McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center, Denlinger is medical director of the echocardiography lab and cardiac rehab at VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill, Virginia. VCU Health CMH provides health services for the south-central region of Virginia and northern North Carolina.

Why did you pick the field of cardiology?

I was always interested in the medical field, but I didn’t decide on cardiology until I was a second-year medicine resident. I had some difficult call nights during my rotations and saw exciting things. I was busy, but I knew at the same time, I really loved cardiology.

What about your work brings the most satisfaction, and why?

I like the problem-solving part of taking care of patients. Some have typical complaints of chest pain, but sometimes not. Women have atypical symptoms of heart disease and can be more difficult to diagnose. I have patients that I’ve known for a long time. I’m satisfied with the big picture of taking care of them and their community. I’ve been here 25 years, and now I’m taking care of generations of families and friends.

What about your work do you find most challenging, and why?

Medical problems/presentations are not the same for everyone, and people don’t always follow the rules. Whenever you start thinking you’ve seen it all, a patient presents with a new set of symptoms, and you learn more.

How did your relationship with Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill start?

When I was a third-year cardiology fellow, Dr. George Vetrovec told me about an opportunity to work in South Hill doing outreach for three days a week. At that time, “outreach medicine” was unheard of. I was trying to decide between academics and private practice. I thought working in South Hill would be something I would do for a year or two until I figured out what I wanted to do. After all these years, I’m still here.

What motivates you to make the hour-plus drive to South Hill three times a week?

I like the variety of working in South Hill, McGuire VA and VCU Medical Center. I’ve gone through a lot of cars in 25 years. The drive gives me time to separate work from home. I vary my time listening to medical lectures, books, the news or just jamming.

What’s a typical day like for you in South Hill? Describe your duties.

I do consults and stress tests and read echocardiograms and Holter monitors in the morning. In the afternoon, I have a busy clinic.

When you’re not working in South Hill, how do you spend those other weekdays?

The other two days a week I work in the echo lab at McGuire VA Hospital, reading echos, doing transesophageal echos, stress echos and teaching cardiology fellows.

What would people find surprising about your work, and why?

I think primary prevention is the hardest part of all of cardiology. We are successful in putting stents in people having heart attacks, but getting people to eat healthy and exercise is very difficult. It sounds easy, but it’s important to do the basics: eat vegetables and fruit, exercise daily, quit smoking, know your blood pressure and take your prescribed meds every day.

How do the needs of cardiology patients in rural South Hill compare to VCU Medical Center? To the VA?

I grew up in a rural area, so I really enjoy the patients in South Hill. You must sort out which patients in South Hill can be managed in South Hill and which need to go up the road for a higher level of care, such as major complex surgery. Overall, the cardiology needs in all three areas are similar, but access to advanced technology is easier at VCU Medical Center.

Describe a patient encounter that made you say, “Here’s why I keep doing this. Here’s why my work matters.”

I really like my patients. I don’t have one example, but I’m inspired when patients show a lot of resilience during their illnesses. The coronavirus pandemic has made life even more difficult. Sometimes I think I learn more from my patients than they learn from me.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

My husband is a pulmonologist, and we have two grown children. Sam lives in Charlotte, N.C., working as a technology consultant. Ellie is a senior at Virginia Tech. I run in my free time. I have run 19 marathons, although No. 20 will be different. I’m trying to focus on the journey, not the destination. Running is 50% physical and 50% mental. I enjoy getting out there, pounding the pavement and clearing my mind.