Dr. Donna Sweet is known for a number of things: training hundreds of physicians as a faculty member at KU School of Medicine-Wichita, pioneering care of AIDS/HIV patients in Kansas and serving at the highest level of national medical organizations.
Then there’s the leg wrestling party she hosts for medical residents each winter.
“It’s a traditional Christmas party to help preserve wildlife and leg wrestling,” she explained. “We give trophies. People are very proud of their leg wrestling trophies. There are a lot of physicians around town who have them.”
With contributions from many of those physicians, KU Wichita this year established an honorary award for medical students and residents named for her. The first two Donna Sweet Medical Excellence Award winners — graduating student Kellie Griffin and third-year resident Chelsea Wuthnow — were announced earlier this month.
Sweet said it means “a lot.”
“I was just flabbergasted that all of my previous trainees put up the kind of money they did to build an award like that.”
The award recognizes academic and clinical merit, plus philanthropy, advocacy and empathy. Sweet’s admirers say she has embodied those last three traits throughout her long association with KU Wichita and the larger community.
Sweet, a professor in the Department of Medicine, grew up poor on a farm near Towanda, earning a full-ride scholarship to Wichita State University. She graduated from KU Wichita in 1979 and joined the faculty four years later. She teaches in-patient care to residents and students at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, outpatient care to fourth-year students at the clinic and usually has a second-year resident on a HIV rotation.
“I’m what they call a throwback dinosaur who’s always done inpatient (care) for her outpatients,” she said. “I still care for my patients when they’re in the hospital.” Sweet said she set up her private practice “with the idea that when they needed to be in the hospital, they could be used for teaching purposes in the hospital.”
Sweet was on the front lines of caring for HIV/AIDS patients when that crisis emerged, flying around the state in a small plane to care for rural patients as well as those in Wichita, and is recognized internationally as a specialist in that regard. For years, she and her staff held a Christmas dinner for HIV/AIDS patients at a local church. Each fall, she hosts “A Sweet A’Fair” in her northeast Wichita backyard, raising money to help HIV patients pay medical costs.
She has been a delegate to the American Medical Association and president of the American College of Physicians Board of Regents. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, travel and golf.
Asked how many physicians she’s trained through the years, Sweet said, “It would take a calculator because I see a different team probably four or five times a year, if not more.”
Last month, Sweet had her photograph taken with Gov. Laura Kelly along with other 40-year state employees.
The honorary award was the idea of Dr. Samuel Akidiva, who was a young physician visiting from Kenya when he met Sweet in 2008. At Sweet’s invitation, Akidiva shadowed her as she worked with HIV patients and others in KU Wichita’s Midtown clinic.
“Even then, when I was just visiting, I could see the high regard that patients had for her,” he said. “And everybody in the clinic made me feel so welcome.”
Akidiva’s regard for Sweet has only grown through the years as — largely thanks to her urging — he completed his internal medicine residency at KU Wichita and then joined her on its faculty. “She’s not done this just for me,” he said. She’s done this for everybody. She really deeply cares about her patients, and she cares about medical students and residents.”
With the help of Dr. William Salyers and others, Akidiva said it wasn’t hard raising money from faculty and residents to endow the award, which consists of $2,000 for a student and $3,000 for a resident.
Akidiva said Sweet has forged an important connection between KU Wichita and his native East African country. Starting with himself, there have been about 10 Kenyans complete their residencies here.
During his residency, Akidiva said, he became convinced that Sweet had asked other faculty “to keep an eye on this guy.”
“When she wants you to succeed, she goes all out and gets fully invested in your case,” he said, adding that Sweet “has been like another mother to me.”
Sweet said she reached out to Akidiva and other Kenyans because “we need diversity, and we need good people.”
Akidiva said she wanted to see the award established for Sweet before she retires, but it appears he’ll be enjoying her as a colleague for the foreseeable future.
“I’m old enough, plenty,” Sweet said, “but I love what I do. As long as they let me, I don’t intend to retire unless something changes.”
A version of this article was previously published by KU School of Medicine-Wichita. It is used here by permission.