When 12-year-old Vladislav Pavlovich Zhitny immigrated with his family from Ukraine to Las Vegas in 2006, he didn’t speak a word of English.
Today, he’s less than two months from graduating from the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV as the school’s most prolific student-researcher. Zhitny was the valedictorian at College of Southern Nevada High School, undergraduate CSUN Senate president, and a summa cum laude graduate (’17 BS Biology) and commencement speaker at UNLV.
Given his birthplace and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Zhitny understands why people would like to know his thoughts on the war. But he doesn’t go there. In this age of rapid global communication, he’s concerned that anything he might say, regardless of how innocuous, could somehow impact the welfare of his extended family still in Ukraine.
He grew up in Lugansk, an eastern city in Ukraine known as the headquarters for the coal mining industry and the manufacture of locomotives. Zhitny recalled the city “was a city full of green with many country houses bridged with the old column architectures from the Soviet past.” (Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.)
Bazaars, or markets, were situated throughout the city, selling everything from meat to clothing. “Supermarkets and fast-food restaurants were new and something very exciting,” Zhitny said. After his father left the family when Zhitny was very young, he was raised by his mother, an accountant for the state tax administration in Ukraine, and his grandmother, a retired architect engineer. He learned to play chess from his grandfather, often playing outside on benches where people would bring their chessboards from the neighborhood to play.
When his grandfather grew ill and then died of brain cancer, Zhitny knew he wanted a career in medicine. “His condition took him from me but provided me with a purpose in return. My mother and grandmother gently guided me in this direction.”
Arriving in Las Vegas
How Zhitny ended up in Las Vegas is the result of an American’s business trip. “My stepfather traveled to Ukraine to outsource computer parts. He met my mother at a local event after a mutual friend introduced them. She traveled to the United States where he showed her Las Vegas. After they got married, I immigrated to the U.S. and my grandmother would follow two years later, along with our cat, Barsik.” Las Vegas was far different from Lugansk. “Everything was new and futuristic. There was a smell of food everywhere you went. Arriving my first night in Las Vegas, I remember my stepfather taking us to one of the largest stores that I had ever seen. I thought it was named Always. I later found out it was Walmart.”
Soon after his arrival in the U.S., Zhitny began taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at Silvestri Junior High School. “I took summer courses every year. I was dedicated,” he says. “The American television cartoons like SpongeBob allowed me to listen to the language and make it entertaining. They introduced me to modern culture and urban vernacular. I often had to look up a word in the dictionary. Perhaps the hardest part was understanding sarcasm. That did not come until later during my college years.”
He has studied and then studied some more throughout his schooling. Only the best grades are acceptable. Several scholarships from the university and from private donors, which he said he’s most grateful for because they’ve allowed him to focus on his studies, have been the result.
“I know that my mother, my grandmother, my stepfather count on me — my family in Ukraine counts on me to do my best. I always have a wall behind me that does not let me take any steps back. I want to have the ability to take care and protect my family and those close to me.”
During his undergraduate years at UNLV, where he majored in biology, what happened to his grandfather spurred him on to complete prestigious cancer research internships at the Stanford School of Medicine, the New York University department of immunology, and Harvard Medical School. That scholarly initiative went a long way toward his receiving a full-tuition scholarship from Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada as part of his acceptance into the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine charter class in 2017.
It didn’t take him long to make his mark at the medical school. He founded the American Medical Students chapter at the school and became a member of the Clark County Medical Society, serving as a student representative and one of 30 voting delegates who took part in helping to develop state legislation on issues that included gun violence prevention and improving graduate education. He was responsible for introducing and passing the first student-led bill that addressed the shortages of medical residencies in Nevada.
Though his school studies went well, he didn’t graduate with the inaugural class. During the second year of medical school, two weeks prior to his Step 1 examination – the most important medical school standardized exam – Zhitny’s father in Ukraine was diagnosed with end-stage metastatic colon cancer. Zhitny took an academic year off to travel back to Ukraine to spend time at his father’s side.
“This experience with my father has driven me to conduct the most ethical and high-quality research that I can do,” he said. “This is how we advance as a society and contribute to the greater good. I hope that my work can help others.“
Outpacing the average
While the national average for medical students having research papers published is just under six during their time in medical school, Zhitny has had 18 research papers appear in publications that include Vascular Health and Risk Management, Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery Global Open, Dermatology, International Journal of Dermatology, Journal of Surgical Case Reports, Journal of Orthopedic Case Reports, and International Journal of Surgery Case Reports.
One of Zhitny’s studies that he conducted with three other physicians, “Cardiology Fellow Diagnostic Accuracy and Data Interpretation Outcomes: A Review of the Current Literature,” has already received over 3,568 downloads from other medical professionals. That study of 57 fellows interpreting 1719 EKGs (an electrocardiogram test can show if your heart is beating at a normal rate and strength) found that fellows interpreted the EKG results correctly only 52 percent of the time.
Dr. Dale Netski, director of student medical research at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, which allows students to engage in scientific inquiry, said Zhitny “has done an outstanding job engaging in scholarly activity during his time” in medical school.
“His enthusiasm for scientific inquiry is encouraging because the interest in pursuing a career as a physician-scientist has been decreasing,” Netski said. “In fact, results from the AAMC (the Association of American Medical Colleges) medical school graduation questionnaire reveal that only 2.8 percent of graduates plan to participate full-time in research during their career, 45.1 percent plan to have significant involvement, while 52 percent plan to engage in research in a limited way. These are important metrics because physicians make clinical decisions based on scientific evidence every day.”
Research, Zhitny said, will continue to be an important part of his medical career.
“Through my experience here at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, I now know how to be an effective member of the health care community and how to make a valuable contribution to the vast body of medical knowledge.”