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Out of Chaos…Life…with John Mark Vermillion, M.D.

Out of Chaos…Life…with John Mark Vermillion, M.D.

MONTGOMERY — The dictionary defines medical trauma as an injury to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent. However, Montgomery trauma specialist John Mark Vermillion, M.D., has his own personal definition. He’s worked since 2005 to build the River Region’s premiere trauma center, which is located at Baptist Medical Center South. This is Alabama’s fourth largest trauma center.

“So here’s the definition of trauma I made up, and it’s kind of quirky, but it’s one of my life quotes: The unintended consequences of actions performed that supersede one’s skill level or common sense. That’s based on my own experience of taking care of a lot of traumas,” Dr. Vermillion smiled. “I have a lot of life quotes I pass along to my kids, and this is one of them.”

When he first arrived in Montgomery, even he was taken back by the fact the region did not have a trauma center. At the time, Montgomery’s hospitals rotated ERs of the day. It was an incredible strain on the professionals taking care of critical patients brought to the emergency room. It wasn’t enough.

“Our area is equivalent to downtown Baltimore, Chicago, and other high-profile metro areas in the percentage of trauma cases. Their numbers are larger, and their populations are proportionately larger to ours, but that’s still a sad statistic,” Dr. Vermillion said. “Trauma in our world is defined mainly as high-speed car wrecks and penetrating wounds such as gunshots or stabbings. Trauma in Alabama is mostly associated with gunshot wounds. Birmingham and Montgomery have the same basic population base and the same type of trauma as the larger cities in the nation that get a lot of press from it because they have such high numbers since their populations are so high. But, our percentages are right on par with Baltimore and Chicago.”

It’s easy to imagine how fast-paced it can be once a trauma rolls into the emergency room. But, that’s when this Texas native is at his best. What may look like chaos to some is fuel for Dr. Vermillion, and it pumps through his veins like quicksilver. This is what he thrives on. This is what he grew up on. This is in his DNA.

Two of Dr. Vermillion’s uncles, his father and grandfather are all physicians as well, and they all trained at the same hospital in Texas, but he said he’s a bit of the black sheep in the family.

“They all tried to dissuade me from going into medicine as a profession. They really didn’t want me to do it,” he laughed. “I’m the only one of the grandkids who became a doctor. There’re two lawyers, a rocket scientist – a legit rocket scientist – a social worker, teacher, so I’m the black sheep of the family since I’m the only doctor.”

It didn’t work, and he has his grandfather to thank for that. His grandfather was a physician in a small town and would often take him to the hospital at night so he could act as his first assistant during surgeries. At the young age of 14, the surgical procedures, blood…nothing bothered the young boy. It infatuated him.

“Oh man, I was hooked!” Dr. Vermillion said. “I definitely got the medical bug early. My grandfather also hired me one summer when I was in junior high school to put all his records on a spreadsheet. Here I was thinking there was no way I could finish that summer, but his entire records were on 5×7 cards with the patient’s name, a date stamp, vitals, diagnosis and prescription. That was his medical record for all his patients. His electronic medical record was me putting it on a spreadsheet. It took less than a month.”

Now fully entrenched, he had his mind set on a career in medicine. He planned to go to medical school, do a family practice residency, then a year of surgical training, and finally go into practice in a small town like his grandfather. But, that all changed in medical school.

“I liked the surgical procedural side of things a lot better than I liked the primary care medicine. It fit my personality a lot better. It’s high-rush, high-stakes, high-adrenaline style medicine. When I was 14 and went into that first surgery with my grandfather I thought it was awesome. Nothing about it bothered me. It was a great exposure for me at an early age,” Dr. Vermillion explained.

And the stakes are very high. Since 2005 when Dr. Vermillion and Baptist South began building the trauma center, it has grown to include a full medical team with students. The hours can be long and arduous, and the team can easily treat more than 2,000 trauma patients in a year. Dr. Vermillion has a very good memory for his patients and remembers almost every one of them, but the ones who affect him the most are children.

“Children are very hard for me. Kids get to me,” he said, patting his chest.

With a wife and children of his own at home, it’s easy to see why treating a child with a trauma could be the one thing to stop Dr. Vermillion in his tracks even for a moment. It’s also why he treasures every moment he can away from the hospital. The Vermillions have nine children, two of which are foster children.

Dr. Vermillion isn’t one to stand still very long, though. He’s part of a medical mission team through the Chikondi Health Foundation that regularly travels to Malawi where the foundation supports a hospital. While there, the team takes care of basic medical needs, but can also perform minor surgical procedures that can be life-changing for the patients. When he goes, he tries to take one of his children with him, trying to do for his children what his grandfather did for him. He’s not sure if it’s working, though. His daughter lasted only a few minutes during a procedure before going back to the orphanage.

“It’s truly a different world there,” Dr. Vermillion said. “It’s a 12-day trip, and it’s a very satisfying experience. The families and patients are so grateful. I can see the same gratefulness in these people that my grandfather did when he was treating people in the town where he lived.”

 

*Photos compliments of Baptist South and Dr. John Mark Vermillion.

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What Challenges You With Jefferson Underwood III, M.D.

What Challenges You With Jefferson Underwood III, M.D.

MONTGOMERY — Montgomery physician Jefferson Underwood III may not move as quickly or as easily as he did a year ago, but his wit is as sharp as a tack. Just as it always has been.

“ALS is a funky disease. Every day something new comes up, a new challenge. I am challenged, but why be mad at God?” Dr. Underwood questioned. ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. “Sometimes you just wonder about the people you meet in life. Who challenges you to keep going? I had a teacher who had a cervical spinal disorder who could only move from the neck down. But, she kept going. As long as she could keep that wheelchair moving, she kept going. I may have a disability, but I’m still blessed and fortunate to be able to work. I have two nurse practitioners and that allows me to keep office hours for a few hours a day. My diagnosis qualifies me for disability, but I don’t want that as long as I can keep moving.”

Challenges in life are nothing new to Dr. Underwood. Coming of age in Montgomery during a time when segregation ruled the South certainly wasn’t easy, but he had a great mentor.

“As a child, I really wanted to be an astronaut. John Glenn was one of my first heroes. But I was told blacks could not be astronauts. It’s probably difficult for young people today to fathom that, but it was the time we lived in, and I accepted that,” Dr. Underwood said.

Soon, he began to notice what was happening in his own household. His mother was a professor at Alabama State University, and his father trained in internal medicine at the University of New York in Buffalo. His family was not like the families of many of his friends, and the more he watched his father overcome challenge after challenge to practice medicine, young Jefferson seemed destined to become a physician himself.

“My father was licensed to practice medicine in Alabama, but you have to remember this was during the height of segregation…definitely not easy times for this area. My father did his residency in internal medicine but when he came back to Montgomery, with the situation of segregation, he was not allowed to practice in the white hospitals and had to practice in the black hospital, which at the time was St. Jude. There was this one woman who was nine months pregnant who had been fired by her physician. My father was trained in internal medicine, but she called him to deliver her baby. There were no black OBGYNs, and it became a very tense situation. He had done some obstetrics during his training in New York, so he agreed. My father always told me that story, and then I had the pleasure of meeting that gentleman a few years ago. He assured me that story was indeed true,” Dr. Underwood smiled. “I think that shows the importance of having good role models in your life.”

Dr. Underwood admitted he didn’t realize the power of a strong role model until he was in early junior high school when he decided to become a physician himself. He said that was when he realized he had spent his early years watching his father struggle to overcome and persevere through some truly dark times just to be able to continue doing his job. But, it never discouraged his father, so he said it would never discourage him, either.

“Absolutely not! It encouraged me even more! That just shows the importance of having strong role models. Back then, a doctor was so much a part of the family. He did things doctors don’t do these days. He delivered a baby and took care of it to the grave. You go to the house at night during a storm because of a cold. It was before Medicare and Medicaid, so you might get paid with a ham or a turkey…whatever the family could afford,” Dr. Underwood laughed. “It always came from the heart from love.”

Looking back on nearly 40 years in practice, Dr. Underwood said he simply can’t see himself in any other career…not even being an astronaut. The practice of medicine is in his DNA, but that doesn’t mean he’s 100 percent happy with the state of the profession today.

“I never really thought maybe medicine wasn’t the right choice for me…but there were some nights before those bio-chem tests and final, you know?” he giggled. “I had to give it a question, but I never gave it a second thought. What’s discouraging is to hear so many of my colleagues who are dissatisfied with medicine now. The real question is, are they dissatisfied with the practice of medicine or are they dissatisfied within? I practiced with my father for about 10, 12 years, and he used to tell me if you don’t take care of the business of medicine, you won’t have a medicine business. The principles of medicine have not changed. The computers and technology part of medicine changes, but not the principles of medicine.”

For young physicians, Dr. Underwood offers a bit of advice: Make sure your heart is truly in the profession.

“You have to want to be a physician. It’s not what you perceive the rewards a physician will offer to you. You really have to have the heart within to be a good physician to your patients. You have to have a sincere desire to want to help others. It’s not always going to be pretty, this profession. Medical school and residency are a good filter, but it’s also an expensive filter, and that’s why you need to take every opportunity you can to decide if you really want to be a physician,” he said. “This isn’t a profession you can go into to make someone else happy. You have to make yourself happy.”

And, his best advice for all physicians? Become the voice that medicine needs to make change. That’s what he did. In April 2018 Dr. Underwood became the first African-American male to serve as President of the Board of Censors of the Medical Association. He previously served the Association as President-Elect, Secretary-Treasurer and Vice President. Dr. Underwood is a Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. He is a member of the American Medical Association, National Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the Alabama Chapter of the American College of Physicians, International Society for Hypertension in Blacks, as well as the Editorial Board for the Journal of Ethnicity. He is also a member of the Montgomery County Medical Society in which he has served on the Board of Trustees and as President.

“I encourage my colleagues to get more involved with organized medicine like their county medical society, the Medical Association, and the AMA so they can help bring about change. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, then be a part of the voice and help make change. It’s amazing how politics can determine the direction of medicine,” Dr. Underwood said.

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A Promise to Help with Sandra Mathews Ford, M.D.

A Promise to Help with Sandra Mathews Ford, M.D.

BIRMINGHAM – When Sandra Ford was just 8 years old, her father took her to the doctor. Back then, Alabama was under segregationist laws, so it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for young Sandra and her father to wait on one side of the doctor’s office from the time they walked in around 4 p.m. until after 11 p.m. But there was one time a visit to the doctor left an indelible mark on her, which not only shaped her career in medicine, but it also marked the beginning of her spiritual path.

Originally from Montgomery, Dr. Ford’s parents were school teachers in Clayton. During the week, the family would live in Alabama’s Black Belt and in Montgomery on the weekends. The family would do their best if someone got sick during the week. Health care in rural areas back then was different than it is now. It was actually worse.

“During segregation, the doctor could only take so many patients. So we sat,” Dr. Ford explained. “But, I still remember that day very vividly. I was 8 years old sitting in the doctor’s office, and there was this elderly woman just suffering sitting in the chairs with us. It seemed like they were passing her by. I couldn’t understand why no one could help her. It bothered me a lot…and then I watched her take her last breath. At the age of 8, I watched her die.”

That one visit to the doctor as a child changed Dr. Ford’s life. It planted a seed, which grew through the years. “This is how A Promise to Help started,” she said.

A Promise to Help is a nonprofit medical missionary organization founded by Dr. Ford and her husband, Henry, which is now in its 16th year. The organization serves Alabama’s Black Belt counties, including Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Russell, Sumter and Wilcox Counties.

“We’ve been to the most underserved, underprivileged and underinsured counties in this state. A Promise to Help is a volunteer-based organization whose goals are to assist in eliminating health care disparities in Alabama. We have physicians, nurses, ministers, media specialists, counselors, social workers, business leaders, skilled laborers, community activists and others all working together with one thing in mind — helping others,” Dr. Ford said.

The organization hosts volunteers worldwide who come to Alabama once a month to visit communities in the most need. There are 12 missions a year, and although the organization is designated as a nonprofit, it operates almost completely on the generosity of others by donations, not grants.

“We’re both ordained ministers, so this is a ministry for us. It’s a holistic health care initiative where we can minister to the entire body. We have a medical team, a mentoring team, a ministry team, and a team to address their immediate needs such as clothing and food. This is truly a mission of God because we don’t enjoy the benefit of grants. This is just people helping other people. This is the hand of God moving all of us. People give what they can, and we accept that to give to others,” Dr. Ford said.

Each month’s mission presents its own logistical challenges. Using Dr. Ford’s small medical practice in Birmingham as a base of operations, donations of clothing, medicine, equipment and other necessities are stored in every spare space waiting to be deployed once the location has been secured. After local county resources and ministries are contacted and a liaison is in place, it’s time to roll out the mobile health clinic.

The mobile health clinic has two exam beds and is larger on the inside than it looks from the outside. It serves a higher purpose to bring more than just needed health care and medicine to the residents of what Dr. Ford and some volunteers have come to call “Alabama’s Third World.”

“It takes us a while for us to gain the trust of the people in these communities. So many different studies and research projects have come through these areas looking for information, but these things never really touched these people’s lives. And that’s what we want to do. Believe it or not, we have no agenda. This is just something that God has put on our hearts to do…to help,” Dr. Ford said.

A Promise to Help is part of the Spirit of Luke Charitable Foundation™ cofounded by the Fords. If you would like more information about either organization, to make a donation, or to volunteer, visit www.spiritofluke.com.

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It Began with an Email with Stephen Russell, M.D.

It Began with an Email with Stephen Russell, M.D.

LEEDS – Benjamin Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” For Leeds family physician Stephen Russell doing both comes naturally. As an associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Dr. Russell is living his research for the characters he writes in his works of fiction, which are centered around Dr. Cooper “Mackie” McKay.

Dr. Russell has written and published three medical thrillers — Blood Money, Command and Control and most recently Control Group — with a fourth in the works. While he admits he has always written in some fashion, it wasn’t until he was in his residency in Cincinnati, OH, when he discovered he had a gift for the craft of storytelling. In fact, he credits the simple act of emailing with his father, who was a practicing cardiologist in Birmingham at the time, with stoking the fire of his love of weaving a good tale.

“I had been given an email address during residency and remember thinking, ‘Well, what am I going to do with that?!’” Dr. Russell laughed. “No one was really using email outside a school setting, but my father had an email address, so I used that as a way to communicate with him a good decade before cell phones were popular. Then I started to write these stories to him in my emails but completely different from an email you might think of today. I was taking all these stories that were really during an intense, emotional and academic time of my life when I was seeing new patients, learning how to treat them, and learning what being a physician was all about. I was retelling these stories of what my patients were going through, and what I was going through learning how to help them. In those emails, I was just beginning to learn how to put things together as a real story. Looking back on it now, those email stories had a character, a narrative arc, an event that happened, and the more I did them the more I realized there were patterns to my writing.”

Not only did Dr. Russell realize his love of the creative process through those early emails to his father, but he also learned just how much he enjoyed how cathartic the writing process itself could be.

Four years later, Dr. Russell began to wonder. “What if…?” Still practicing in Cincinnati, he had met hundreds of patients and had an arsenal of stories and medical scenarios. So, what next?

“I had this idea from things I had done during my residency. ‘What if?’” he wondered. “What if this particular thing happened and something bad happened as a result of it. I decided that instead of continuing to write short stories in the form of emails, I just dove in and decided it would be a fun to write a novel. I had never written a novel before. I had never taken a formal writing class before. I had taken literature classes in college, but nothing to prepare me for writing a novel.”

Dr. Russell is the first to admit writing his novels wasn’t exactly what he thought it would be. While he never expected to turn in his first draft and have it magically be published, he didn’t expect it would take 13 years from draft to publication.

“I had to figure out how to do it for myself by reading about writing great authors and trying to figure out how they wrote in order to do it well. I think if I knew now what I knew then…” he laughed. “What I didn’t expect was that I thought there was going to be this writing part of my life and this physician/professional part of my life. I expected them to be completely separate. But it was interesting to me that these two separate strands I thought were my two parallel lives were actually two parts of the same journey for me.”

As the two parts of his life began to converge, Dr. Russell said he wasn’t expecting the positive impact of being a published author would have on his patients. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

“I didn’t expect I’d be talking about writing while I was at work, or having conversations about books with my patients. Then the most amazing thing happened after my book was published. People read it! They would come in for their visits and would want to talk about the book and about writing, which was a great icebreaker. The thing I love most about writing is probably the thing I love the most about being a physician which is communication. My job as a primary care physician is to listen to my patients and interpret their stories and understand what they mean from a health standpoint. How does that story end? How can that story be changed? How can that story be interpreted for a better prognosis?

“That’s also the job of the writer…to create the story if it’s fiction or frame that story if it’s nonfiction and to package it in a way that clearly communicates whatever the writer is trying to tell. I didn’t think about it in those terms when I was writing my first novel, the second or the third, but as I started to be on the receiving end of other people reading my writing, critiquing it and giving comments, I realized that’s part of what I signed up for by entering into the arena as a writer, but it’s also what I signed up for by entering into the arena as a physician, which is just that ability to try and find a way to communicate what I’m doing clearly and try and help my patients communicate what they’re experiencing and feeling in a way that makes sense to them. That whole communication journey is what makes sense to me about why I enjoy writing but also why I enjoy being a primary care physician,” Dr. Russell said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Russell has written three medical mysteries, which you can purchase on Amazon: Blood Money, Command and Control, and Control Group. He promises Dr. Cooper “Mackie” McKay will return in the future. In the meantime, he’s working on a young adult novel in which he’s getting plenty of input and primary research from his four children.

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Just Call Her “Dr. Fun” with Lynn Batten, M.D. 

Just Call Her “Dr. Fun” with Lynn Batten, M.D. 

MOBILE — If you happen to be wandering the halls of the University of South Alabama’s School of Medicine, hear music and someone counting to the beat…5, 6, 7, 8…it’s probably Dr. Fun and her colleagues. Dr. Fun, also known as Associate Professor of Pediatrics Lynn Batten, M.D., earned the nickname about a year ago, but what may seem like all fun and games is truly a mission from the heart to bring joy and better health to her patients and their families.

“We have so much fun doing this, but I will never forget how it all got started,” Dr. Batten explained. “To me, I feel like I’m on a mission from God. I’m just going to say it because that’s exactly what I feel like it is. Dr. Fun’s Dance Party USA may have started out as one video for just one patient, but it’s so much bigger and has touched so many more lives.”

It all began with one patient. A 5-year-old little girl named Synclaire had captured the heart of Dr. Batten and her staff. Synclaire had only one ventricle and had already experienced three surgeries and pretty much every complication possible in her short life by the time Dr. Batten sent her to UAB to be wait-listed for a heart transplant. Eleven weeks later, Sinclair was still waiting. The days grew long and the nights longer.

“Her mother would check in with us every now and then, and we would call her and see how things were going. One day, her mother said she really needed a smile, so I asked what her daughter’s favorite song was because we wanted to make a dance video for her,” Dr. Batten said. Armed with Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” and her son’s talents at filming for YouTube, Dr. Batten and her staff choreographed their first dance video. It wasn’t very long, perhaps only 90 seconds, but all the staff who had worked with and gotten to know little Synclaire had a chance to dance for her.

As Dr. Batten’s son was working to edit the video to post online, the physicians at UAB called. Synclaire wasn’t doing well, but word spread like wildfire about the video the USA team was putting together for her. Dr. Batten’s mission was to have the video posted that evening. At that point, she said her greatest fear was that little Synclaire would pass away before seeing it.

“I was on my way across the bay to a dinner meeting thinking all these things like I hoped she likes it, I hope it makes her and her family smile, and then something just hit me — what if she doesn’t get to see it? What if she dies before we can get this online for her? That was the most horrible feeling! But, that entire drive made me realize there are so many other kids out there who might like to see their doctors dancing around and having a little fun. We could do videos for kids in the hospital and they could leave comments for us like who they would like to see in our next video. All these thoughts just started pouring out about what we could do next,” Dr. Batten said.

Dr. Batten emailed Synclaire’s mother the link to the video that night. The UAB staff called her at 10 the next morning to let her know Synclaire had coded. She was on life support for about a week before she passed away. She said there was an urgency that night to upload the video that she couldn’t quite understand until she received that phone call.

“Her mother told me later that Synclaire did see it and it ‘made her heart shine.’ I don’t know what that means but this is why I truly feel like this is my mission from God,” Dr. Batten said.

After that first video, Dr. Fun’s Dance Party USA was officially born with an expanded mission to not only help her young patients by lifting their spirits during long hospital stays but to also motivate them to move and exercise to stay healthy. The staff who participate in the videos have had so much fun that they continue dancing on their breaks after they’ve seen what moving during the day can do for their health as well.

“We’re going to keep this going!” Dr. Batten laughed. “There are other kids that might get some joy from watching their physicians and medical staff dance around for a couple of minutes, plus it’s worth it if it brings our patients just a little bit of joy. We want the kids to make requests so we can keep going forward. One of our patients requested ‘Shake It Off’ by Taylor Swift because she wanted something more upbeat to have on her phone so she could stay on her treadmill a little longer each day. That was a lesson for me, too. So now when I tell patients they have to exercise more, I ask what their favorite song is. Two patients have asked to be in the videos with us, and that makes it even more special for us as a staff!”

If you’d like to get your groove on with Dr. Batten, check out her YouTube channel, Dr. Fun’s Dance Party USA. Log in to leave comments or even make a request!

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Breathing Easier with Amy CaJacob, M.D.

Breathing Easier with Amy CaJacob, M.D.

BIRMINGHAM – The most recent Alabama data find one in every 10 Alabama adults, or 306,000, suffer from asthma. The data also show more than 12 percent of Alabama children are living with the chronic respiratory disease at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, these children live sheltered lives trying to avoid the triggers that can induce an asthmatic episode. Summer camp was not an option for these children…that is until Camp WheezeAway opened 27 years ago.

“Camp WheezeAway is one of the longest-running asthma camps in the country. It’s a memorial camp dedicated to Patsy Ruff, who was the world’s first successful double lung transplant in 1987,” explained Dr. Amy CaJacob, a pediatric allergist/immunologist and the camp’s medical director. “Patsy had asthma, COPD and was a smoker for 22 years. One of the things Patsy wanted was a camp for kids because when she was growing up with asthma, she couldn’t go to a summer camp like her friends. She really wanted kids with asthma to have a normal summer camp experience that she never had, and that’s what we try to do at Camp WheezeAway.”

Camp WheezeAway is celebrating its 27th anniversary this year and is free to qualified applicants – youngsters ages 8 to 12 suffering from persistent asthma. Campers are selected in June, and the camp is July 1-6, 2018, at YMCA’s Camp Chandler.

Dr. CaJacob explained the importance of education about asthma and how to handle its limitations is as much a part of the camp as having fun. Asthma affects nearly 25 million people of all ages and races. An estimated 7 million children have asthma, a chronic disease caused by inflammation of the airways in the lungs. During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airway constrict, the lining of the airway passages swell, and the lungs produce excess mucus making breathing difficult, which can lead to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

“Every year at camp on the last night we have a smokeless campfire at night after dinner,” she explained. “We wheel around an oxygen tank and talk to the kids about the dangers of smoking. We tell them the story of Patsy Ruff, her surgery, and how the camp began. All the campers are at that age where they may want to experiment with smoking, and they are going to be making their own decisions about their health or possibly succumb to peer pressure about smoking. They need to understand how their decisions will affect their health.”

If you think asthma education is boring, think again. Dr. CaJacob and the staff of medical volunteers find new ways each year to make it as interactive and fun as possible for the campers…even if it involves grossing out some of the kids.

“We don’t want to bore the kids during the education section. The project I do every year is, well…we make mucus…it’s so messy, but the kids love it! The girls not as much as the boys, though,” she laughed. “We’ve done skits of how to avoid asthma triggers where the kids dress up as ragweed or cigarettes and a rescue inhaler. Sometimes it’s just hands-on training so they can learn how to use their inhalers.”

All in all, the campers get a well-rounded experience. From shaving cream battles, kayaking, and horseback riding, to rock climbing and archery…and anything you can think of doing in the lake…plenty of emphasis is placed on kids with asthma being NORMAL kids.

“We do all the stuff other camps do, but safety always comes first,” Dr. CaJacob said. “Camp has changed dramatically over the years from the kinds of kids who attend because asthma care has come a long way. There used to be much more medically complex kids than we have now. At one time there were kids on ventilators for their asthma. Our inhalers and treatments are so much better now. That’s not to say there might not be a child or two we may have to step up treatment during the week by putting them on a little stronger inhaler or an oral steroid. I’m there the entire week, and we have a number of nursing and respiratory therapists who are there as well.”

In many instances, Camp WheezeAway is a camper’s first sleepover outside the home. Because campers are not allowed cell phones, Dr. CaJacob assures parents they should not worry. A mother herself, there are plenty of times when she shrugs off her physician’s coat for her mom hat.

“For a lot of our campers, it’s their first time away from home, and we get a lot of homesickness that first night. Part of my job is doctoring that week, but a lot of it is just being a mom! That first night the kids can’t sleep or have tummy aches, but when they settle in and start having fun, everything is just fine! The campers aren’t allowed cell phones, but we take plenty of photos of the children and stay in touch with their parents by sending them photos of the activities, and let them know how things are going,” Dr. CaJacob said.

For more information regarding selection or medical qualifications and limitations, contact Brenda Basnight, CRT, at brendabasnight@yahoo.com. Camp WheezeAway is free to qualified applicants — youngsters ages 8 to 12 suffering from moderate to severe asthma, but registration is required. Donations are also appreciated and can be made online.

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Creating a World Where Every Person Matters with Michele Kong, M.D.

Creating a World Where Every Person Matters with Michele Kong, M.D.

BIRMINGHAM — When Michele Kong was a little girl growing up in Malaysia, she knew the world was filled with both wonder and danger. She surprised herself and her family when she managed to kill a not-so-small python that slithered into their home. She laughs now remembering the incident, but she said someone had to do it to protect her family, and she had the shovel.

Dr. Kong is a long way from home these days, but the spirit of that young girl with the shovel still burns just as bright. So, when she and her family faced the challenge of a lifetime, they created a solution that has touched thousands of lives.

Her son, Abram, was just 4-years-old when he was diagnosed with autism. Because Dr. Kong and her husband are both physicians, they understood the science of the diagnosis, but what came next was a complete surprise.

“It was a difficult period for us after his diagnosis. As time went by, it became more apparent what Abram’s challenges were going to be, and we struggled with how best to help him. We were both physicians, with resources and a large medical network, and yet the journey with him as we navigated this new world was extremely challenging” Dr. Kong explained. “We also realized that it was an isolating journey – many countless hours were spent in therapy, and because of his sensory sensitivity, it was hard for him to attend community activities.”

Dr. Kong and her husband realized very quickly that not only were there limited resources available to meet their son’s needs, there were also limited resources available for them as a family. As they began to meet other families with children on the autism spectrum they realized they were not alone in their journey.

“There were other organizations and nonprofits focused on finding the cause for autism, but we realized that what we wanted to change was the culture of our community. We wanted to shift the mindset and culture to one where all special needs children and their families are accepted and included. It’s not just about awareness but about acceptance. It is also about meeting the children where they are, and using innovative ways to help them fulfill their potentials. And we believed that if we could change the culture one city at a time, we will eventually change the world’s view on our children.”

KultureCity was born. KultureCity is a national nonprofit based in Birmingham with the mission of the inclusion and acceptance of all special needs individuals and their families. Having only been in operation for about four years now, KultureCity has made major impact not only in Alabama, but also expanded to have offices in New York, Boston and Ohio. While awareness is always good, Dr. Kong said, action and acceptance are much better and together can change the culture of a city.

“At times people do not know what to say or do, and some of their action or inaction may be because of their lack of understanding of the real challenges that an individual with special needs may face. But once there is knowledge, there will be empathy, and with that the acceptance and more importantly, action. Actions to help an individual and their family be re-connected to the community, and to plug them back into our society. This is how we change culture,” Dr. Kong said. “Every single person has been impacted either directly or indirectly by autism. If you do not have someone in your family who has autism, you know someone else who does. It is that prevalent in our society, and this is why this mission should matter to us all.”

KultureCity is about action. The organization has teamed up nationally with the NFL, NBA and NHL as well as museums, zoos and gardens, just to name a few, to create sensory rooms for individuals with sensory needs. The rooms are calming areas designed to help an individual with sensory overload regulate and decompress. KultureCity staff also trains the organization’s staff to assist fans and guests who have sensory challenges. So far, KultureCity has outfitted seven NBA arenas, three NHL arenas, two NFL stadiums, an aquarium and science center, four zoos, seven restaurants and one college. The organization has received national recognition with the NASCAR 2017 Betty Jane France Humanitarian of the Year Award and named by Microsoft as one of the best nonprofits in the nation.

“We are constantly pushing the envelope to change our culture to one where everyone is accepted in every aspects of our community. A lot of times, these children have unlimited potential, but the difference between them and the typical child is because of their unique challenges they may need different resources, or different methods of teaching. We have to meet them where they are. It’s like fitting a round peg into a square hole. It just won’t fit. You can’t look at them and think that they’ve reached their limits because it is often not true. The limitation is on our perspective on what they can or cannot do,” Dr. Kong said.

If you would like to know more about KultureCity, to volunteer or make a donation, click here.

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The Many Hats of Richard Freeman, M.D.

The Many Hats of Richard Freeman, M.D.

OPELIKA — Dr. Richard Freeman’s office at Pediatric Associates of Auburn (which includes Drs. Ellen Royal, Rian Anglin and Katie Wolter) overlooks beautiful woods where wild turkeys have been known to roam. Inside his office are keepsakes of his past from photos of his time in the U.S. Navy to an identical propeller from a Piper J-3 Cub, the airplane he learned to fly in.

In Tullahoma, Tenn., Dr. Freeman put his physics and mathematics degree to work as a civilian employee of ARO, Inc., a civilian contractor for the U.S. Air Force. Although the company had four divisions, he chose the aerospace environmental facility because it was responsible for outer space simulations. Before long, Dr. Freeman took advantage of a company perk, which allowed him to pursue his Master’s degree in physics. It wasn’t long when he decided a different career path would be in his future.

“I had about half the coursework done for my master’s degree in physics before I decided that I wanted to do medicine. The company doctor was a really nice gentleman who had been to Vanderbilt Medical School and had retired from his private practice to become our company doctor. He said ‘Son, resign this job, go to Knoxville, do a year of pre-med, and see how you like it. You might be surprised.’ And I did,” Dr. Freeman said.

Knoxville proved a wise decision, not only as a career choice but also as a personal one. While completing a year of pre-med courses, Dr. Freeman met his wife there.

“On our first date, I took Sherry flying. When I was working in aerospace research I had learned to fly and got my private pilot’s license. It was a great first date! We flew over Cades Cove and Fontana Dam. We’ve never forgotten it!” Dr. Freeman laughed.

After Knoxville, Dr. Freeman went on to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. He still laughs as he recalls his first day and a special party at the dean’s house.

“The first day is usually for registration and getting books. After that, the dean, Dr. Isaac M Taylor, invited the class over to his home for a reception. There were two boys running around the house. One of the boys was Livingston Taylor and the other was James Taylor…that James Taylorthe musician,” he laughed. “Some of my classmates knew him because he had a band that played in town. Yeah…he was pretty good!”

After he finished medical school in 1970, Dr. Freeman landed in Birmingham where he did a mixed program of internal medicine and pediatrics in the first year of training preparing to stay for his internal medicine residency following completion of his pediatric residency. He had joined the U.S. Navy the year before his pre-med year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. However, after finishing his pediatric residency he received orders to report for active duty in the pediatric department at NAS Jacksonville. In August 1975, he was released from active duty and moved to Opelika where he practiced in a clinic for two years before moving to Auburn where he opened his own medical clinic. It was not long before it was time for him to put on another hat…preceptor for pre-med students.

“In 1977 I got a call from Dr. Frank Stevens who was the professor of chemistry at Auburn University,” Dr. Freeman explained. “The university was trying to start a pre-med program. He asked if I could have some students shadow me in my practice. We’ve been doing that ever since. It’s been years ago, but I had a patient who delivered a baby in Birmingham. When they got ready to go home, the neonatologist called to let me know they were sending the parents and the baby home and to set up an appointment for a follow-up. As it turned out, the neonatologist was one of my pre-med students from Auburn who had rotated through my office. Small world!”

Before long, the flying bug bit again when one of our office nurse’s husband, who happened to be a U2 pilot and flight instructor at Auburn University, invited him on a flight, which he couldn’t resist. Dr. Freeman already had his private pilot’s license and had monitored the Navy’s flight surgeon program when on active duty at NAS Pensacola one summer. He completed the program at Auburn University for a commercial instrument rating, a multi-instrument rating, and his flight instructor rating. Then, Auburn University asked him to become a part-time flight instructor.

“I’m not current, so I don’t fly now. I just pay Delta and bum rides,” Dr. Freeman laughed. “In 1985 the community needed an aviation medical examiner to issue medical certificates to qualified pilots, so I went to school in Oklahoma City for a week to get my certification. I’ve been an AME since 1981. We see airline pilots and Auburn students who are learning how to fly and talk about aviation and flying – it’s a lot of fun. When you’re an aviation medical examiner, you wear a different hat from being a medical doctor. Technically you’re not a treating physician. You’re really an agent for the Federal Aviation Administration. When I put on the AME hat, I’m not diagnosing and not treating but evaluating this person. It is a public service and I see the role from both sides having been a pilot as well.”

In August 2016, Dr. Freeman became a different type of instructor when he was asked to present lectures on various pediatric topics to VCOM Auburn University medical students.

“That’s been a lot of fun, and that’s another hat. I can’t just waltz into the classroom and throw slides up on the screen,” Dr. Freeman explained. “I have to study to prepare for my presentations. It’s good for me, too, because I learn with the students. As physicians, we should never stop learning. I get to refresh my memory, and the students definitely keep me on my toes.”

Dr. Freeman lives in Opelika with his wife Sherry. They have two children. Kelly and her husband, Charlie, live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They have three children — Elizabeth, Anna Jane and Charles. Mac and his wife, Ashley, live in Montgomery, and they also have three children — Mattie, Mac III and Annie Barnes.

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Capturing Memories with Joseph Wu, M.D.

Capturing Memories with Joseph Wu, M.D.

BIRMINGHAM – Famed American photographer Ansel Adams once said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” Birmingham physician Joseph Wu has found some truly breathtaking places to stand after he discovered his love of photography in medical school.

What began as a hobby in medical school, just playing around with a camera as the unofficial class photographer, as Dr. Wu joked, soon turned into a sense of true adventure when he realized the places his camera could take him…and what memories his photographs would conjure later.

“With each trip I take, I update my website and Facebook page to keep people coming back to see where I’ve been. It’s not to sell my photos. That certainly would not make enough money for me to quit my day job!” Dr. Wu laughed. “It really feels as if I’m bringing memories of these adventures back for others to enjoy as well.”

Dr. Wu is quick to admit that he wasn’t all that interested in learning the mechanics of photography when he first began taking photos. The technical aspects of shutter speed, exposure and aperture were not that interesting to him. After he and his wife married and began traveling to some unexpected places, he realized the stunning landscapes they were seeing together would translate to gorgeous photographs, and it was time he learned how to operate the bells and whistles on his camera.

“We don’t go to your typical, run-of-the-mill vacation places most people do. For our honeymoon, we went to Portugal and since then we’ve been to Patagonia and Norway. We see pictures of places and we think, ‘Oh we HAVE to go there! This is absolutely amazing!’ We’ve been to places that 10 years ago people never traveled to and now have become real tourist destinations. We love to go to the outlying areas people don’t normally go to, so that’s where I like to take my pictures,” Dr. Wu explained.

He honed his photography skills in one of the most unlikely places on the planet. Iceland may not sound like a living postcard, but you’d be surprised. With dramatic landscapes of volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields, Iceland’s massive glaciers served as the backdrop for Dr. Wu’s first photography workshop.

“I started thinking that if I was going to spend this much time taking pictures, I wanted them to be presentable. This may be a hobby I’d like to improve, even though this can be a very expensive hobby!” he laughed. “After you get into it, with all the cameras and other equipment, it gets pretty expensive because there’s always new and better gear.”

Iceland proved to be an artistic awakening, and he was definitely bitten by the photo bug.

“My first trip to Iceland was way before everyone was deciding to go to Iceland, and now it’s become a vacation destination. I chose a workshop group in Iceland because their photos looked amazing, and their leaders were all pros, but everyone was very approachable. They gave everyone a lot of time and good feedback. Of course, they criticize you, but you’re there to learn. They really want you to get better as a photographer and your work to get better. Once you get there it’s the perfect learning environment. You’re in this beautiful place, and you want to bring this beauty home with you…somehow. It’s not to wow people looking at your social media pages but just to say ‘Hey, this is what I’m seeing, and I want to share it with you.’ Every photograph is a beautiful memory, and I want to share that moment,” he said.

Since then, Dr. Wu and his family have taken many family vacations to some unusual destinations from Canyonlands National Park in Utah and The Palouse in Washington State to more exotic places such as Patagonia, New Zealand, China and the Yukon Territory. Still, he has a bucket list of destinations such as Namibia, Myanmar, Japan and Tasmania. Later this year he has an excursion planned for Antarctica.

To the delight of his patients, the exam rooms in his office at the Simon-Williamson Clinic are filled with some of his favorite photographs from his travels, and they are more and conversation pieces.

“The patients love them! My patients know I love to travel, and they strike up a conversation about where I took the photos and how. So, it gives us something to talk about to break the ice other than why they’re here. It helps build that relationship with my patients. There are some pictures that really resonate with my patients. I have one picture in one of the exam rooms that’s of some old farm equipment. My patients love that picture. They love it! I thought it was cool, but it’s farm equipment!” he laughed. “I have another that’s an old locomotive wheel I took when I was in Minnesota. I took it because I liked the wheel and the stuff coming out of it. I turned it into a black and white picture, and the patients LOVE it! I enjoy sharing these memories with my patients, and they put them at ease when they’re here.”

If you’d like to see more of Dr. Wu’s photos, check out his gallery online at josephwu.smugmug.com, but he’s given us permission to display a few of his favorites below.

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Always on the Move with Jack Hasson, M.D.

Always on the Move with Jack Hasson, M.D.

BIRMINGHAM — April 13, 2013, is a day Americans will never forget. Runners from around the world gathered for the 117th Annual Boston Marathon. With 40,000 athletes racing toward the finish line like any other marathon. At 2:49 p.m. (ET), two bombs exploded about a mile away from the finish line nearly three hours after the winner crossed over. There were still more than 5,700 runners left in the race. Birmingham pulmonary specialist Jack Hasson had yet to cross that finish line.

“At first I really didn’t know there was anything wrong. You always hear ambulance sirens when you’re running in a race. There’s always a siren somewhere, but you get used to it. I was coming over Heartbreak Hill and back into Boston when I was hearing more and more sirens. I didn’t have any idea what was going on until we were stopped about a mile away from the finish line. I didn’t finish, but I was very close. I was right there. They stopped us a mile from the finish when they told us about the bombing,” Dr. Hasson explained taking a deep breath. He still remembers the day as perfectly as if it were yesterday. “That was the most horrible feeling when they told us what happened. We had no idea how big it was, how bad the casualties were, and then my brain wanted to slip into doctor-mode, but there was no way I could do anything to help.”

Dr. Hasson first began running the Boston Marathon in the late 1970s when participants numbered around 5,000. Back in those early days his wife would not only travel with him to the race but would also meet him at the finish line. But, on this day in April he admitted that as much as he had wanted to see his lovely wife at the end of the race, he was more relieved than ever that she wasn’t waiting for him.

“My wife was safe back at the hotel, thank goodness. In the old days when she could find me and see me finish, she would come to the finish line, but now with 40,000 people running, it’s kind of hard to see me!” he laughed.

With the sun setting, temperatures falling, and no cell service, Dr. Hasson had to navigate his way through the chaos of a city under siege to find his way back to his hotel and his wife. Until he made it back to the hotel, his wife could only wonder about his safety. It was a long 45 minutes.

“Considering where they placed the bombs on the route, it truly is a miracle that more people weren’t killed or injured. It could have been so much worse, and yes I do consider myself very lucky not to have been any closer. But, you have to go on with your life. You can’t wait for something bad to happen. We’re living in a different world today with mass shootings and terrorist threats. We’re living with these things every day, but you can’t allow these things to affect how you live your life. You still have to take care of your business and life your life the best way you can. You can’t stop doing what you enjoy,” Dr. Hasson said.

The bombing in 2013 did not stop Dr. Hasson from running. In fact, the Boston Athletic Association gave participants who ran at least half the distance but were not able to complete the 2013 Marathon early entry into the 2014 Marathon. Dr. Hasson was unable to finish the race in 2013, but he would in 2014.

“I went back in 2014 because I had to finish. They sent me a medal for the 2013 race, which I was not expecting. They gave me a finish time that was projected based on my last checkpoint and that was my finish time. That was pretty cool! They didn’t have to do that, but they treated us all very nice, but I just had to finish. I couldn’t stand it! That was the last one I ran,” he said.

In all, Dr. Hasson has participated in 130 marathons, but he hasn’t completely unlaced his running shoes. Instead, he’s shortened his routes by running about nine half marathons each year. But if you think he’s slowing down, think again.

Dr. Hasson became interested in art as a teenager, but even he will tell you it was not something he did on a regular basis. It was more of a hobby of drawing pictures here and there, but he never took any formal lessons until he was stationed with the Air Force in Warner Robins, Ga. With some extra time on his hands, he enrolled in a watercolor course in Macon. What began as a once-a-week class eventually turned into a passion of putting brush to canvas.

“About 15 years ago I decided if I was ever really going to do this I had better get started. So I started taking lessons at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I took drawing lessons first working with live models, which helped me to be able to learn to look at something with a different light. You learn to look at things so differently, to break things down. Green is not green on a tree, but yellows, reds, browns. You get more perceptive of colors, light and dark, shadows. I look at a scene completely different now than I ever used to,” Dr. Hasson explained.

As motivation to continue painting, Dr. Hasson joined the Watercolor Society of Alabama, which has given him the opportunity to exhibit his work, and he is now a Bronze Signature Member.

“Now I have motivation to continue to improve because I get to exhibit with real artists,” Dr. Hasson laughed. “I enter my work into these exhibits now, too. I take photos of places I’ve traveled. I take photos in different angles and light — something I’d want to paint later. Being able to take photos and paint has given me a fresh look on the things in front of me…on life…the challenge is to be able to capture it again.”

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