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.