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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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To See The World on Two Wheels with Shirley Lazenby, M.D., and Michael Roberts, M.D.

To See The World on Two Wheels with Shirley Lazenby, M.D., and Michael Roberts, M.D.

OPELIKA – Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Moving is one thing the City of Opelika is determined to do…even on two wheels.

In fact, the City of Opelika is working hard to become a bicycle-friendly city for its population of just under 30,000 residents. Currently, Alabama has only one city certified as bicycle-friendly by the League of American Bicyclists…the City of Auburn. The push is coming from a small, yet dedicated group of cyclists led by two physicians – Drs. Shirley Lazenby and Michael Roberts.

“I’ve been biking my whole life. I got involved here with the Opelika Bicycle Advisory Committee because years ago we were THIS close to getting a 17-mile rail-trail,” Dr. Lazenby said. “But now we have all this data on the health benefits of cycling. It really is a good thing! Alabama lags behind all the other states with a #50 ranking in bicycle-friendliness, and we want to change that.”

So, she went to work. What she didn’t realize was that much of the work had already been done but from different angles. Once she was appointed to the Parks and Recreation Board, Dr. Lazenby realized she had the perfect platform for change in her community.

“I was like, ‘I’m in an excellent place to actually make some change and not just be a whiny mom about this.’ I put together a presentation for the Park Board. What I didn’t know until I got more deeply involved was that there was a lot of activity going on in parallel with what I was trying to do. The Central Alabama Mountain Peddlers (CAMP) had already built 17 miles of trails at Chewacla State Park. Cycling and triathlons were becoming more popular. So I did my presentation, and I was expecting some kind of push back from the city, but it didn’t happen. Then, I went to the Auburn Bike Committee to find out what I needed to do next. Joanna Hoit, one of the Auburn board members spoke up and said Opelika already had a Master Bike Plan; she had worked on it years ago! No Opelika city officials were aware of the document when I asked around, and I couldn’t find anything. When the Director of Planning finally found it on a dusty shelf, I realized what happened – September 11th! Opelika’s Master Bike Plan had been presented to the City Council in August 2001 and the world turned upside down a month later. So right there I had a lot of what I needed to get started. The framework was already done.”

With a plan in hand, Dr. Lazenby began her mission to mold the City of Opelika into a bicycle-friendly town. But, it was more than that. It didn’t take very long before she and colleague, Dr. Michael Roberts, realized they were on the verge of a culture shift. Downtown Opelika was undergoing a bit of a renaissance with cool places to hang out after work and dine on the weekends. It wasn’t long before they noticed one business, James Brothers Bikes, was at the center of the cycling culture in their area. This business sells custom bikes, fixes broken ones, and has become the perfect hangout for the Opelika Bicycle Advisory Committee meetings.

“The more people I talked to the more I realized how much the people wanted this. Our mayor wanted this and was already up to speed on what bicycle friendliness would do for your city in terms of economic growth. Here in downtown where we meet, there’s a real resurgence of activity that’s been going on here. When I first met with the mayor, I had really prepared for the meeting. I had packets and papers…I was prepared! But, what I wasn’t prepared for was when the mayor asked me what could the city do for us? I wasn’t expecting that. That was a huge sign that they were behind us in every way,” Dr. Lazenby said. The answer was simple: More involvement from city leaders would be key. Mayor Gary Fuller responded in a big way by leading a Grand Opening ride on the brand new 1.2-mile Destination Downtown Bike Path during Opelika’s celebration of Bike Month this May.

For Dr. Roberts, there’s another reason for the committee to remain diligent in its efforts in the community – advocacy.

“Before there were a lot of good intentions and not a lot of actions, but that seems to be turning around now. I think that we have a lot of potential here. There are a lot of cyclists in this area, it’s a great community that wants this program, so it all comes down to advocacy and being a voice in somebody’s ear that can make the decisions to make it happen. We think it’s important, and so do a lot of others,” Dr. Roberts said. “We want to continue to be a voice for those who cycle to bring awareness of those on the road to be aware, travel safely, more access for those who may not already be cycling but would like to learn because I think that’s one of the big barriers is that cycling may not be seen as a safe sport.”

Dr. Lazenby admits she’s practically spent her entire life on a bicycle. In fact, she didn’t own a car until she was in medical school.

“It’s freedom and mobility, and that’s why I love cycling. No matter the advances in our technology, biking is still cool,” Dr. Lazenby said. Another cool aspect of working with other community leaders is that by looking at this as a social experiment has produced some intriguing results.

In order to be considered by the League of American Bicyclists as a bicycle-friendly community, a community is scored one to 10 in each of five categories: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation & Planning. The Education category for adults may not have reaped a high score, but Coach Chris Rhodes at Morris Avenue Intermediate School found a curriculum to meet the qualifications for grade school children. Bikeology was modified as a six-week unit and piloted for one 5th grade class in 2016 and then extended to the entire 4th grade for 2017 with the ultimate goal to get it to all three Opelika intermediate schools. Coach Rhodes learned a shocking statistic: About 2/3 of his students had never ridden a bicycle.

“We’re in such a tech generation that kids don’t spend as much time outdoors,” Dr. Lazenby said. “The big win here is that we can change an entire generational misstep with this initiative. He got all but six 4th grades riding competently and safely this year. That’s change!”

Dr. Roberts agreed that not only will bringing the designation to the Opelika community be good for the local area, but an awareness of the benefits of cycling will be good for the state as well.

“Eventually we’ll get to a point where enough people enjoy cycling together as a community and we’ll have multi-use paths, not just for cyclists but for walkers and runners. In Alabama, we do a poor job of outdoor recreation. Alabama is a beautiful state, and there’s a lot to enjoy here. We miss out on what we don’t see when we stay inside all the time. I laugh when I hear someone say they don’t want to go to the gym. Well, I don’t want to go to the gym either! I’d rather go for a ride!” Dr. Roberts said.

Tips for Safe Cycling

Use Your Head, Protect Your Noggin

Cyclists who wear a helmet reduce their risk of head injury by an estimated 60 percent and brain injury by 58 percent. That statistic makes sense when you consider the first body part to fly forward in a collision is usually the head, and with nothing but skin and bone to protect the brain, the results can be fatal.

Helmets must meet federal safety standards and should fit securely. This National Highway Traffic Safety Administration video offers instruction on how to properly fit a helmet.

Follow These Rules to Keep Safe

  • Get acquainted with traffic laws; cyclists must follow the same rules as motorists
  • Know your bike’s capabilities
  • Ride single-file in the direction of traffic, and watch for opening car doors and other hazards
  • Use hand signals when turning and use extra care at intersections
  • Never hitch onto cars
  • Before entering traffic, stop and look left, right, left again and over your shoulder
  • Wear bright clothing and ride during the day
  • If night riding can’t be avoided, wear reflective clothing
  • Make sure the bike is equipped with reflectors on the rear, front, pedals and spokes
  • A horn or bell and a rear-view mirror, as well as a bright headlight, also is recommended

For more tips, visit the National Safety Council, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the League of American Bicyclists.

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