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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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From the Treatment Room to the Classroom with Wick Many, M.D.

From the Treatment Room to the Classroom with Wick Many, M.D.

MONTGOMERY — He jokes about it now, but Wick Many, M.D., said he was a sickly child who spent a lot of time in his pediatrician’s office. For those times when he was too sick, his doctor would make house calls…an experience he did not look forward to.

“Back then, in the 1950s, pediatricians would come out to your house at the end of the day. They would spend all day in their clinics seeing children, but then for those who were really sick, they would make house calls. I was scared to death!” Dr. Many laughed. “The doctor would come in with his big brown doctor’s bag, and that usually meant I was going to get a shot of something. That was my first recollection of medicine.”

Dr. Many grew up around medicine. A native of New Orleans, his mother was the paging operator at what was then the Southern Baptist Hospital of New Orleans. Because she worked night or evening shifts and couldn’t come home for dinner, family dinners were often taken on the ER ramp.

“No one in my family had a medical background, but at some point in high school, I decided this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t have an A-HA moment or an epiphany, it’s just what I knew I wanted to do,” Dr. Many said.

Although he went to LSU for his undergraduate degree, he intended to stay close to home for medical school until a friend who was accepted to UAB talked him into joining him in Birmingham. Once convinced of UAB’s credibility as a medical school, he had to convince his colleagues back home in Louisiana.

“This was the late 1960s, and my colleagues who were at LSU just didn’t understand,” Dr. Many explained. “Alabama? Birmingham? What? They just didn’t get it. I stayed at UAB for the rest of my time except for a year when I went to Dallas. I’ve been affiliated with UAB in some way, shape or form since 1980.”

Although trained in infectious disease, there came a time when Dr. Many’s marketing skills were put to the test when he was approached with an opportunity to step into the spotlight and bring some publicity to the UAB School of Medicine Montgomery Regional Medical Campus.

WSFA-12 had run a syndicated medical segment for years with Houston’s Dr. James “Red” Duke, Jr. When that syndication ended, Dr. Many stepped in, not only to provide helpful medical information to viewers but also for the sake of the Montgomery UAB campus.

“Even to this day – TO THIS DAY – there are a lot of people who do not know there is a residency program and a branch campus here in Montgomery,” Dr. Many said. “I can still go to the bank or the post office and folks will ask me if I drive down from Birmingham every day, and I have to tell them no, no, no. UAB has been in Montgomery since 1978, but the majority of the people here in the region still don’t know that. We haven’t done a lot of advertising or marketing because we haven’t had the funding for it.”

As dean of medicine for the UAB School of Medicine Montgomery Regional Medical Campus, Dr. Many is responsible for about 40 medical students, roughly 20 third-year and 20 fourth-year students. There’s still much room to grow, but Dr. Many said the Montgomery campus is unique considering the resources he and his staff utilize to give the students a well-rounded medical education. For example, in the eight weeks students spend working in the family medicine “block,” four of those weeks are spent in Montgomery with another four in Selma. Part of the time spent in Selma is then spent in Marion with the idea that each step further removes the students from what they have become accustomed to in medical school.

“The purpose of that is to give them an appreciation of not only the opportunities of practicing in a rural setting but also the challenges so that in the future if they decide not to do that they have a better appreciation for what family physicians in that position actually do. I call it ‘intellectual isolation.’ Everyone likes to share stories. If you’re a solo practitioner in a very small town, and you have a patient that comes to you with something weird that you haven’t seen since medical school, who do you talk to? Physicians in more metropolitan areas are fortunate because we have grand rounds, lectures, and of course the Internet has made a difference, but in the most rural of our communities, we don’t have these things,” Dr. Many said.

The Montgomery campus also utilizes resources unique to Montgomery for special teaching opportunities. Representatives from the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, the Alabama Department of Public Health, the state forensics lab, military physicians and representatives from the Montgomery Police Department all have a special take on medicine that can’t be taught in the classroom but aspects of medicine that new physicians need to understand.

Considering all his contributions to the medical landscape in the River Region and to UAB, it’s difficult to picture medicine without Dr. Many. But in his junior year in college, he also took a different path.

“I came very close to changing my major to history my junior year in college,” Dr. Many said. “If I wasn’t a physician, I’d be a college history professor. I love to read, but I don’t read fiction. I read biographies of our presidents and historical figures. My favorite book is the biography of Alexander Hamilton. He has to this day had an impact on our country. He created the financial system of the United States yet he had so many flaws. Fascinating!”

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