Dr. Jim Davis' second career builds Memorial health clinics to help low-income, uninsured

Dr. Jim Davis
Dr. Jim Davis

Champions of Health Care

America's complex and technologically driven medical system is as sophisticated, complex and expensive as any in the world. But within that vast system are those who still put the "care" in health care and who we recognize as the winners of this year's Champions of Health Care awards.Edge magazine, in partnership with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, received more than 150 nominations from the public about health care providers, administrators and volunteers who have made health care better in Chattanooga. From among those nominations, a panel of judges comprised of top leaders from the medical society and each of Chattanooga's three major hospital systems - Erlanger Health System, CHI Memorial Hospital, Parkridge Health System -picked the winners that we salute in the following pages.The Champions of Health Care award winners recognize those who have tackled major community health problems, starting programs to tackle obesity and smoking, adding physical therapy training in Chattanooga, and bringing needed medical services to those without health insurance. Others are recognized for new approaches, strong leadership and simple acts of kindness during their lifetimes of achievement and service.In our second year of the awards, we have quickly discovered the rich talent and commitment from those who work every day to keep us healthy.

It doesn't take scientific evidence to tell you what makes a good doctor. Sure, you want them to be good at their craft. Your health is in their hands, after all.

Beyond that, though, you want them to really see you - to pay attention and listen. You want them to be no less than a good friend: honest, respectful and caring.

"Kindness is a rare commodity these days," says Judy Buhrman, a nurse practitioner at CHI Memorial Community Health, in Hixson.

Buhrman spent more than a dozen years working alongside Dr. Jim Davis, MD, whose kindness she saw first as a registered nurse taking care of his patients at CHI Memorial Hospital and later while he was her supervising physician at CHI Memorial's community health clinics.

Davis, 82, a certified family practice physician, retired last year after more than half a century in his profession. His farewell came nearly 20 years after he first planned to retire. But instead of leaving the medical world, Davis had a second act as medical director of Memorial Westside Health Center and Memorial North Shore Health Center (now CHI Memorial Community Health), which offer services to those who likely couldn't afford them otherwise.

Davis was the kind of person who made a point of getting to know the people around him, a new employee at the clinic, for example, Burhrman recalls. "It didn't make a difference if they were cleaning the floor or changing a light bulb," she says. "He respects everybody."

Former colleagues describe him as a humanitarian. "He not only cares for the people that he treats, he cares about the people that he works with," says Candace Bishop, a nurse practitioner who worked with Davis at CHI Memorial Community Health for a dozen years.

Community Physician Award

Honors a physician whose community service and performance is considered exemplary by patients and peers.Winner: Dr. Jim DavisAccomplishments: As a family practice doctor for more than a half century, Davis was praised for his interest in and kindness towards his patients in private practice. He took on a second career in his early 60s when he started working at the Memorial Westside Health Center and Memorial North Shore Health Center. He headed those centers for nearly two decades, including fundraising to relocate one of the centers to Hixson before retiring last year.

To be sure, Davis was a skilled physician too, former colleagues say.

"He was smart," says Dr. Ringland Smith Murray, a retired urologist and longtime friend of Davis. "He kept up to date with what was going on in his practice and medicine." Burhman calls him an "astute diagnostician."

But it's hard to escape Davis's kindness.

"He had a real concern for his patients," Murray says.

Decades ago, the two physicians' care sometimes overlapped. Murray recalls one of his early interactions with Davis, after getting called to a hospital late one night to see a patient.

"The hospital couldn't get the catheter in," Murray remembers. Normally the hospital would call the general practitioner to figure out what to do, and then the hospital would call Murray, and the specialist would head out to help.

But when Murray arrived, Davis was bedside. "It was around 9 or 10 p.m. He didn't have to be there," Murray recalls. "A telltale thing in medicine is that when things go wrong, people usually back away. That was not Jim's way. He got right in. And if I had a complication with a patient he wanted to know what it was and what I was going to do about it."

An inveterate caretaker, Davis was less enthralled with the business side of health care. Yet he proved effective at it precisely because he was not a salesperson, says Jennifer Nicely, president of CHI Memorial Foundation.

Davis played a critical role in raising $350,000 several years ago to relocate CHI Memorial's community facility to Hixson from North Shore, which had become affluent.

"He had never done any fundraising," Nicely says. "When you have someone who is genuinely telling their story it touches people and it did in that case."

Davis shared anecdotes with potential donors about patients' struggles. It might have been a story about someone sick not having enough money to pay their electric bill while dealing with a health issue, or a patient with a bedbug infestation not being able to afford to throw everything away, Nicely recalls.

"He just really was the driving force behind so much of Memorial's care in those clinics," says Nicely, who worked with Davis for about a year. "I saw an unbelievable gentleness and kindness in him. A lot of times when people are going in to get free health care they expect I am not going to be treated the best way. He made sure those clinics were truly the medical home of anybody who came there for care - that they deserved health care no matter what. That's a really important message."

Davis grew up in Oak Ridge, a government-subsidized community with good schools, good health care and no segregation, he recalls. His neighborhood had a dermatologist, a family physician and a pediatrician, among other physicians. "I was exposed to all forms of health care," Davis says. "I thought, 'this looks good to me.' I didn't have a burning passion. It looked like a nice option for a young guy to get involved with." The more he got involved and the more he interacted with patients, the more passion he developed.

Right after his internship, in 1964, Davis and Dr. James Hedden, a classmate from medical school at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, opened Lakeside Medical Center, near Harrison.

"Back in those days, family practice was what most people did," Davis says. "I saw mothers, fathers, babies." He delivered a few babies, too.

Favoring practicality, he didn't pursue a specialty. "When I finished medical school I had two children. I didn't want my wife to keep working. I didn't feel free to do a residency and be a specialist."

Davis had planned to retire in 1998, when he left private practice. But he got tapped several years later to fill in for a physician at CHI Memorial North Shore Health Center. What started as a temporary role as medical director won him over. "I fell in love with the concept with all the health care providers there," Davis says. "And working with these patients that either didn't have insurance or didn't have financial security – patients often had more than one problem and hadn't had very good medical care before then."

Nurse practitioners see most of the patients at the clinics. Davis's job was to be available if they needed assistance. "I saw a few on my own, usually new patients," he says. The work was less stressful than his days in private practice. Despite all that, he bid farewell in autumn 2016 after about a dozen years.

"I just felt like it was time," says Davis, the father of four who has been with his wife Mary for 61 years. "My wife has been my No. 1 cheerleader for years, and I just wanted to spend more time with her while we are in fairly good health, and just enjoy the family."

It's been a little tougher for the health care workers he left behind in Hixson. "I haven't gotten over it yet," Buhrman says.

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