Cook: Grandma will see you now

Cook: Grandma will see you now

March 7th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

The 2014 Alper Humanitarian Award nominees:

• Kyle Cunningham, MD, surgery

• Gergory Nieckula, DO, internal medicine

• Steven Peterson, MD, emergency medicine

• James Ragins, MD, internal medicine

• Philip Sutherland, MD, family medicine

• Andrea Ward, MD, transitional year

Medicine is always about patients first.

- Yank Coble

Over a late lunch of soup and salmon on Thursday, Dr. Robert Fore and Dr. Yank Coble traded thoughts on everything from the future of medicine to Haitian clinics to the SARS epidemic. With decades of medical practice between them, they are teachers, scholars, experts in their field, and halfway through the meal, they boiled it all down to this one pearl of wisdom.

Want to be the best kind of doctor?

"Practice grandmother medicine," said Fore, dean of academic affairs at UT's College of Medicine at Erlanger hospital. "Grandmothers have a tremendous amount of wisdom they can teach to doctors."

Coble, who directs the Center for Global Health and Medical Diplomacy, agreed.

"My grandmother was the best health care provider I ever met," he said. "Wonderful and incredibly caring. Just the way she treated me ... you can tell if people care."

Coble, past president of the World Medical Association and the American Medical Association, flew up from Jacksonville on Thursday to lecture at this morning's Humanitarian Awards for Erlanger hospital residents.

Named after Dr. Harold Alper, the award honors six residents for their exemplary ability to practice medicine with humanitarian care and exquisite, grandmotherly compassion.

"Patients are a special kind of human. They've vulnerable," said Coble.

When we're sick, we not only crave actual medicine, but also the balm of human compassion. Doctors who lack this -- we say they have no bedside manner -- are not only ineffective, but perhaps even detrimental.

Science proves it.

"Absolutely," said Coble.

When patients feel cared for, there are not only fewer complaints and less litigation but a measurable physiological respond that seems to facilitate healing.

"They need less pain medication, for example," Coble said.

The opposite is true; patients who feel neglected ... perhaps you may know the feeling.

"I've never met a veterinarian who doesn't love animals," said Fore, "but I've met some doctors who don't love people."

It is a principle of global importance. Decades ago, Coble traveled overseas. In the midst of political instability, Coble and his team (along with his wife and infant daughter) were able to travel safely and freely within Egypt and Nigeria, as if their medicine was a universal passport.

It opened his eyes to what he calls medical diplomacy: the way doctors can change nation-state relationships by acting in humble yet effective ways by helping people get well.

"Using the art of caring and medicine and science to help all the peoples of the world," he said.

Consider the geopolitical impact if armies of American physicians were to wage war on the disease of the Third World. Imagine the foreign policy peacemaking that could come from U.S.-led eradication of, say, typhoid fever in Afghanistan.

It's the model set by Philip Sutherland, one of the residents being honored this morning. He's traveled 20 times to Haiti to practice medicine. On his vacation. On his own dime.

It's an example of the long arm of local medicine.

"The College of Medicine is establishing a rotation in Haiti, which would provide a steady stream of residents and physicians," Fore said, "including a permanent clinic."

This morning's ceremony begins at 8 at Erlanger; on Thursday night, as if giving a glimpse to these residents what a noble career can look like, three physicians -- along with former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey-- were honored at Erlanger's Dinner of Distinction.

• Blaise Baxter, co-founder of the Southeast Regional Stroke Center and the Da Vinci-like designer of devices and techniques used in stroke intervention.

• Tom Devlin, director of the Chattanooga Center for Neurological Research, and probably the nation's best stroke-care physician.

• Jim Creel, chief medical officer for Erlanger and the man who's revolutionized emergency medicine in Chattanooga.

"People ask me if I've ever witnessed a miracle," Creel said. "I think I've seen a few."

He tells a story about a short-order cook who suffered a massive stroke, the kind that would paralyze every inch of her body but leave her mind wide-awake.

Within hours of her collapse, she arrived before Devlin and Baxter, who began to work their magic.

"She walked out of the hospital three days later," Creel said.

Thousands more stories exist about these three physicians and their contributions to Chattanooga. How many lives they've saved. How much care they've given.

"They're like Kobe, Lebron and Kevin Durant," one friend said.

They're the grandmothers of Chattanooga medicine.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.