Seven deaths of key people — including two slayings and two suicides — over the course of a year have left faculty and staff of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences reeling. On Monday, Medical School Dean Dr. Albert E. Reece introduced efforts to stabilize the campus, telling an assembly of some 100 doctors and staff that the medical culture must change and the veneer of perfection peeled back so doctors’ own health problems don’t go untreated.
“We must renew our pledge to be more vigilant,” Reece said, and not let concerns about co-workers go unaddressed.
The greatest shock to the community came when Children’s Hospital heart surgeon Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb committed suicide in the early morning hours of Dec. 26. Drummond-Webb’s skills as a pediatric heart surgeon were legend; ABC produced a documentary series for network television on Drummond-Webb and his work at Children’s. Whether it was noticed that Drummond-Webb, who performed more than 600 surgeries a year, was depressed is unclear; Reece and other doctors said they were unaware of any problem.
Associate Dean Dr. Jan Shorey, echoing Reece’s call for increased “introspection” on the part of physicians to detect and report depression in their co-workers, asked the assembly, “Could that be our cultural norm?” To get an answer, she asked doctors to complete a survey she later distributed on whether they believe the College of Medicine supports “reaching out to a colleague who seems to be having difficulty coping with his/her work situation” and other pertinent questions.
Doctors are discouraged from seeking counseling by the licensing renewal requirement that such counseling be disclosed, Chair of Psychiatry Dr. Richard Smith noted. Smith, who with Shorey has been appointed by Reece to head up efforts to improve student, staff and faculty access to mental health care, said that “if you check yes, you trigger a series of responses” that could cost a doctor his hospital credentials. Checking no when the answer is yes could also cost a doctor his license. Smith said he was meeting with the State Medical Board about the problem.
Dr. Jim Suen, speaking from the audience, said that Drummond-Webb’s death made him reflect on the stressor in his own department — the need for more dollars for staff support. Afterword, a senior faculty member told the Times that UAMS “is trying to turn this place into a [Johns] Hopkins with Arkansas dollars, with their feet planted firmly on the backs of the clinical faculty” directly involved with patient care.
UAMS’ most recent loss was orthopedic surgeon Dr. Carl Nelson, who died of a massive stroke Jan. 12. Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson noted the crowd of colleagues who came to the ICU after Nelson was admitted. Among them, Wilson said, was Dr. Kent Westbrook, who Wilson hinted is not known for particularly neat dress, nevertheless “wore a tie, he said, ‘because Carl would have wanted me to.’ ” The turnout showed “we do a good job of coming together,” Wilson said, “but we can do better.”
Dr. Aubrey Huff, associate dean for Translational Research and Special Projects, also addressed the assembly, saying physicians, by virtue of their work, must deal with illness and death. They must learn to be empathetic with their patients without succumbing to the “packets of misery” they’re burdened with.
In August 2004, medical student Robert Howard killed his wife, Dr. Robin Mitchell, before leaping to his death from a UAMS dormitory, and clinical research chief for surgery Bonny Wallace was shot to death by a former tenant off campus. Earlier in the summer, Sandy Ledbetter, director of special services, and Janet Honeycutt, director of the Caduceus Club, died of natural causes.