Medical Memphis: A History of Helping Others

Medical and Biosciences

from the MEMPHIS DOWNTOWNER, October, 2007

by Devin Greaney

Hard sciences meet people skills here in the Memphis medical community, and though the road to 21st century healthcare has been a tough one, Memphis is situated to keep paving the way.

In the world of medicine and Memphis, the word “hero” crops up again and again. There was Annie Cook, who ran a brothel. When the 1878 yellow fever plague hit, she turned her bordello into a hospital dying in the plague.

There was Danny Thomas, the down-on-his-luck entertainer who fulfilled his promise to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, and built what has become one of the world’s premier centers for research and treatment of catastrophic diseases in children.

Dr. Sheldon B. Korones founded The Regional Medical Center’s newborn center, one of the oldest and largest newborn intensive care units in the United States, saving tens of thousands of at-risk infants while reducing Memphis’s infant mortality rate to just over two percent.

In 1987, Methodist minister G. Scott Morris M.D. realized his high school dream to found a faith-based health center for the working, uninsured poor. The Church Health Center has grown to more than 40,000 patients of record, an onsite staff of physicians, two full-time dentists, nurses, and two pastoral counselors plus a network of more than 600 volunteer healthcare professionals.

“The Civil War gave impetuous to create a large medical center,” says Richard Nollan, librarian at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Overton Hospital at Main and Polar had 1,000 beds. City Hospital (now The Med) was treating numerous gunshots and stabbings. A visit to their trauma center today shows they still do. Nollan believes that had Memphis not become the medical hub it was back then, today’s medical community would be smaller today.

After the war, yellow fever ravaged the city, killing 2,000 in 1873 followed by an even worse outbreak in 1878 when 5,150 died in Memphis — surpassing the numbers who perished from Hurricane Katrina and the Sep. 11 attacks combined.

A wall-sized display of an 1870′s newspaper illustration greets visitors to the
Pink Palace Museum’s yellow fever exhibit. It captures the desperation of
the people of Memphis as thousands of fellow Memphians were dying of a
mysterious illness, later found to be spread by mosquitoes.

On Sept. 6, 1878, a writer believed to have been a Memphis Police officer penned a letter to his sister from “Station House,” which read:

“The city is almost depopalated. The death rate is over a 100 ever day. The undertakers cant barry them fast a nuff. We find a lot that have bin dead thre and for days. My God it is fearfull.”

For several years there was no city of Memphis, only a taxing district. But heroes came to our aid, rushing in while others were rushing out. Years later, we became a center for training, as well as treating.

The Memphis Hospital Medical College was founded in 1876, but the yellow fever epidemics delayed the first classes until 1880. In 1911, two already-merged Nashville medical schools moved to Memphis and merged with the College of Physicians and Surgeons to become the University of Tennessee, College of Medicine (Now UT Center for Health Sciences).

The next year, West Tennessee State Normal School (today, University of Memphis) opened, supplying countless undergraduates and nurses. Its first year, it even advertised “the community has been free from typhoid and malaria for several years now.” Since that time, this area that was free from typhoid and malaria has seen the opening of The Southern College of Optometry, Southwest Tennessee Community College, plus many other career colleges training people in the health field.

Here in Memphis, research at St Jude has been responsible for saving lives. A visit to the ALSAC Pavilion at the hospital shows cancers that were a death sentence when the hospital opened in 1962 are largely treatable. St Jude’s Dr Peter Doherty was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine. We are also home to one of the oldest eye banks in the nation, opening in 1946.

In 1980 a frightened 13-year-old girl, Jacqueline Spencer, came to the
hospital to be treated for ovarian cancer. Fear turned to love. “I told them
as a patient I’d work here some day,” she remembers. Today ICU Health Unit
Coordinator Jacqueline Spencer-Jerry is passionate about St Jude and tells
the story to many of the patients who now face what she knows all to well.
“If I made it, you can make it, too!” she tells patients.

Hospitals play an important component in Medical. Baptist, opened in 1912, is our largest in total number of beds including hospitals in East Memphis, Germantown, Collierville and Southaven. The Methodist hospital system opened in 1918 even after many additions Methodist University is in the same location, with others in Raleigh, Whitehaven and Germantown. It now owns Le Bohner Children’s Hospital where many a reader of this article may have visited along with the Bunny Room to borrow a toy. St Francis opened in East Memphis in the 1970′s and recently in Bartlett The Veteran’s Administration Hospital has been in the Medical Center since 1967, but was once located at the University of Memphis South Campus. You can still see evidence by the name of the street – Getwell- which was changed from Shotwell for obvious reasons.

Here we have the healthcare innovators as well. Medtronic manufactures medical implants. Smith and Nephew an orthopedic company has major operations nearby. Wright Medical is headquartered in Arlington and GTx Inc, a pharmaceutical company, is headquartered in the Medical Center along with Luminetx creators of the vein viewer, a device designed to make it easy to find a patient’s veins for injections or IV’s .

Thanks to FedEx, a doctor anywhere in the world can order an important piece of equipment or a hard-to-find drug and have it delivered to his hospital in time for morning surgery. America’s Distribution Center is a logical spot for healthcare business, and keeping that equipment and those drugs ready for a last-minute flight has created a new industry: medical logistics.

The Biomedical Research Campus looks to be “the next big thing.” A hub of activity from private and governmental organizations working on medical breakthroughs will open at the former sight of Baptist Hospital in Midtown. Biotech — an all-encompassing word that covers the use of biological knowledge, research and techniques to develop medical products — is becoming the buzzword for many cities looking to the future, and Memphis aims to be first in line.

The aforementioned Biomedical Research Campus will encompass a large area of the medical center. As to what it will accomplish, only the future can tell as one discovery can lead to another. Cancer treatments? An AIDS vaccine? Quadreplelegis walking? Things may look hopeless for these people today but a lot of hopeless cases and unsolvable problems have been fixed and Memphis may just have part of the solution.

Memphis Fire Unit 12 based out of the station at Mississippi and Georgia is
often called downtown. Paramedic Randy Kratochvil prepares to take a blood
pressure while EMT Kim Shealy interviews a patient complaining of an

Medical Memphis may not be at the front of our minds, but old, young, rich, poor — we are glad it is here, and not just to save lives but for the stable economy it brings to the city. This evening, a paramedic and emergency medical technician from Memphis Fire EMS Unit 12 assist three trauma and two medical patients who probably were not thinking about Medical Memphis at the beginning of their day. As they speed a patient from Downtown to The Med, no one notices as they head down Second and cross Gayoso, where 129 years earlier, Miss Annie Cook became Medical Memphis’s unlikely heroine.

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