‘Dr. Debbie’

Published 6:07 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Some folks call her “Dr. Debbie.” 

Pediatrician Dr. Deborah Smith has been taking care of children in Vicksburg and Warren County for almost 37 years.

It’s a practice that began at the Street Clinic and continues at the pediatric clinic at Merit Health River Region, where she is now seeing the children of the children she treated when she began in July 1981.

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And it began with a dream of being a veterinarian and suggestion that she look into going to medical school.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a vet, quite honestly,” she said. “I looked for any kind of hurt animal, and my mother was not too keen on females being vets. She had in her mind, cows, horses; big animals. She thought I should be a teacher.”

When she entered the University of Mississippi, she majored in math, science and biology, and thought she was going to follow her mother and sister into teaching. That was before someone asked her, “Have you considered medicine?”

“I had no doctors in my family, so I had not considered it,” she said. “But then one summer I worked at a local hospital as a nurse’s aide, and did everything from watch deliveries to empty bedpans. From there went on to medical school.”

Smith went to medical school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where she also did her residency.

“I knew I didn’t want to be a surgeon,” she said of her decision to go into pediatrics. “That did not appeal to me, but I had the good fortune to work three summers with a great pediatric hematologist/oncologist named Dr. John Lukens, doing outpatient care and research, and he was so good.

“My concern with pediatrics was could I handle the chronic patient; the dying patient, because that’s very difficult in pediatrics, and he was so good with the pediatric cancer patients, that I had such a good experience there that pediatrics was sort of a natural progression.”

Her three years working with Lukens had her considering whether to move into pediatric hematology/oncology with his group in Nashville or go into private practice.

“I decided I liked all of it, so I started looking at private practices and actually planned to stay in Nashville, was trying to decide between a practice in Nashville or one in a suburb of Nashville and couldn’t quite decide between the two practices.”

Then she heard from the Street Clinic.

“To be honest, to this day, I don’t know how they got my name, other than I went to undergraduate school at Ole Miss. They were very insistent on coming down for a visit before I made my final decision.

“The first two times they called, I told them ‘No, that I had not reason to come here, I was staying in Nashville,’ and then Dr. Robert Quimby called a third time and I said, ‘OK, I’ll come for a weekend.’ I told him up front I had a friend in Jackson and I said if I’m coming down, then I’m going to visit her in Jackson. I didn’t know where Vicksburg was. Even though I went to Ole Miss, I had never been to Vicksburg.”

The Sisters of Mercy, who operated the hospital at the time, wanted to upgrade their nursery, Smith said. At that time, the practice of neonatology was beginning, and there was nobody in Vicksburg trained to take care of sick newborns.

“That was a kind of evolving new field, and the Sisters of Mercy were very anxious to upgrade their pediatric services,” Smith said. “They really put a push on. I enjoyed all the doctors at the Street Clinic. The Sisters convinced me they were ready to upgrade their pediatric services.”

Both of the pediatricians in town, she said, were older, and another doctor was moving to Hattiesburg, “So they were really in need of another pediatrician.”

Being a pediatrician, Smith said, is busy and fun.

“The kids are great, and you keep doing it because you enjoy the kids.”

And there are challenges, lots of challenges.

“Kids get sick quick, but they tend to get well quick. We have more chronic illnesses than a lot of people realize, back in the day, the phone calls came straight to us. There was no triage service or anything like that. So you had to balance the phone calls with the office practice with the nursery, with the inpatient.”

River Region, she said, is one of the places where the pediatricians still handle all three aspects of pediatrics.

“We handle the clinic practice, we cover the hospital — we have one hospitalist now, which helps — and we do nursery. We’re considered a Level 2 nursery, so from the time I first came here, our nursery has evolved — they didn’t take care of any sick babies, and now we’re considered a level 2,” she said. “That means we stabilize them; if we have to put them on a ventilator or if they are really sick, then we send usually to University, to Blair Batson.”

One part of being a pediatrician, Smith said, is teaching parents.

“Maybe that’s the difference between pediatricians and maybe adult doctors, although they do a fair amount of teaching, but you’re trying to teach parents about what to expect with their children, what to expect from their children, when to get worried about their children.

“I think that’s part of the practice. I try with especially new parents to give them specific instructions at their well baby checks and what to expect, when to start serving certain foods, when not to expect too much when to expect other things to happen, I just think that’s part of being a doctor and educating particularly young families.”

And she likes parents to follow her instructions.

“If your child has pneumonia and you really need to stay in for three days, and I see you at Dillard’s shopping, I may say something to you.

“I’m pretty direct, I think. I’m serious, and if I feel like if there is something that’s happened that’s detrimental to the child, I’m not going to hold back telling you that, but at the same time, I play with the kids.

“I have examined kids sitting on the floor, if that was the best way to get them, I’ve chased a few under examining tables if that was the best way to get them, but you sort of evolve with the situation.

“I believe in explaining a lot to the family. I’m serious about the medicine. I like the kids. I love the kids; that’s why I continue to do it.”

And how does she know if the parents are following her instructions?

“If you want to know if the parents follow instructions, ask the children and they’re going to tell you the truth. It’s amazing what the kids will say when you talk to them directly. And kids, even younger children, you can find out what’s going on just by talking to them.”

When Smith began her practice, late night runs to the hospital were a regular occurrence.

“When I first started, we met most of our patients in the emergency room. They’d call me at home first. We didn’t have regular emergency room doctors then. We had more moonlighting physicians 35 years ago.

“We were on call every other night and for the nursery. I pretty much did everything for sick babies in the nursery every night for the first three years I was here.”

She still gets late night calls.

“Calls for C-sections, for sick newborns, or somebody getting sick in the hospital, so there’s still some late middle of the night calls when you’re on call. The difference now is there’s seven of us pediatricians; there’s more of us.”

With C-section deliveries, Smith said, “I’m there for the baby. The OBGYN is tied up with the mother, so we have to be there for the baby. Sometimes the reason for the C-section is because the baby is in distress and so they may be sick when they come out.”

A native of the West Tennessee town of Brownville, Smith fell in love with Ole Miss after attending a National Science Foundation class in math at the urging of a teacher.

“I went down there and stayed six weeks. There were 25-30 of us from across the nation, and I got comfortable at Ole Miss, enjoyed it. My mother was not happy about it, she wanted me to stay in the state I’m sure she was thinking about out of state tuition and all that, but she wanted me to go to Vanderbilt to undergraduate school. I think it was a very good progression for me.

“Ole Miss was not a big school, and I was from not a big town, and I really enjoyed my time there. I’m still a supporter, a big supporter.”

Smith is now on her third generation of children and a lot of second generations where she took care of the parents at birth.

“It’s all fun,” she said. “You wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. The thing is, you have two charts, you have your chart and then you remember things from what happened with a parent that maybe they’ve forgotten (like a family history).

“There are things that run in families.

“I think it’s fun to know the entire family and in pediatrics, you also have to gauge the personality to the parent and the grandparents as well as the personality of the child. And what you know they can do, what you know they’re capable of doing, what they have the means to do, so some of the things you suggest you realize maybe you’re suggesting things they can’t really do, so you have do it a different way.

When she initially came to practice in Vicksburg, Smith was on what was called a one- to two-year walk.

“Dr. (Briggs) Hopson was the president of the Street Clinic at the time, and when you talked with him, he said, ‘We bring people for two years. And then at that time we decide we like you, you like us, you can stay.’ I was single and I had been impressed with what the Sisters wanted to do, and really by the doctors at the Street Clinic on how they wanted to change their pediatric services. Not that I’d be there year. So it’s been a good fit.

“(And) as long as it’s fun, I’ll continue to do it.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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