‘Every child deserves to grow up’: Dr. Debbie Smith reflects on pediatric career

Published 11:46 pm Friday, December 15, 2023

As Dr. Debbie Smith reflects on her 40-plus year career in Vicksburg, she describes her arrival here as “serendipitous.”

“I was a resident at Vanderbilt and trying to decide where to go into practice,” the pediatrician said. “I had opportunities at practices in Nashville, Lebanon and Middleton, Tennessee. I could not decide … and I was a bit concerned that if I stayed in the Nashville area, with Vanderbilt right there, I might get lazy and send my challenging patients to Vanderbilt.”

That’s when Smith received a call from Robert Quimby, who was the administrator of what was then the Street Clinic.

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“He called and he asked me if I’d come for a visit,” she said. “I said ‘no, I’m going to stay in the Nashville area; all my family is in Tennessee.’”

But Smith had a friend in Jackson, and Quimby eventually offered a free ticket to fly and see her friend if she would simply agree to a meeting in Vicksburg. That’s when she met a group of people who changed the trajectory of her life — Dr. Briggs Hopson Jr., Dr. Lacy George “Gebe” Horn Jr., and the Sisters of Mercy at Mercy Hospital.

“It just felt right,” Smith said. “I agreed to come for a year. I was young and single; I thought, ‘I can do anything for a year, and this will help me figure out what I want to do next.’”

She negotiated a one-year contract – an anomaly at the clinic where all contracts were for two years – “and somewhere in the middle of my second year I realized that holy cow, I don’t even have a contract for this year.”

When Smith joined the practice, Horn was the only pediatrician. In 1983, they recruited a third partner, Dr. Geri Weiland.

Now, 43 years and plenty of contracts later, Smith is retiring in the same town she once vowed only to visit for a weekend. She leaves a legacy of compassion, advancement and care that she hopes reflects the purpose of a pediatrician: “to help a child grow up to be as healthy and live as long a life as we possibly can.”

Part of what drew Smith to Vicksburg was the chance to play an integral role in the advancement of pediatric care. At the time, medical schools like Vanderbilt University were on the cutting edge of new practices in pediatric care like delivering fluids and medicines intravenously, instead of under the skin; to monitoring all of a child’s vital signs, not just the temperature. Facilities like the Street Clinic and Mercy Hospital were just starting to adopt the new approach.

“They really wanted to make changes in the nursery service and pediatrics,” Smith said, adding the opportunity to be a part of those changes was appealing.

“When I started, we (the pediatricians) were basically starting almost all of the IVs because the nurses were not yet adept at pediatric IVs,” she said. “We would draw all the blood gasses, all the blood tests … there were a lot of times I spent the night in the hospital with a sick baby.”

Smith’s career has seen a trajectory of growth and change, as she found as wide a range of medical and diagnostic challenges as she would have in a big city or academic center. Alongside the incredible technological improvements in diagnostics and treatments, she’s also seen the dissolution of the Street Clinic and closure of the Sisters of Mercy’s hospital; mergers with other practices; changes with private corporate ownership; and even the dreaded electronic record-keeping, which eliminated paper medical charts.

“I thank my mother every day for making me take typing in high school,” she joked.

Smith cites the proactive care of children as one of the most critical advancements she’s seen during her career.

“When I first started, routine physicals, immunizations and preventative care weren’t really a part of pediatrics,” she said. “We have pushed really hard for regular checkups, immunizations and preventable care measures and that’s really been important, particularly in Mississippi.”

She points with pride to the state’s high vaccination rate among children – one of the best in the nation – and the work of the medical providers, insurance carriers and government to ensure vaccinations are available for underinsured or uninsured children at a nominal cost, if any.

“That’s been an important part of what we’ve worked for,” she said.

Throughout it all, her commitment and dedication also helped earn Smith the respect and appreciation of her patients.

“The nice thing about being in a practice like Vicksburg is that you have the chart but you also know the family,” she said, adding that she treats many second- and third-generation patients who have become in many ways like family. She has been invited to graduations and weddings, birthday parties and celebrations. She answers calls the night before weddings and on holidays. And, in her pubic farewell letter she wrote, “The Vicksburg community embraced me and my practice. Little did I know that I would have as wide a range of medical and diagnostic challenges as seen in a big city or academic center or that I would be welcomed by an incredible group of people. Many have become my lifelong friends.”

As Smith readies for retirement and contemplates the next chapter in her life, she eschews questions about legacy or lasting impact.

“What I would hope is that, No. 1, while we were here, we have improved the pediatric services for the community — all of the community — and I hope the kids that I took care of, the families I treated, not only have confidence in the pediatric services but in the medical community as a whole moving forward,” she said.

After all, she holds fast to the same philosophy that launched her career: “Every child deserves to grow up.”