John Shearer: UT Medical School Observes 50-Year Connection With Chattanooga

  • Tuesday, January 2, 2024
  • John Shearer
Dr. Michael Greer, left, with medical school students Hayden Hall, center, and Sally Willoughby
Dr. Michael Greer, left, with medical school students Hayden Hall, center, and Sally Willoughby
photo by John Shearer

Although originally from the Kansas City area, Hayden Hall has enjoyed living in Chattanooga and experiencing what the city has to offer.

But instead of just being a recipient of the wellbeing that can come from this scenic town’s amenities, he also tries to be a provider of it as a medical trainee.

Mr. Hall is a third-year medical student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and has found his perfect place serving the medical community here. He said he has especially enjoyed being in Chattanooga due to the smaller educational setting the upper-class UT medical students assigned to this area get to enjoy.

“I am pretty blown away by the faculty and staff,” he said. “They are very attentive to us. It is more one on one or one on two. You have a relationship with them. We know these folks, and they are able to mentor us.”

While a typical Chattanoogan might associate the state’s primary public medical school with faraway Memphis, Chattanooga has also played a prominent role in educating these medical students.

It has been like a community-wide extra instructor, a relationship that has been going on for a while, too. In fact, the beginning of this academic year marked the 50th anniversary for the UT Health Science Center College of Medicine-Chattanooga.

And it has been a good arrangement for all involved, according to Dean Dr. James Haynes, who oversees the local program.

“This college allows students attending medical school in Memphis to do part or all of their third and fourth years of medical school training in Chattanooga,” he said in a press release. “Additionally, students from other medical schools across the country complete fourth-year elective courses here at UTHSC-COM-C.”

He also said that the local school also has a large presence in the more visible post-graduate, or residency, medical training. That includes 185 post-graduate trainee physicians within nine residency programs and 13 fellowship programs.

As interim assistant dean and recently retired vascular surgeon Dr. Michael Greer of Chattanooga succinctly added about the local program, “The impact of the College of Medicine to our city and region is incalculable over the past 50 years.”

With the help of Dr. Greer, two of the medical students -- Mr. Hall and Sally Willoughby, a fourth-year student -- recently sat down in the Whitehall office building across Third Street from Erlanger Hospital and offered their perspectives regarding student training in Chattanooga.

Mr. Hall came to the UT medical school in a roundabout way after a career wrestling – and wrestling about his future. He grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Lone Jack, Mo., as a standout grappler but had hurt his shoulder.

After high school, he did some construction work related to his family’s business to take a break and figure out his future, but he eventually was able to get a cheerleading scholarship to Lipscomb University in Nashville through his church. It was an exciting time to be a cheerleader there, too, he said, as the Lipscomb men’s basketball team reached the NCAA and NIT tournaments while he was there.

He had originally been in engineering thinking he would enter the family business but switched to exercise science and physical therapy. He took an anatomy and physiology class under a professor who was a retired medical doctor, and that and some job shadowing and having his shoulder surgically fixed suddenly made him realize his ideal future vocation.

“I decided that was something I wanted to do,” he said. “I had a passion for science and discovered that medicine was a great opportunity to impact people’s lives.”

After two years of taking extra classes and doing work in a COVID lab during the height of the pandemic, he was accepted into UT medical school beginning in the fall of 2021. And he has not regretted the decision.

“It’s a hard education but I haven’t strayed away from the fact you get to do this, you get to do amazing things that remind you why you do it,” he said.

As a third-year student, he has been meticulously going through clinical rotations of seven core clerkships dealing with a variety of branches of medicine, from family medicine to obstetrics and gynecology.

“It helps you decide,” he said, adding that the surgery rotation can include working from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., while some are more like 9-to-5 shifts.

Through all his experiences, he has decided he wants to get into emergency medicine, he said. And he is also connecting his future work to another serious form of duty by attending medical school on a health professional scholarship program through the Department of Defense. After going through basic training the summer between his first and second years as part of Officers Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Al., he is a second lieutenant and will graduate as a captain and begin serving as a doctor in the Air Force.

He will also graduate as an ambassador of sorts for the training provided locally and for the school’s connection with Erlanger Hospital.

“Erlanger as a whole is a great hospital to train in,” he added, referencing its Level 1 emergency and stroke treatment facilities.

Despite all the serious work, though, he has found a little time to relax and has become enamored with the city of Chattanooga. He said he and his wife enjoy hiking and he likes jogging along the Tennessee Riverwalk near his residence off Amnicola Highway/Riverside Drive.

Overall, the community has been a great place for work and play, and his time here has clarified for him that he made the right career decision by attending medical school, he added.

“You meet people in a vulnerable place and realize you impact them, and they impact you,” he said.

Sally Willoughby is a fourth-year student, who, in contrast with Mr. Hall, came to medicine in a more direct manner, as her father is a doctor in her hometown of Shelbyville, Tn. “I worked there,” she said. “And I shadowed different physicians. I gained a passion for medicine through that.”

She also showed both the interest and aptitude for the subject by being involved in the student group, HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America), at Shelbyville Central High, where she was also the valedictorian.

As a biology major and theater minor at Lee University, which is known for its strong music and fine arts program, she did plenty of lab work. And a histology, or cell study, class got her interested in microscopic work and led her to also see the big picture that a career as a pathologist seemed to be the best fit.

Now in her junior internship, as it is called for fourth-year students, she had been working in family medicine when interviewed a few days before Christmas, often getting in at 6 a.m. and working long hours. But the experience has allowed her to pause and appreciate finally getting to gain some real-world-like experience in the field of medicine.

“We are seeing patients in the hospital and writing our own notes and giving our own suggestions during the rounds” (that are reviewed by residents and physicians), she said. “It was a really good experience getting to at least test drive as a resident, even though it will be really different from what I’ll actually be doing as a pathologist.”

For Ms. Willoughby, the next few weeks will involve learning where she will be doing her residency work next year after graduating this spring. She has applied to 29 different programs, which is less than for some students wanting to go into the more popular fields like urology or general surgery. The work basically involves one main application that is tweaked for each individual program, and a match is made after interviews.

“We get told where we are going,” she said. “But I’m very open to where I’m going.”

That is, despite the fact she has enjoyed Chattanooga and wished it offered a place to do a pathology residency program.

With the small amount of down time that does come with being a fourth-year student focusing mainly on her internship and residency applications, she, like Mr. Hall, has enjoyed the Scenic City. She said that she and her husband, Michael, an accountant whom she met between Lee and medical school, enjoy eating at various restaurants in Chattanooga, and they even have a season pass to the Tennessee Aquarium.

“We have been hanging out in downtown and trying out all the restaurants that I didn’t get to try during my third year,” she said with a laugh, adding that she had also knitted hats for Christmas gifts and has enjoyed spending some time with her two cats.

“I love Chattanooga. If we had a chance, we would stay here for a residency if I could. It’s definitely the perfect balance of the city life but also being able to be in a small enough town where you don’t have much of the traffic issues. Downtown is really beautiful and clean, and a lot of tourists come here.”

While here, she has also found time for some community service, which she considers important. She has been involved in helping do some A1C blood checks in the community and plans to do some health class lessons with students at Howard High.

“They let the medical students teach the curriculum along with the teachers,” she said, adding of all the volunteer work, “It’s a really good chance to feel like you are able to apply the things you are learning in the classroom and then get the gratitude of the people you are working with. It does make you feel a lot more connected to the community.”

Dr. Haynes added that in another area of community service, recently there has been a significant effort for the students to mentor the pre-med students at UTC at the school’s town-hall-style meetings and showcase events on the UTC campus.

“The UTHSC medical students have been eager to help the UTC students improve their chances of getting in medical school. Since admission to medical school is very competitive, this interaction is extremely helpful,” he said.

As a result of all her experiences in a classroom and a patient room, Ms. Willoughby is anticipating with excitement her future as a medical professional with an M.D. degree.

“I’m really looking forward to patient care and the diversity of cases and getting to help people behind the scenes,” she said.

Dr. Haynes added that the students who come here create a sense of goodwill that goes back and forth and helps the overall healthcare community in Chattanooga.

“There are significant benefits of having a college of medicine in our region. Many students have never been to Chattanooga, especially many of our fourth-year students who are from out-of-state, and this is their first time in Chattanooga.

“Most enjoy our city and spread the word about Chattanooga, promoting our area when they go home to other areas of the country."

* * *

Other fourth-year medical students from the UT Health Science Center taking part in the College of Medicine-Chattanooga program are Harrison Cloud, Kevin Gentner, Taylor Lewelling, Cassandra McCarley, and Martin Tan. Other third-year medical students include Weston Chambers, Alex Darras, Colton Duncan, Mathew Hampton, Jonathan Martinez, Lincoln Mitchell, Kristina Seiber and Jessica Smith.

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