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Today is May 9, 2021

Rural Renewal

For Indianola doctor, small-town medicine delivers

By Gary Pettus

If she could be a character from a movie, it would be Mary Poppins.

“Mary Poppins would reach into her bag and pull out a solution,” said Dr. Katie Patterson of Indianola, who, like many rural family medicine doctors in the course of a day’s work, encounters broken lives as well as broken bones.

“Sometimes, patients get angry and they say that I don’t understand: ‘You have a car. You have a good place to live. You make a good living.’ And I try to tell them I do understand, and that I do love them.”

For the people who have no one else to talk to, nowhere else to turn, she wishes she could reach into a magic bag of prescriptions and fix everything. And sing a song while she’s doing it.

One of a half-dozen physicians seeing patients at Indianola Family Medical Group, Patterson, who once performed in high school musicals, actually can sing.

She can also fix problems, but there aren’t enough songs and spoonsful of sugar to make the medicine go down for every resident who needs help, physically and emotionally, in underserved areas like Sunflower County, a throne-shaped swath of Mississippi that has lost nearly 4,000 of its subjects in the last decade alone.

In the 2020 County Health Rankings, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sunflower County, population 25,000-plus, claimed one primary care physician for every 2,930 residents in 2019, compared to one per 1,900 for Mississippi and one per 1,050 for the top U.S. performers. Some counties are worse off.

Like her colleagues in Indianola, Patterson has seen patients with heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke. There’s no other place she would rather be. She decided this the first time she saw the Indianola clinic, which was, in fact, the first time she saw Indianola.

“I was a medical student on an externship,” said Patterson, who graduated in 2003 from the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “I delivered my first baby on Day Two. I knew then that this was something I had to do. I was going to be Doc Hollywood.”

Unlike the fictional physician sentenced to community service in a small-town hospital, Patterson didn’t need a court order to send her where she was needed, or a conspiracy hatched by townspeople to keep her there — here where she and husband David Patterson are bringing up four sons.

She knew this was where she belonged long before a pandemic with an 8,000-mile-long arm reached the heart of the Mississippi Delta and tried to pull it out.

She realized something Dr. Wahnee Sherman, executive director of the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program, has been telling medical students and residents for years now. If you want to change the world as a physician, this is where you go: rural America, said Sherman, who leads MRPSP’s quest to award scholarships to medical students who pledge to practice smalltown, primary care in the state for several years.

Certainly, Patterson helped change the world of JaQuana Haley-Williams, 38, who has lived in the town of Sunflower all her life.

Earlier this year, she was 37 weeks pregnant when she arrived at the clinic, an eight-mile drive from her home. There’s no physician in Sunflower to take care of her during her pregnancy, and the next-nearest is in Ruleville, about 15 miles north of there, Haley-Williams said.

As a family physician, Patterson is one of only two in Mississippi who still delivers babies; the other is in Waynesboro, Sherman said.

Haley-Williams was 17 weeks pregnant and fully dilated when she first met Patterson a year earlier at Sunflower County Hospital. She lost the baby — her second miscarriage.

Several months later, pregnant again, she came back to Patterson. “She has taken very good care of me. She does exactly what she says she’s going to do,” Haley-Williams said. “I love that about her.”

This time, Patterson was able to refer her patient to a doctor who does cervical cerclage, a stitch to treat a condition which can cause either a late miscarriage or a preterm birth.

This time, Haley-Williams had a baby girl.

“God is divine,” Patterson said.

Haley-Williams’ baby was one of the 250 or so Patterson and her colleagues deliver here each year.

It was here, as a medical student, back when future doctors may have had more hands-on training, that Patterson learned how to do a C-section. When you practice medicine here, you’re harking back to the days of doctors’ black bags and house calls.

“We’ve been dinosaurs a long time,” said Patterson, who has made house calls. “Our relationship with our patients, we hope, starts pre-pregnancy and goes on throughout their lives. And we may gain a grandmother or grandfather along the way.”

On the same day, Patterson delivered Haley-Williams’ daughter, another patient was waiting for Patterson to deliver him — from pre-diabetes: Stephen Sparks, 49, a United Methodist pastor who traveled about 140 miles from his home in Olive Branch.

“I’ll drive 2 1/2 hours for a good steak,” he says, “so I’ll drive that far for a good doctor.”

Sparks moved to Olive Branch from Indianola eight years ago, but his medically-related allegiance remained in Sunflower County, where Patterson delivered the youngest of his children before the family moved.

“She’s the best doctor I’ve ever had since my own pediatricians,” Sparks said. “You have to love them because they give you a sucker. Katie won’t give me a sucker. But she did try to give me a Brussels sprout.”

Unlike Sparks, most of Patterson’s patients don’t drive 140 miles to see her; for some, she’s just a phone call away, even in the middle of the night.

“It’s a small town,” Patterson said. “It doesn’t take much to find my cell phone number.”

She got a preview of this doctor-on-demand performance from her own father when she was a little girl.

An “Army brat” born the oldest of three children in College Station, Texas, Patterson was in eighth grade when her family moved to Hattiesburg, where her native-Greek grandfather started the Coney Island restaurant and where her father, Dr. Arthur Fokakis, was the only allergist in town.

It was her father’s personal touch as a physician that drew her to the practice of medicine. As did her mother’s struggle with multiple sclerosis.

“Some of the greatest things I’ve learned from her are endurance and faith,” Patterson said of Mary Virginia Fokakis. All her folks have shown her how important family is. And how important a doctor can be to family.

That hit home with her, in particular, when she delivered one patient’s first son. During an exam, Patterson learned that the baby had not been alive for some time.

Two days later, the patient returned. “She brought me a plaque inscribed with a poem,” Patterson said.

“It was about gratitude. She was telling me how grateful she was for my love in a terrible period in her life.”

That was years ago, sometime before the woman became pregnant again.

The plaque is still on Patterson’s desk. It reminds her of the grateful patient, whose first son passed away and whose second one lived.


Gary Pettus is a University of Mississippi Medical Center writer and editor.

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