Natchez native leads effort to advance pediatric care in state

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 10, 2018

Special to The Democrat

JACKSON — Dr. Mary Taylor, a South Natchez High graduate, became chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center Dec. 1, making history by becoming the first UMMC alumna and first woman to hold the post.

She is the fourth chair of Pediatrics in the 62-year history of the Medical Center, following founding chair Dr. Blair E. Batson, who served from 1955-1989, Dr. Owen “Bev” Evans, 1989-2011, and Dr. Rick Barr, who became chair in 2011.

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Her first day in the new position was also the day leaders in government, medicine and philanthropy broke ground to begin construction of a seven-story, 340,000-square-foot hospital expansion.

Taylor received her undergraduate degree from Southern Methodist University prior to earning her M.D. from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1991. Also holding a master of science in clinical investigation from Vanderbilt, Taylor completed residency training in pediatrics and fellowship training in cardiology and critical care at Vanderbilt and was a senior clinical fellow at the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit of Boston Children’s Hospital before helping create the pediatric cardiac critical care unit at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. She was on the faculty at Vanderbilt for a decade before moving back to Mississippi, her home state, and UMMC in 2011.

Taylor, who holds the Suzan B. Thames Chair of Pediatrics at UMMC, serves as a professor, teaching the next generation of pediatricians.

Q. Tell us about your childhood in Natchez.

A. I moved to Natchez when I was 2 years old, when my father became the only dermatologist in town.  I went to elementary school at what was originally Montebello and then became McLaurin Elementary and Junior High. I went to South Natchez High School and was active in the band – concert band, marching band, jazz band, and I was the drum major.  I graduated in 1986.

I loved growing up in Natchez, being active in many parts of the Natchez Pilgrimage Tableaux and in the Natchez Mardi Gras as Queen Rosalie. The best part of growing up in Natchez was being part of a wonderful community with close relationships with so many people in town.

Q. How did it influence your decision to become a physician?

A. My father was a doctor in Natchez, so I grew up knowing many of the physicians in town. I shadowed in his practice and worked in his office during the summers. When I was in medical school at UMMC, I did my family practice rotation with Dr. Jerry Iles, a close family friend. Dr. Iles was a wonderful mentor to me and to many students from UMMC.  He was a great example of a loving, kind, selfless doctor.

I also worked at Natchez Community Hospital as a ward clerk. It was a great opportunity to experience hospital medicine. There were many excellent physicians in Natchez, and that helped set the stage for me to join them in that profession.

Q. Why did you decide to focus on pediatrics and critical care?

A. When I came to medical school in 1987, I felt strongly that I would be an adult cardiologist.  At that time, I even said, “The only thing I know that I don’t want to do is pediatrics!” Boy was I wrong!

The father of one of my close friends and classmates was Dr. David Watson, a pediatric cardiologist at the Children’s Hospital at UMMC. He allowed me to work closely with him, and he took me under his wing and introduced me to pediatric cardiology. I knew right away that was my future. I went to Vanderbilt to study pediatrics with the plan in place to pursue pediatric cardiology in fellowship training.  Upon completion of my cardiology training, I explored the relatively new idea of cardiac critical care for children. I went to Boston Children’s Hospital as a senior clinical fellow in one of the few cardiac ICUs for children in the country at that time.

Q. You earned your medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1991. Was that influential in your return to UMMC in 2011?

A. Dr. Walter Merrill, a former Vanderbilt colleague and cardiac surgeon, suggested my name to Dr. Jorge Salazar, who at the time was the new chief of pediatric cardiac surgery at Children’s of Mississippi. Dr. Salazar was charged with revitalizing the congenital heart surgery program at UMMC. I joined him in 2011 as co-director of the Congenital Heart Program to help build the services and staff and teams that are required to have a state-of-the-art program for congenital heart surgery in Mississippi, my home state.

Prior to that, all children who required heart surgery had to leave home to have their care. They were sent all over the country — to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington — often without their families and often for long periods of time. There is really no reason that Mississippians should leave home to have their health care. We have such talented and world-class providers right here, and our mission and vision is to provide the best care possible at Children’s of Mississippi.

What are the health challenges for Mississippi’s children and families? What are the solutions?

Mississippians have made progress, reducing childhood obesity and premature births, but we still have a long way to go. Access to health care is a huge problem for many in the state, and this is something Children’s of Mississippi has been addressing by opening specialty clinics in Tupelo, Hattiesburg and Biloxi. We want to provide that subspecialty care closer to home for our patients.

This state also has areas where healthy food choices are hard to make due to price and availability, and that has led to obesity problems for children as well as adults.

Prenatal care is vital, and too many mothers do not get the care they need. This has resulted in our high rate of premature and low-weight births, which can bring about health problems that, for these children, can be lifelong.

We believe that preventative care through healthy diets, physical activity and access to medical care can dramatically reduce some the state’s health problems we’re seeing in children and in adults.

Children’s of Mississippi, which includes Batson Children’s Hospital and all UMMC pediatric care, is expanding on the Medical Center campus. Could you tell us more about the ambitious construction project?

Construction on a new seven-story children’s hospital tower adjacent to Batson Children’s Hospital will transform pediatric care in Mississippi. Its 340,000 square feet will include 88 private neonatal intensive care rooms where parents can spend precious time with their little ones as they face together their children’s medical challenges. It will include 12 new operating rooms, larger pediatric intensive care rooms, an outpatient pediatric specialty clinic and an imaging department designed just for children.

Part of the $180 million project – $100 million – is being funded through the Campaign for Children’s of Mississippi, a philanthropic drive that’s chaired by Joe Sanderson Jr., the CEO and board chairman of Sanderson Farms, and his wife, Kathy. That drive was launched in 2016, and today, more than $64 million has been raised.

Why is it needed?

There are so many “onlys” here. UMMC is the home to Mississippi’s only children’s hospital, only congenital heart program, only pediatric intensive care unit and only pediatric emergency department.

Medical professionals at Batson Children’s Hospital see patient outcomes that are among the best in the country, but this is happening in a facility that has been outgrown in the 21 years since it opened. Our neonatal intensive care unit was built for 30 babies. We now care for three times that number there, and our NICU is the state’s only Level IV unit, the highest level.

Mississippi’s children and families deserve to have the expert health care and pediatric specialists right here, close to home, in a hospital designed not just for today but for future medical needs. Isn’t that what any parent or grandparent would want?

How will it affect local pediatricians and hospitals around the state?

Pediatricians throughout Mississippi support this expansion because they want a pediatric hospital and experts in pediatric subspecialties, ready as a resource for them and their patients.

Hospitals also want to see this growth because it is a resource for them and the patients they serve. Batson Children’s Hospital offers advanced care for children – procedures such as pediatric heart transplants – that is not available anywhere else in the state. Children’s of Mississippi is also working with hospitals in the state, collaborating with North Mississippi Medical Center on a pediatric specialty clinic in Tupelo and, in Gulfport, managing the Level III NICU at Memorial Hospital and providing a hospitalist for their pediatric patients.

What is the importance of having a hospital just for children?

Children are not just miniature adults. Pediatric care and all of its subspecialties take into account the special needs of a child now and as that child grows and develops. Batson Children’s Hospital provides expert care that is designed with the needs of a child in mind. Its design and equipment are child-focused, and so is the care provided there. The hospital staff includes pediatric professionals as well as child life specialists who help children and their families cope with medical crises and a hospital school that keeps patients up-to-date with their studies. We are committed to this specialized care from before birth with care in our fetal center until transition of their care to our adult medicine colleagues.

How will this project impact the state now and in the future?

This project will bring advances to Mississippi, economically as well as medically. During the course of construction, some 700 workers will be on site, building the new tower. We anticipate recruiting 30 to 40 new physicians in the next five years as the tower is built and after it is open. At a minimum, about 50 to 75 new staff positions will be added once construction is complete.

While this project will make a large impact economically through construction and recruitment of medical staff, its true and lasting effect will be in the lives of children saved.