First tell us about you and your UMMC story.
I’m so grateful to be asked to share my story here. I married my high school sweetheart, Rusty, 20 years ago. We have three children: Kinsey (14), Emma Kate (11), and Carter (10). I can honestly say that I would have had zero chance of “making it” if not for my sweet, devoted husband. He made the difficult decision to become a stay-home parent just before we left Mississippi.
Not many people remember this, but I actually matched into neurology and started in that department. My mentor was Ruth Fredericks, and I wanted to see patients with brain tumors and MS just like her. I interviewed at multiple places, but didn’t want to leave Jackson. I started my intern year as Neurology/ IM, and expected to not love my house medicine months. My intern year was predominantly IM and I found myself longing to do primary care on my neurology continuity clinic patients. After my 1st house medicine mouth, I was hooked. I remember when Andree Burnett gave me my mid-month feedback and asked me why in the world I wasn’t doing IM. I finished my electives in neurosurgery & neuro ICU, then negotiated a swap to IM. I’m still grateful that I was able to not lose time. Dena Jackson was a great encourager during this transition.
While changing my mind, I delivered my first child prematurely. I was on the road out of town to run for office in MSMA. We stopped at Forrest General for an emergency c-section, and my tiny 24-weeker was born. Everyone at UMMC knew, it seemed. The support was unreal for our family. I still remember sweet Dr. Helen Turner stopping by to see me on her way back to Jackson.
Having a disabled child shaped my training course, and shaped my view of “what kind of doctor” I wanted to be. My daughter, Kinsey, spent over 100 days in the hospital. The chiefs worked with me to allow me to “get credit” where possible. Little did I know the road we would have ahead. Kinsey spent months in the hospital during my training, mainly related to hydrocephalus and seizures. Looking back, I am still not sure how I managed to survive, but I did.
Residency continued, and I found myself falling in love with hematology. Bernard Dreiling changed my life as he had done for so many before me. He made hematology interesting and applicable. I adored the patients on the hematology service and looked forward to cross-covering them on night call. After one particularly difficult day spent with a sweet, terminally ill patient, I knew I had found my calling. I remember praying with a patient and helping her to decide about hospice, then leaving the room with Kirk Eddleman in tears. I figured that confirmed that this work was just as meaningful as my intuition had suggested. (Sorry, Kirk!) I also fell in love with research thanks to Christina Muzny, a dear friend who always believed in me.
Life moved on, and I finished residency a little late. Thankfully, I matched into hematology/ oncology fellowship at UMMC (the only place I applied to). Fellowship was very different than residency, and heme/ onc was a different language all together. I was so grateful to my upper levels such as Reece Jones, Barbara Craft, Brian Persing, Nikki Cleveland, and Karissa Boyd. They made every day fun, and taught me so much about my career choice.
During fellowship, I received a call about a baby girl who had been born in Alabama and needed a family. We raced to Alabama, then had to spend several weeks there. This pushed my graduation further behind, but was worth every delay. Lastly, a surprise pregnancy brought along my son. It was incredibly difficult to have children during training, and I’m pretty sure Dr. Becky Waterer should win an award for all of her cheerleading and support! In fact, Honey East deserves some credit here, too.
Where are you now and what are you doing?
After living in Mississippi for 34 years, I made the tough decision to move away for a second fellowship. I had developed an interest in clinical research and was encouraged by my mentors at UMMC, including Tate Thigpen. The support I received from him, Ruth Fredericks, Daryl Hamilton, and Louis Puneky propelled me to have the confidence to try something that felt “too hard” initially. I actually completed my Hematology/ Oncology fellowship at Duke as part of their 3 month InReach program to gain clinical trial experience. After that, I completed a one-year fellowship in Neuro-Oncology at the Preston R. Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke. While there, I worked with patients from all over the world, learned to write clinical trial protocols, and learned from internationally respected clinicians and researchers. (I have to add here that I was shocked by the differences in IM training between Duke and UMMC. I truly began to appreciate the strengths of my medicine training at UMMC, complete with many procedures, ICU training, and diversity of pathology seen. The hands-on experiences were invaluable. )
I moved to Charlotte to join a new cancer center named Levine Cancer Institute that was being formed under the direction of the Director of the Cancer Division at Cleveland Clinic. Little did I know that he had been friends with Tate for 30 years. During my interview with him, he performed a near-flawless impersonation of Tate (albeit with a British-Australian accent). I think he even threw in a “Hotty Toddy” for good measure! It was a risky move, but it proved to be the best one for my career. I was able to build and shape my division in a way that was truly patient-centric. Over the last 8 years, our cancer center has grown exponentially. Our primary hospital (Carolinas Medical Center) is the flagship center for a network of 45 hospitals scattered through NC, SC, & GA. We see over 15,000 new cases of cancer per year. Previously known as Carolinas Healthcare System, we were recently rebranded as Atrium Health. We have a robust IM residency program, as well as a relatively new hematology/ oncology fellowship. I am an associate professor and work with both programs, as well as serving as clinical faculty for rotating students from UNC-CH School of Medicine.
I am honored to be the Section Chief of Neuro-Oncology for Levine Cancer Institute. In addition to patient care, I develop and lead the neuro-oncology division. My position includes actively seeking clinical trials for our patients and participating in cooperative group studies. I also write and develop investigator-initiated trials for brain tumors and brain metastases. One of my research interests is in genomic profiling of these tumors, as well as evaluating potential genetic predisposition for brain tumors. With these roles, there is a fair amount of travel involved. In fact, I just traveled to Japan to give an invited lecture at a society meeting. I never imagined this being a part of my career when I was in training.
I’m active in American Society of Oncology (ASCO), and recently completed their competitive year-long leadership development program. This resulted in appointments to several committee roles within the organization. As part of my involvement, I go to Washington, DC once or twice per year as part of ASCO’s advocacy efforts on behalf of our patients with cancer and their families. It has been incredibly rewarding to work with other oncologists from all over the US. With a colleague from Duke, we will be chairing an international seminar on brain metastases this summer.
Charlotte has become home for our family in many ways. We live about 2 miles from the Panthers’ stadium, so we have become Panthers fans. Our children attend a local Christian school. We are involved with our church and community. In the winter, I help with a primary care clinic for our homeless neighbors. In addition, I have been working for the past few years to build a facility for our homeless patients with cancer.
Looking back, I have been so incredibly blessed to be in this field. I surpassed my personal dreams long ago, and realized how much I had limited myself.
My advice to trainees is to not limit yourself or your dreams. God had so much more planned for my career than I ever did.
What do you miss most about UMMC?
The relationships! In fact, I almost teared up just thinking about my colleagues in Mississippi.
Also, not a soul in NC knew what a “Reuben’s cocktail” was. I had been warned that it was a UMMC thing, but was struck by how “novel” the drug combo was to some pharmacists. I had to argue down a pharmacist one day in our infusion center about the safety of the combination of the ingredients. I carried my “yellow card” with me for my first 1-2 years as an attending. (It is still in my desk in my office, right beside my pink acid-base card.)
Share a memory or more of your time here at UMMC.
I will always treasure the opportunity to serve the Hurricane Katrina victims from New Orleans at our VA. I remember gathering in the VA lobby with over 100 physicians as the veterans rolled in, fresh from the airport. They had paper & cardboard tags tied to their clothing & feet. As a patient rolled into the lobby, a physician would stay by his/ her side until reaching the room. I was stunned to hear my patient’s stories about being stranded. He was in desperate need of dialysis, antibiotics, and nutrition. Jessie Spencer and the VA team slept on air mattresses during those weeks, and all of us worked extra. I helped with placement of about 15 homeless veterans- I remember helping to line them up in the hallway for “convalescent carriers.” These veterans were so incredibly grateful. There were VA employees wearing grey army t-shirts, roaming the halls with their dogs. It was a unique time!
Other favorite memories included toilet paper rolling the on-call rooms at the VA, running simultaneous codes with Philip Chustz in multiple parts of the adult hospital, teaching Drew Dickey how to intubate on his first on-call night, and any time spent rounding with Joe Files. No UMMC story is complete without mentioning VA moonlighting. There are so many memories there (especially with Christina Muzny and Susan Bostick). I still remember one night when a patient angrily rushed toward me in the AO, and then Trippe McNeese put him in his place.
I should add that my least favorite memory was when my car was stolen from the parking garage on one Sunday. I rounded in the BMT unit and ICU for hematology. I finished a tough end-of-life talk, then walked out to discover that my car was gone. The security guards didn’t believe me for a good 30 minutes, until the credit card company started calling (yes, my purse was in the trunk).
My residency was often challenging as I parented a profoundly disabled child who was often hospitalized. On many occasions, I felt confident that I would never be able to do it. So many colleagues supported me, including our supportive chiefs. One night when my daughter was admitted to PICU suddenly, I chose to take my scheduled call. I couldn’t bear getting “behind” again. Little did I know that my dear friend (but not husband… ha) Brian Sumrall had called everyone behind my back and was taking calls for me. John King did something similar for me, as well. That was not just the spirit of UMMC, but the bond among IM residents. I feel so incredibly grateful to have experienced that!
What a great story of Ashley Sumrall’s training and life as a doctor. There are lots of things to be worried about in the US health system, but as a doctor from Australia who did some training in the US (Seattle) I’ve always thought it’s also populated by plenty of really decent, kind human beings – at all levels in the system (OK, well maybe they’re rarer in administration!). Dr Sumrall is another one of them, and what a career she has to be proud of. We all know how difficult specialist (board) training is, and hats off she managed this with a growing family. Thanks for the article, she’s an absolute credit to UMMC.