Dr. Andrew (Andy) Wilhelm is a faculty member in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care. Dr. Wilhelm is currently serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in his clinical role and is also part of UMMC’s COVID implementation team. Here, he shares about himself, how he came to UMMC, and why he decided to stay.
Tell us about yourself and how you ended up here at UMMC.
I’ve been asked at least 1,000 times: ‘Are you from Mississippi?’ The routine answer is, “No, but my wife is from up near Carthage.’ There is an instant connection because everyone here is no more than 3 degrees away from Carthage and its suburbs. At the next visit, my patient brings me a jar of homemade muscadine jelly.
I took the circuitous route to Mississippi. I was born in Atlanta and lived there through 6th grade. We then moved to Macon, GA, a town south of Atlanta and similar to Jackson. I graduated from high school and, like Esteban the Magnificent, I was off to see the world. I went to University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN for undergraduate. Yes, it is cold up there. Snot really does freeze to your upper lip. God’s Mom likes snow. It is also real football weather. Tailgating is actually in the parking lot at your tailgate. Cold beer, brats, smoked turkey legs, and the obligatory stray football crashing into your table. Kegs and eggs off campus was Saturday morning breakfast. Beer is not allowed in the stadium. Neither is Irish whiskey. The stadium is louder when the weather is wonderfully miserable. (My wife quickly figured out that the bathrooms are heated. She has a rotation each quarter – the bleachers -> the bathroom -> hot chocolate -> repeat.) I spent a gap year at Vanderbilt as a study coordinator for a clinical trial comparing phosphate binders in dialysis patients. From there, I moved back to the Great Lakes region and attended osteopathic medical school in Erie, PA. The school sits on a hill and Canada is visible across the lake on a clear day. Canadian radio stations were part of the daily dial. The most snow we got from midnight to 7 am was 23 inches. They canceled my final that morning. I interviewed for residency at UMMC because I was ready to come back to the South. Diane Broussard, Kimberly Harkins, and Mike McMullan were my welcoming committee. The rest is history.
I am flannel and corduroys in a starched and pressed world. I don’t participate in social media and I prefer a wood fireplace over gas logs. My previous life includes working as a hiking guide in Colorado, skydiving, working on an island in Southeast Alaska, South Africa, a solo trip to Bavaria, Haiti to work on elimination of filiariasis, and locking myself out of my running car on the south side of Chicago. (A local drove up and popped the lock. He said, ‘it happens to me all the time.’)
My favorite book is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. It’s in the children’s section at Lemuria. In only 100 pages, it is a book of consequence. Read it.
My favorite recent movie is The Green Book. Other favorites from different phases in my life include The Brothers McMullen and Garden State. None is light-hearted.
I am a 9 on the enneagram. I have a strong 8 wing.
We can all point to a couple events and people that changed the course of our lives. And if you haven’t had at least one near-death experience (my first was in Miami), you haven’t lived out loud enough.
University of Notre Dame – This was the first formative decision I have ever made. I was 18 and naïve to the world. My first roommates were on the lacrosse and ice hockey teams. The former was from New Jersey, the latter from Northern Quebec. Both spoke French; I spoke Southern. The lead singer for a start-up band, Umphrees McGee, lived across the hall. I had roommates from 6 states who have since lived in Germany, Venezuela, and most recently, Tokyo. I came from small town GA, but was immersed in a university that encouraged deeper dialogue around the understanding of self, society, the Church, and cultural differences. The president of the university lived in the dorm room above mine. He played basketball with our dorm 2 nights a week. I inadvertently tripped him and he fell to the ground. He planted an elbow on my chin the next time down the court. Monk has an 8 wing. Perhaps the most meaningful moments were my spontaneous conversations with past ND president Ted Hesburgh in his namesake library. His office was on the 13th floor around the corner from the tables where I studied. Father Ted was the director of the US Civil Rights Commission; he stood arm in arm with Martin Luther King at Soldier Field. He was on the board for Chase Manhattan Bank, served as advisor to multiple US presidents, and actively engaged the Vatican on the role of academic Catholic universities in the modern world. He has more honorary doctorates than any other person. How many people do you know influence world leaders, corporate America, religious leaders, social justice, and international academia? Of those, how many have an open office door and share workspace with students? I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I was in the presence of greatness. Another of my ‘influencers’ was Father Richard McBrien, a Catholic theologian, priest, and professor of mine. He was a true academic who articulated the challenges of Catholic orthodoxy in the modern world and within the Church itself. He was a fearless proponent of the Vatican II Council who actively and publicly engaged the difficult conversations around ugly truths at the intersection of humanity in the Church, faith, and the modern world. Both of these men were role models on many levels. Both made a difference in the world by standing up for principles and engaging in the challenges of social, religious, academic, political and human progress.
Pneumonia (acute respiratory failure with hypoxia from bilateral pneumonia, unknown organism) – September of my freshman year at ND I came down with pneumonia. I was in the hospital for a total of 10 days. I entered as a chemical engineering major. After chest physiotherapy while in trendelenburg, I decided that medicine is what I wanted to do with my life. I called my advisor that day and dropped engineering physics. To this day, I walk by the infirmary on campus and wonder…If I hadn’t been sick, where would I be? (This is not why I am a pulmonologist.)
South Africa – As my brother says, ‘if you aren’t living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.’ I spent 2 months working in a government hospital in East London, South Africa. It is on the Indian Ocean side and home to one of the most notorious shanty towns in the world – Duncan Village. There was no soap in the ED sinks. We ran out of ibuprofen. The first person I saw was wheeled in on a steel, flat cart, like you would use to buy concrete at Home Depot. He was disemboweled; his guts strapped to his outsides with a roll of gauze. The HIV rate was 40%, Hepatitis C >80%, and poverty was unlike anything we have in our country. Women set abusive husbands on fire while they slept. We never went outside alone or after dark. We didn’t wear eyeglasses for fear of assault. Manhole covers were concrete because metal ones were stolen and melted down for scrap. Mothers didn’t shed tears when their infant children died. The last patient I saw was brought in dead in the bed of a pick-up truck. His brother matter-of-factly unloaded him. It is the only place I have been that felt void of love, God, and human emotion. It was raw and overwhelmingly human.
Yes, it was also on the same trip that I got stranded inside the walls of St. Albans prison, snacked on horse biltong (jerky), was surrounded by Zulu men in the Homelands, spent two days with Nelson Mandela’s nurse from when he was imprisoned on Robben Island (she was a crusty pro-apartheid, but cooked up a great antelope), picked up a half-dead baboon from the side of the road, played with 165lb lion cubs, was chased by a troop of baboons, wine toured with some Aussies in Stellenbosch, and white water rafted legit Class V rapids in the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls. Put Victoria Falls on your ‘must see’ list. At the end of July it dwarfs Niagra. It was a good trip. I’ve never been the same.
Marriage and Family – By Mississippi standards, it took me a while. Obviously, I needed to sort out a lot before being ready to settle down. I met my wife at UMMC. She was an M4 and I was an R3. She was an intern when I was a chief resident. Grey’s Anatomy is real. She is a private practice allergist. Our daughter, Maylee, is 5. Both are red-heads.
So, how did I end up here? That’s a good question with an easy answer. It felt like home and I met a girl.