Dr. Dwight McComb, Jr, former resident and chief resident at UMMC and now a published author, shares his story of training, becoming a small-town doctor in rural Mississippi, and his inspiration to write in recent years.
First, tell us about you and your time at UMMC.
I’ll never forget walking into my first day of medical school and thinking, “What have I done?” After the whirlwind process that landed me there, I wasn’t sure at all that I belonged. It seemed like only a short time before, late in the process of obtaining a chemical engineering degree, that I realized I was headed toward the wrong career path and that medical school was where I should set my sights. And because my undergraduate program already included all but a few of the prerequisites and had therefore also prepared me for the MCAT, I found myself in medical school before I even had time to really process what that meant. And so I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. The intimidation I felt in the presence of so many students who seemed so much better prepared than me is a feeling I will never forget.
I found that UMMC School of Medicine was a wonderful place to learn. I discovered that I did belong after all and that many others had also chosen different paths to get there – history majors, art majors, pharmacists, engineers, physiology professors, social workers and others each brought their own unique perspectives, skill sets and doubts with them. I made many lifelong friends and was well-prepared for my residency training, which I chose to complete at UMMC. I looked at programs all over the country, interviewed all over the southeast, and ultimately couldn’t see a reason to leave the place I loved. I’m a lifelong Mississippian, knew I would live and work here when I finished, and always felt a strong connection to UMMC and the people it serves.
I chose a combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics residency program, which in many ways was doubly challenging and doubly rewarding. Even though we had to acquire the knowledge and skills from two separate three-year training programs in only four years, we reaped the benefits of being a part of two different hospitals and groups of doctors. I can’t say enough good things about that program. Our program directors, Dr. David Braden in Pediatrics and Dr. Stephanie Elkins in Internal Medicine, made sure we stayed on track and didn’t get lost in our transitions back and forth. I was fortunate to have Dr. Jimmy Stewart as a mentor ahead of me in the program, and he’s still helping to lead that program today. Two of my best friends, Dr. Bryan Batson and Dr. Carlton Gorton, trained with me there.
After my residency, I was honored to be asked to serve as Chief Resident in Internal Medicine, and being a glutton for delayed gratification, I agreed. I can’t speak for my fellow chiefs, Dr. McLean Trotter and Dr. Archie Wright (though I think they would agree), but I had a blast. It was one of the best years of my life. I’m quite certain I learned much more than I taught the students and residents in morning report, M&M, Jeopardy, and attending on the wards at the VA, but I enjoyed trying. Former Department Chairman Dr. Richard deShazo and Dr. Shirley Schlessinger, who was the Residency Program Director at the time, are two of the most amazing people and clinicians I have ever met.
Where are you now and what are you doing?
I moved to Amory, Mississippi in 2004 after my chief resident year and have been here ever since. I am a provider in the North Mississippi Health Services system. And like many doctors in small towns, I poke my stethoscope in a lot of different places. Although I do only a very small amount of Pediatrics now, I have a busy Internal Medicine practice, am the medical director for our Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Center and am heavily involved with hospice and palliative care.
I have a wonderful wife and three children, one of whom is in college at Mississippi State and two who are in high school. Over the years I coached about every youth sport our little town has to offer – basketball, soccer, flag football, softball, and baseball. I am officially retired from coaching, thankfully, but wow, I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.
You also are a published author. When did you realize you wanted to write a book?
I suppose one could trace it back to elementary school when I wrote stories for fun and even tried to illustrate some of them. I had the creative urge even then. Somewhere along the way, though, that disappeared. Or, at least I thought it did. I believe it had something to do with the idea I had that I was destined for a career in science and that those things were somehow mutually exclusive. Or maybe I just got caught up in being a kid and then in the strain of building a career. But I never stopped reading and being mesmerized by the idea that one could create people and places and stories from nothing, mold them as one pleases, and have others become immersed in and entertained by that creation. It’s a powerful thing. And in the back of my mind I wondered if it was something I could do. Then one day, in 2015 while I was driving home from the beach, an idea hit me out of nowhere. I suddenly had a story to tell – to share – and knew that nothing would stop me.
How long did it take to write your first book, The Truth That Lies Between?
The Truth That Lies Between, which is a coming of age mystery/suspense novel involving close friends in a fictional Mississippi town, took me six months to write the first draft and another six months to edit that first version. The problem was the characters kept talking to me and begging to have their story continued, so I put it to the side and began writing the second novel, which took me another year. By the time I circled back to the first book, revised and polished it to the satisfaction of my editor, and published it in December 2019, it had been four and a half years from the moment I typed the first word.
You have a new book that was released on December 1st. Tell us about it.
Anatomy of the Truth is a follow-up to the first book, although it can be read as a standalone as well. And like the first book, it is a suspense novel driven to a large degree by a central theme of loyalty and friendship. But the primary setting for this one is a fictional Mississippi medical school, and I think that element helps elevate the intrigue and tension of the book in a unique way.
I mentioned earlier the intimidation factor that medical school brings in general, and any medical student knows the added stress that Gross Anatomy adds to it. Now imagine that you discover that your cadaver is someone you know. And what if that someone is a close family member? And now how about if that family member was supposed to have died in an inferno of an automobile accident a year before but instead has a bullet hole through the chest? And now add in the fact that no one, including your professors and fellow students, believes you. If that were to happen, you had better hope you have some good friends to stand by you and help you find the truth.
That, in a nutshell, is Anatomy of the Truth. I’m super excited about it. My first book was well-received and even won a national award for first novel, but I’ve had multiple readers tell me they like the second one even more than the first. Time will tell. Either way, I’m pleased with how it turned out and am thrilled to share it.
What do you miss about UMMC?
That’s easy. I miss the stimulation of academic medicine with the constant barrage of new information, myriad challenging cases, and dynamic physicians at the top of their profession. I actually strongly considered staying at UMMC when I finished my training, but the call to come back close to home was too strong. Even as much as I miss UMMC, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am fortunate to be a part of a great medical community here, and the relationships I have been blessed to build with my patients while attending to the challenges of their healthcare needs has been quite a privilege.
Share a few memories of your time at UMMC.
There are so many, but one indelible memory that is particularly relevant to my writing is my own first day of Gross Anatomy. Our cadaver indeed had a bullet wound straight through the heart. My partners Pearce McCarty, Brian McCoy, Jeffrey McGilbra and I, anxious to find some levity in a somber and daunting moment, christened him Lucky, precisely because he so appeared not to be. We never learned what happened to him but are reasonably sure that, unlike in my book, he was never part of any sinister plot connected to us. In all seriousness, that event did plant the seed for a future novel, but more importantly, Lucky took us through the first moments of feeling like doctors and taught us lessons about the human body that cannot be learned any other way. I think about him often and am grateful for his gift to science and to me.
Another first day memory was when Brian McCoy and I were assigned to the post-partum wards for our first rotation of the third year of medical school. Because we had no idea what we were doing, didn’t even know how to write a proper SOAP note, and each had about twenty patients to see by 5:45 morning rounds with the residents, we went the day before for instructions. The advice we were given seemed simple: Just make sure they don’t have fever, ask them about bleeding, and check their legs for blood clots. We began waking the exhausted new mothers promptly at 3:00 a.m. but kindly left the lights off so as not to disturb them any more than necessary. Shortly thereafter I was loudly being called an assortment of derogatory names by a distressed woman who didn’t understand why a moron in a short white coat, quite obviously too dumb to read the chart, was groping beneath her covers and asking her to straighten her legs – which had been amputated in a car accident some years before. Dr. McCoy thought that was much funnier than I did. But I never went in a room again without glancing at the chart first.
Moments after I got the call right in the middle of “Camp Shirley” – the Internal Medicine meeting for all residents at the beginning of the year – that I was going to be a first time father, I vividly remember Bryan Batson shaking me and asking, with fear for my well-being in his eyes, what in the world I was going to do. Ten months later, I was new-daddy sleep deprived, which is an order of magnitude greater than first-year-resident sleep deprived, standing on one leg with a torn Achilles tendon from an ill-advised basketball session, intubating a patient in the Pediatric ICU, off-balance, groggy and in pain, and thinking that my friend might have been on to something. But I made it through it!
A few other random anecdotes that stick out in my mind:
- Being scared to death to find out that the new Medicine chairmen, Dr. deShazo, who was board certified in about twenty specialties, would be heading up our team for his very first month as attending. And then finding out what a great person and wealth of knowledge he was.
- Speaking of a wealth of knowledge, Dr. Dreiling. Nothing else need be said.
- Boots one weekend and high heels the next on Heme-Onc wards, depending on whether Dr. Files or Dr. Bigelow was attending.
- That night a cocky intern who shall remain nameless called the surgeon intern and insisted he bring his upper level with him to expedite getting the acute abdomen to the OR – and found his patient resting comfortably with 2000 cc in his newly-placed Foley bag shortly thereafter.
- Standing in the Pediatric ER on 9/11 and watching in horror as the twin towers crashed to the earth and everything changed forever.
- Paging my upper level Medicine resident about twenty times one night to the house, float and code pagers with no response. The students and I eventually found him in the call room with a wild, disoriented look in his eyes, disheveled hair and pagers going off like sirens – one taped to his right ear, one taped to his left ear, and one hung by a string around his neck. He had known that being a hard sleeper and sleep deprived were a bad combination, but it still wasn’t enough. I still get tickled when I recall the sight of him opening the call room door after we had pounded on it for about five minutes.
- Going down to the cafeteria for a huge plate of French fries in the middle of the night. Remember – calories on call don’t count!
- Working an ER shift pulling an IV pole around behind me as I moved room to room, so I could stay hydrated in the middle of a case of gastroenteritis. It was either work the shift myself or activate the backup call system and be at the mercy of my replacement – which almost always meant working a holiday later. I got some strange looks that night!
- Walking into the brand-new Neonatal ICU as an intern and seeing the vast expanse of basinets stretching to my left and right, seemingly to both horizons, and wanting to run out the door rather than be responsible in any way for so many vulnerable lives. And then eventually relishing the rewards of positively impacting so many vulnerable lives.
And last but not least, to cap off my time at UMMC, my Chief Resident year in 2003 began with us being faced with the daunting task of restructuring the residents’ schedule to meet the new ACGME duty-hour restrictions that took effect that year. Instead of residents working 36-hour shifts and 100-hour work weeks, we had to figure out a way to squeeze the same quality of care into a maximum of 24-hour shifts and 80-hour weeks. With much grumbling about the unfairness of it and how the new rules would breed a generation of wimpy doctors, we figured it out. And guess what? The patients still received quality care, and the residents still were properly trained. Rumor has it that they’re still managing – no, excelling at it – even today.
“This is a photo of me with one of my nursing home patients. It appeared in our local paper. She was an avid reader and always had stacks of books in her room. When I told her I had begun writing a novel of my own, she asked me every visit for four years when it would be ready. I presented her a copy here. She told me later, “To be truthful, I didn’t expect much, but it was very very good!” We had a good laugh about her candor.” – Dr. Dwight McComb
For more information or to purchase one of Dr. McComb’s books, visit wdmccomb.com.