HOMETOWN PHYSICIAN SHAPES LEBANON'S MEDICAL HISTORY
Story and photos by KEN BECK
When Dr. James W. Morris II opened his practice in his hometown more than 30 years ago, the state of medicine in Lebanon had come a long way from the days when doctors traveled by horse and buggy to treat their patients.
Yet, it’s safe to say that from 1978 to 2010, the advancement in medical treatment and upgrade in facilities in Wilson County made a quantum leap.
Morris, known as Jimmy to his friends, has not only witnessed the local medical transformation over the past four decades, but he has been one of the prime promoters of change.
“When I came here there were no specialists at all, but general surgeons were doing general practical. Now you can get a broad range of care without having to go somewhere else. A lot of the specialties are covered,” said Morris, 62, one of the few homegrown physicians practicing in Lebanon.
He evocatively recalls the moment that he decided to begin his practice here, an emotional yet determined and very personal decision.
“When I was an intern in Miami, my dad had a heart attack. He was in ICU here (at the old McFarland Hospital),” Morris said. “They just had a new ICU built. He was in this room and had a little table beside him, and there was a heart monitor beside him printing out his heartbeats.
“His nurse asked me, ‘What are those funny beeps?’ The ICU nurse didn’t know what they meant,” said Morris, with tears in his eyes as he recollected the scene. “So I decided to take him to St. Thomas. Then he developed congestive heart failure. I thought, ‘Our community deserves better care,’ so I wanted to come here and change that.”
In 1978, Morris and his wife, Norma, a native of Gladeville, returned to their roots.
“When I came back, Dr. Sam (McFarland), Dr. Joe Bryant, Dr. Bob Bone and Dr. George Robertson were here, and all of them had successful family practices and performed general surgery. I spent five years training to be a surgeon. I didn’t want to do general medicine,” he said.
“At McFarland Hospital, all the doctors took turns in the evenings taking emergency room calls. I said, ‘I’m not doing it. That’s not what I trained to do. I’m specializing in general surgery.’ Dr. Sam told me I wouldn’t make it if I didn’t do general practice also.
“I thought, ‘If I can’t make it here, I’ll move on.’ So far, I’m still here,” said Morris. “I started specialization in Lebanon. I told them I would not be taking general medical calls but that I would take general surgery calls and do it every night, if need be.”
The results were that the emergency room call list split in two, and the modern surgical movement began in Lebanon.
Morris not only brought specialty medical care to his hometown, but he continues to learn new methods so that he can stay on the cutting edge of surgical procedures. Before the first cardiology specialist arrived, Morris implanted many cardiac pacemakers. He performed the first laparoscopic laser gall bladder surgery in 1990 when it wasn’t yet being done at Vanderbilt. He was the first doctor in Lebanon to diagnose breast cancer using such procedures as stereotactic core needle biopsies, hand-held ultrasound guide biopsies and sentinel lymph node biopsies.
Now, he spends much of his time diagnosing and treating breast disorders and has designated part of his office as the Breast Clinic.
“Because I had done so much vascular surgery, everyone thought I was a heart surgeon,” said Morris, who continues to perform general surgeries involving gall bladders, hernias, appendectomies, thyroids and colon cancer.
“And I did more and more breast surgeries because as more mammogram screenings were being done, they detected more problems that required doing biopsies of the breast. Initially we had to do open biopsies, which meant a trip to the operating room. And now we use the approach of stereotactic breast biopsy. When I found out about it, I went to the training program in Colorado Springs to learn from the doctor who started it and brought it back to Lebanon in 1995.
“So now I would classify myself as a general surgeon with a special interest in breast surgery, which includes malignant and benign diseases of the breast.”
It’s never easy for a doctor to inform a patient that she has breast cancer. Morris tackles the chore with compassion and the best information possible at hand.
“I generally come in with an abnormal mammogram and tell them that it looks suspicious to prepare them for it. It helps them start thinking more about it. ‘It could be cancer.’ Then we do a biopsy. We do it in our office. We try to get the answer back in one to three days. If it’s a malignancy, we just have to tell them, ‘Here’s what we need to do, and we’re going to spare the breast if we can.’
“Years ago, the goal was modified radical mastectomy, removing the entire breast and removing the lymph nodes of the armpit. Nowadays, many women are candidates for breast conservation. We can do a lumpectomy or a partial mastectomy, and spare the breast. Then the whole breast gets treated with radiation post-op.”
Wilson Central High School English teacher Shannon Carney came to see Morris in March 2007. She had discovered a three-centimeter lump in her breast. It was at Stage 2B and two minimal lymph nodes were involved.
“He was very, very compassionate. I found my lump on the first Saturday of our spring break, and I went to see Dr. Kay Mitchell, and she sent me to Dr. Morris’ office for consultation after I had the mammogram and ultrasound on Tuesday, and I saw him on Thursday,” said Carney, 43.
“He said, ‘I’d like to do a biopsy,’ and did one right then. I asked him at the time, ‘What do you think?’ He told me, ‘I think it’s malignant, but we’re going to send it off to make sure. I will call you personally as soon as I know.’ He called me from Florida on his vacation and told me, ‘It is malignant, and I want to do this surgery as soon as possible.’ We did it about a week and a half later.
“He has now become a very dear friend to me. When he and Dr. (Dwayne) Lett did surgery, they prayed with me before the surgery. That was very comforting, really important, because I felt they had put themselves in God hand’s as well as put me there. I knew that it would go well. I had confidence because of that, because they were being moved by a greater power than their own,” Carney said.
She had a double mastectomy, was in surgery for over seven hours and started reconstruction that same day. Three weeks later, she began taking chemo every third week for six treatments.
“As far as I know, today I am cancer free. I have probably less than a 10 percent chance of reoccurrence because of how aggressively Dr. Morris treated it—having the surgery immediately. He let me make the decision about having a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. He was very supportive of my choice to have a mastectomy and has become an integral part of my life,” said Carney.
Thousands of others of Wilson County residents have been touched by the caring hands and heart of Morris over the years.
“He’s the most compassionate person, so caring about his patients,” says Jolayne Hines, a person who would know more than anybody. She retired Dec. 10, 2009, after working exactly 30 years as his office manager. “One thing that always amazed me, he didn’t want to know if the patient had insurance or not. He said, ‘I’m going to treat them anyway. I am going to operate on them if I can get them in the hospital.’ Most of the time he could.
“We used to call ourselves old softies. If he had to tell them bad news, he was so emotional right there with them. He would just tear right up with them. They knew they were in good hands.
Morris grew up pretty much knowing he might be a doctor. Raised in a house on Pennsylvania Avenue, he went the first six grades to McClain School on Main Street and spent the next six as a cadet on the hill at Castle Heights Military Academy, so he was just a walk or bike ride away from both.
His parents were graduates of Cumberland University, and his mother, Sammy Ross Bandy Morris, earned her degree from the Cumberland University Law School and practiced as a lawyer, doing background and research work. His father was a salesman who sold encyclopedias, chemicals and managed the Sherwin-Williams Paint Store. Both were involved in politics and served as Wilson County campaign managers for Estes Kefauver, who served as a U.S. Senator in the 1950s.
“My mom and dad programmed me to be a physician,” said Morris. “Dr. Sam McFarland and my mother were first cousins. So Dr. Sam would make house calls to treat my grandmother, who stayed in my bedroom when she was sick, and I observed him.”
The student loved science and math and earned a major in chemistry with minors in biology and math at Middle Tennessee State University in three years. While there, he and several other students started a pre-med club, Phi Mu Delta, which they christened by operating on a cat.
Morris graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis in December of 1972 and spent a six month internship at Methodist Hospital in Memphis in internal medicine rotation. In July 1973 he went to the University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital for an intensive year long internship. He spent his general surgery residency at Tampa General Hospital from 1974 to 1978. Today, he serves as president of the UT College of Medicine Alumni Council.
Morris was not alone while he chased his degree in medicine. His wife, born Norma Sanders, a Mt. Juliet High grad, met Jimmy at the MTSU Christian Center in 1969 via mutual friends. On their first date they went to a Lebanon-Murfreesboro Central basketball game.
“We had never met really but knew a lot of people in common. We just hit it off so well,” said Norma. “I remember going back to my college roommate and telling her, ‘This is the guy I’ll marry.”
Sure enough, on July 10, 1970, the pair exchanged wedding vows at the College Street Church of Christ in Lebanon. After the reception they were picked up by a friend who drove them in an ambulance with the siren blasting to the Lebanon airport. They then flew to Gallatin where Jimmy had stashed his car from pals who would have trashed it.
While Jimmy hit the medical books and labs, Norma worked in Memphis as an office manager for Rockwell International and held a similar position at a Miami police precinct. They raised two children here. Daughter, Dr. Melanie Morris, 35, just began a new position as assistant professor of surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Son, Jay, 32, is a ski instructor and wilderness guide in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Norma and Jimmy enjoy golfing, gardening and traveling. “Right now, we’re big time into gardening. He’s a master gardener,” Norma said. “He’s a fly fisherman and has fished all the rivers in Yellowstone.”
Among other hometown ventures, Morris was instrumental in the development of Hearthside, a Christian retirement center founded in 1994 by the College Street (now College Hills) Church of Christ, which sits on ground that was formerly part of the Castle Heights campus. He served as chairman of the board for many years. Today, all 44 rooms of the facility are filled, and construction has begun on the first of 30 planned independent living homes.
“Jimmy Morris was the ideal person to lead in the development of Hearthside,” said College Hills minister Larry Locke, a founding board member. “He was highly respected in the church and community. He led in the naming of Hearthside as well as the site selection and was the driving force in the fulfillment of this wonderful dream.”
But Morris the gardener, golfer, fisherman and community leader remains foremost a doctor who continues to keep abreast of what’s happening in his field.
“I just got back from a meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons that met in May. Last November, I went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., along with other specialists who treat breast cancer,” he said. “We learned about a new procedure that uses radioactive seeds and learned a breast lumpectomy procedure that I think will be state of the art in the future. It is not being done
except in special centers at this time.”
Morris uses the most modern procedures available. For example, to determine if cancer is in a patient’s lymph nodes, he performs a sentinel lymph node biopsy using radioactive material.
“We inject some radioactivity into the breast and use a gamma (Geiger) counter in surgery that will pinpoint the node that the radiation goes to and cut it out to see if there is any cancer or not. It points out the sentinel node about 95% of the time. We do a frozen section and this saves us from doing a big operation in the armpit if there is no cancer in there.”
Prospects for winning the battle with breast cancer have improved in recent years.
“For a long time, we saw no change in the survival rate of breast cancer victims,” said Morris, “But now there are two reasons it has been improving: Early detection with more mammogram screenings and better treatments with chemotherapy drugs and hormonal therapy drugs.”
There are still two things women can do to help themselves. Have an annual mammogram screening at age 40 and older (sooner if there is a family history of breast cancer) and perform monthly self-examinations. “If you feel a knot, have it checked out,” he advises.
The rewards for the labors of the good doctor?
“The patients are very grateful when you take care of them. And you want the best outcome for them. That’s what keeps you going— that the patients appreciate what you do for them,” said one of Lebanon’s most beloved physicians.
BREAST CANCER STATISTICS
Breast cancer incidence in women in the United States is 1 in 8 (about 13%). In 2009, an estimated 192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 62,280 new cases of noninvasive breast cancer.
About 40,170 women in the U.S. were expected to die in 2009 from breast cancer, though death rates have been decreasing since 1990. These decreases are thought to be the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness.
For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer besides lung cancer.
Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among U.S. women. More than 1 in 4 cancers are breast cancer.
As of 2008, there are about 2.5 million women in the U.S. who have survived breast cancer.
The Breast Clinic
Dr. James W. Morris II
Suite 100, 1405 W. Baddour Parkway
Ken Beck can be contacted at KBTAG@aol.com.