Meet five Georgians who make a big difference in the lives of the people they encounter in the course of their workdays. For some, the work is quiet and routine. For others, it’s a matter of life or death.
Heroes seem to enter our lives at critical moments, often – but not always – in dramatic fashion. Here are the stories of five Georgia healthcare professionals who find rewards by serving their patients on a daily basis and, on occasion, by going above and beyond the call of duty.
An Americus doctor was on the scene moments after a spring tornado destroyed the local hospital. A former cardiologist takes on the challenge of running a large Metro Atlanta health system. A Waycross EMT director led a team that provided first aid and preventive care to legions of firefighters working to control the devastating South Georgia wildfires last spring. A Savannah audiologist, who pioneered early hearing tests for infants, serves as a community volunteer; and an Atlanta physician deals daily with burn victims – and provides special help for children. Here are their stories.
Wallace Mays, MD
On the first night of March 2007, while winds from a tornado smashed through the windows of his Americus home and trees crashed in his yard, Dr. Wallace Mays was headed upstairs for a damage assessment when his wife yelled to him from the bathroom where she had taken shelter with a cell phone, “They need you at the hospital right now.”
Downed trees blocked his street so Mays, a gynecologist, began walking the three blocks to Sumter Regional Medical Center. Weaving through a maze of debris and stepping gingerly around fallen power lines, Mays made his way by the beam of a flashlight to Sumter Regional. What he found when he arrived stunned him. “The hospital was devastated,” he says.
Trying to enter the hospital and move up to the obstetrics floor became a laborious, and dangerous, process. “I attempted to get up to the OB unit and parts of the building slanted in on itself,” Mays recalls. “By the time I got to that floor, folks were already being evacuated. The hospital staff was doing a great job.”
With the situation on that floor stabilized, Mays began checking on other parts of the hospital. For the next five hours, he joined hospital administrators in a different kind of triage: sorting through the debris to assess which parts of the badly damaged hospital were most immediately needed and finding a way to get them functional. What Mays says he found were staff and strangers who were compassionate and amazingly resourceful.
The emergency room was a top priority but fallen trees blocked its entrance. ER staffers somehow produced chain saws; strangers showed up with their own sputtering saws and, Mays says, “within three hours the trees had been cleared out so the ambulances could get in.”
There were other acts of kindness. “I was having trouble moving a big concrete block,” Mays says. “And some guy just pulled over and helped me get it out of the way. I said ‘Thank you,’ and he just drove off.”
Soon patients began being evacuated to area hospitals, and over the next three days a tent hospital provided by a private company began to rise from the grounds of the nearly completely destroyed Sumter Regional. Since the tornado, Mays has spent his time delivering babies in the tent hospital in Americus and at Albany’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital 40 miles away.
All of this may have seemed a bit familiar to Mays, who finished a voluntary tour of duty in Iraq in 2006, and retired in December after 20 years in the Air National Guard. “I was a flight surgeon,” he says. “And we had [emergency] exercises all the time. I don’t want to sound like I did a whole lot because you just can’t give enough credit to the hospital staff and all those volunteers.”
Greg Simone, MD
WellStar Health System
When the popular CEO of WellStar Health System, Dr. Robert Lipson, was killed in a motorcycle accident last November, the Atlanta medical community felt a deep loss, but none more than the physicians and staff of WellStar’s hospital network along the northern arc of the Atlanta suburbs.
It fell to WellStar’s board of trustees to carry on by finding a new CEO. Though a nationwide search was launched, the right candidate was found in WellStar’s front yard. The trustees’ vice chairman, Dr. Greg Simone, got the nod.
“He’s got deep roots here,” says WellStar board chairman Pete Wood. “And he has a 25-year history of demonstrated leadership.”
There was an emotional connection to WellStar in the choice. “Rob Lipson was my best friend,” Simone says. “We were very closely engaged in where we wanted to see medicine go, in particular where we wanted to see WellStar go. We thought very much the same.”
Simone is part of a growing trend in the healthcare industry: the physician as administrator. Simone certainly has the credentials. A cardiologist armed with an MBA, he grew a two-doctor practice to one with 24 physicians and 150 employees, served as president and CEO of his own cardiovascular medicine practice in Marietta for 27 years and has a long history of service in the WellStar network. Simone brings to the job a dedication for teamwork and an eye for the talent he needs to produce results.
In his management success, he says, “I was fortunate enough to find people that were A players. The only surprise I found when I got here was that the depth of talent and the creativity of the administrative team and the people I am working with was far greater than I even hoped for.”
Simone finds that today’s hospital administrator “needs to be more collaborative.” And, he says, “The administrator needs to understand the physician’s needs and wants and the physician needs to understand the constraints that we have in today’s [hospital] environment.”
Simone believes there’s a new appreciation of management skills among doctors. “And it’s not just the younger doctors,” the 60-year-old says. “I would say it is doctors that are evolving in that philosophy. A lot of my peer group are beginning to feel that management is important.”
Director of Emergency
Medical Services Ware County
On April 14, Mark Walker got a call to get some of his EMTs (emergency medical technicians) out to the west side of Ware County where a forest fire was rapidly spreading.
Walker, director of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for Ware County, knew from experience that if he was being called to a fire there was a real threat to the firefighters already there. Though the fire was only 90 minutes old when the EMTs were called in, firemen were growing exhausted and were troubled by smoke inhalation, stinging eyes and dehydration.
“We set up a rehab station and rehydrated them,” Walker says. “We encountered firemen that had inhaled smoke and we gave them oxygen. As the fire got more extensive, we set up an eyewash station and a hospital bed where they could get rest or sit up and where we could wash their eyes out.”
Firemen were being rotated out of the fire every four to 12 hours, depending on the intensity of the blaze they were fighting. Emergency medical technicians arrived from all parts of the South to help.
During the first 48 hours of the ever-threatening flames, Walker, like most of his EMS team, slept in an ambulance at the scene. “The first three days it was constant,” Walker says, “I never left. I couldn’t.”
As fire moved and spread, the need to rotate firefighters out of the blazing woods and into a rehab station grew. “We had to rehab several hundred people a day,” Walker recalls. It soon became apparent that this simple fire started by a downed power line was reaching epic proportions. All the major broadcast networks sent report-ers and began live coverage.
As the fire swept into four Georgia counties, Ware, Clinch, Charlton and Atkinson, Walker and the firefighters moved their emergency operations center ahead of the flames. “There were places the ambulances just couldn’t get to,” Walker says.
In the end, the casualty list was minimal. “We had a lot of sprained ankles, an ankle fracture, a wrist injury, smoke inhalation, dehydration,” Walker says. There was one terrible incident in which a firefighter was entangled in a hose and dragged down a road by a passing truck, resulting in multiple fractures.
“Probably not over six or seven people had to be carried to the hospital,” says Walker, who shies away from attention to his individual efforts. “We have a great team of dedicated people,” he says. “And we had help from all around the region. We had people from the community who came and helped.”
Walker and his emergency team stayed on duty for nearly two full months while the flames destroyed 115,000 acres and consumed 18 homes.
Director, Center for Oto-Neurology
St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System
For Barbara Gatens, altruism is both a profession and an obsession.
An audiologist, she is director of the Center for Oto-Neurology at Savannah’s St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System – she’s been there since the center was founded in 1977. The center detects and treats hearing loss and other related conditions. Gatens is considered a Georgia pioneer in the testing of newborns for hearing disorders.
“We can now test babies as young as one day, while the national norm is two years,” Gatens says. Such tests are invaluable in getting early treatment to remove obstacles to learning language and developing speech.
Under Gatens’ guidance, St. Joseph’s/Candler be-came the region’s first hospital to conduct a hospital-based universal infant hearing screening program. The hospital’s Annual NeuroAudiology Seminar, founded by Gatens, brings internationally known specialists to Savannah to brief physicians and audiologists on the latest developments in the field.
Gatens pioneered the creation of speech programs for patients with autism and Parkinson’s disease. As a board member of Georgia Infirmary, the nation’s first African-American hospital, Gatens has been instrumental in taking free health testing to low-income neighborhoods and public housing.
In her off hours, Gatens helps Habitat for Humanity build houses for the poor and conducts career counseling at local schools. As a founding member of the hospital’s aptly named Angels of Mercy volunteer group, she helps stock the local food bank.
“I have always been one of those persons who has their fingers into everything,” Gatens says. She serves on a long list of nonprofit boards and is the go-to woman for anyone in need.
“In life, if you take an active role instead of a passive role you’re going to effect positive change,” says the inexhaustible Gatens. “That’s why when I’m on a board I don’t just sit; I always do the hard work.”
While accompanying her husband on a business trip to Tanzania last year, Gatens brought medicine and donated school supplies and distributed them at an orphanage for children of parents who died of AIDS. “That changed my life,” she says. “The children were so appreciative. If I can facilitate change, then I’ve led a good life.”
Walter Ingram, MD
Burn Unit Director
Grady Memorial Hospital
Few violations of the human body can be so horrific in their consequences as burns, a fact well known to Dr. Walter Ingram, head of the burn unit at Atlanta’s Henry Grady Hospital and a faculty member at Emory University Medical School.
For Ingram, a 14-year veteran of treating burns at Grady, the hours can be long and charged with feeling. “There is a lot to it,” he says. “You take care of both children and adults. There is a lot of ICU care, a lot of surgery for repairing the surface of the body.”
But it’s children who most affect Ingram. “Children don’t want to get up and walk when their feet are hurting,” after burns and burn treatment, he says. “You have to get them into physical therapy and physical therapy is painful. You have to understand and deal with that.”
And to manage their recovery long after surgery and rehab, Ingram follows his young patients to Camp Oo-U-La near Eatonton, a place where children who are burn survivors can simply have fun, and where Ingram serves as the unpaid medical director.
“The camp is a wonderful thing for the kids because it’s for recreation,” he says. “They are all scarred and withdrawn and the camp is a social outlet more than anything else. Recovering from burns is hard. I spend as much time there as I can, but I still have patients [at Grady] to take care of.”
Still, he admits, the children are on his mind. “We’ve been through a lot together,” he says. “I want them to flourish.”
The Georgia Firefighters’ Burn Foundation, a group with which Ingram works closely, funds the camp, the only one of its kind in the state. “The firefighters really support the burn unit,” he says. “They provide needed [equipment] to us.”
In return, Ingram teaches courses on burns to the firefighters. He’s also active in the American Burn Association, a group whose membership spans the spectrum from firefighters to surgeons, all devoted to preventing or treating burns.