Held in memory of Family Medicine physician Dr. Nancy O’Neal Tatum and in honor of her pioneering work in inaugurating UMMC’s first formal program in medical ethics, the annual Tatum Lectures are open to the public and address complex topics in bioethics. This year’s lecture was held at noon April 2 in CW308.
Dr. Nancy O'Neal Tatum
The 2013 Tatum Lecture featured a concise panel examination of concepts at stake when requesting, providing and complying with advanced directives, particularly in a hospital setting. The panelists - a philosopher, a lawyer, a clinician and a patient advocate - addressed dilemmas that can spring into play unforeseen as health care providers and institutions seek to comply with patient wishes across the complexities of contemporary medicine. Panel contributors to the 2013 Tatum Lecture were Patrick Hopkins, Chair of the Millsaps College Department of Philosophy; Jonathan Will, Director of Mississippi College’s Bioethics and Health Law Center; and two of UMMC’s own, Vince Herrin, MD, of the Cancer Center, and patient advocate Dana Brandt of Patient Affairs. For more on Dr. Tatum and the Tatum Visiting Professorship, please click here.
Nancy O’Neal Tatum’s professional life began as a musician and educator in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. As director of choral music at Hattiesburg High School and leader of Main Street United Methodist Church’s Youth Choir, she was charged with ensuring an evolving progression of artistry and technique within a state long contributing to the world’s music. Apparently the not-yet-Dr. Tatum took this charge with seriousness as well as delight: a childhood friend reports from a church choir practice that, as the early force of Camille began “whipping an old pear tree ... she grabbed the music stand and said, ‘OK already, the hurricane’s coming. And it’ll probably blow us all away. But not before we get this passage right!’” Some may remember that the choir director’s father, who made house calls, and her uncle, a cardiologist, had long been orchestrating a different sort of artistry and technique out of a nearby Petal, MS, medical practice. They may further recall that, in the words of Dr. Lucius Lampton, the practice “lost money in a big way and did not even send out bills to the patients.” Such observers could be forgiven an inability to imagine that the young Nancy Tatum O’Neal could have ever been other than "the daughter Dr. Tatum" of Mississippi’s sole father-daughter medical practice. She would, of course, have become chief resident in Family Medicine at UMMC, recipient of the George Lally Bevill Award, clinical instructor and preceptor in Family Medicine while practicing in Petal, visiting scholar at the Center for Clinical and Research Ethics in Vanderbilt University, and upon her return to Mississippi, faculty in the UMMC Department of Family Practice, recipient of the Golden Stethoscope Award, visiting scholar with the Harvard Macy Program for Physician Educators, and once certified in Medical Ethics through the University of Washington, Seattle, founder and chair of UMMC’s first Medical Ethics Advisory board, all while contributing to the Mississippi Medical Association as a Board of Trustee member, alternate delegate to the American Medical Association and co-chair of the Joint Practice Committee. Dr. Tatum’s honors, however, are only footnotes to her unstinting engagement with medicine, public health, medical education and medical ethics in Mississippi. “She never lost her focus on the patient as the most important factor in the doctor-patient equation,” her friend and department chair, Dr. Lessa Phillips, remarked. Dr. Bill Thompson, a friend and patient, further noted, “As a patient, I was never afraid to come to Nancy for anything. She never took away your dignity nor humanity no matter what you said or had done ... She was not judgmental, but as a physician she was not afraid to tell the hard truths of any medical condition or situation. And she was always on your side as a patient 100%.” In the mid-1980s, these qualities were not something to take for granted. From Dr. Lampton, “... the plight of patients with HIV first attracted her attention. She saw a need and stepped up. In this fairly conservative area of south Mississippi, she was founding president and chairman of the Hattiesburg Area AIDS Coalition ... (helping to create) in 1988 one of the most important AIDS Coalition groups in the South, bringing both the liberal and conservative parts of the community together to battle AIDS.” The campaigns were strategically waged, according to fellow volunteer Bill Thompson. “Nancy framed a compassionate and humanistic response to AIDS in a conservative community,” helping to counter social stigmas. During conflicts, she was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the “calming influence to see us through the storm.” Following in the footsteps of her father, Dr. Tatum never turned away patients who could not pay their bills. According to Thompson, she helped patients with HIV and AIDS find ways to obtain medications, often contributing out of her own pocket. Once at UMMC, she continued to treat and seek better support for patients with HIV and AIDS and to exercise leadership in ethics development, AIDS support and education, and the crucial role of primary care to Mississippi public health. Dr. Tatum emphasized the importance of primary care physicians throughout her tenure at UMMC, as medical sub-specialization steadily increased. She served first as a popular leader and then, until the time of her death, as Clinical Director of the Department of Family Medicine’s West Jackson Clinic, where she demonstrated her commitment to the ethical and personal aspects of the physician-patient relationship, as well to medical education. Dr. Lampton writes, “As a student and resident under Nancy, I can attest she was not only kind, but loving always, and full of humor. She seemed to look for ways to nurture her students and encourage them on a personal, individual basis, usually by example. I recall her smile after I yanked her out of bed at 2 a.m. to assist me in my workup of a difficult hospital admission. And I remember my attempts to get the job done as quickly as possible, and her gentle and diligent patience with the case, despite the wretched hour. I try to remember that now when I am called out of bed at 2 a.m. with a difficult patient.” The weekly Tatum lectures within the School of Medicine and the annual UMMC Tatum Lecture honors the work of a hometown primary care physician, a pioneering advocate for marginalized and stigmatized patients, a leader uniquely positioned to champion health care, health care education and medical ethics in Jackson who lived up to her possibilities, and a nationally recognized physician ethicist. After her untimely death, Dr. Wallace Conerly eulogized, “Her thoughtful leadership in medical ethics made us all better care givers because she helped us look squarely at difficult problems that inevitably arise in the health professions.” A force in her own right, this Mississippi doctor brought voices together that might never have been so raised without her art, and left the institutions in which she labored stronger for her skill. Now Dr. Tatum’s life motto, Whitman’s “Not until the sun excludes the earth will I exclude you,” resonates as her legacy. The loss of her life did not erase her challenge to us and to all Mississippians to examine our health care dilemmas, to comprehend our health care needs, to work strategically to defeat each threat to the public health – in time, with resilience, equilibrium, together. The Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities is grateful to Dr. Lucius Lampton’s article, Nancy O’Neal Tatum, 1950-88: a beautiful, blessed life, and to the writing of Dr. Helen Turner, whose friendship with Dr. Tatum began in medical school, for the biographical material used in the above summary of her work. All quotes are taken from the Lampton article, originally published in April 1999 by the Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association (PMID 10389381).
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