UMMC’s international man of adventure is all that and more
By Bruce Coleman
He trains for 100-mile runs… and calls it a hobby. He’s becoming a fellow after 50… just to see what it feels like. He’s been on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan… but calls teaching his greatest adventure.
Class of 2011 residents include (from left) Chico Desai of Alexandria, La.; Luke Lebas of New Orleans; Gerad Troutman of Lubbock, Texas; David Kelton of Chicago; Jason Lowe of Savannah, Ga.; Jess Jewett of Salt Lake City; Hamad Hussainy of Gig Harbor, Wash.; Landon Argo of Kansas City, Mo.; Ryan Lewis of Jackson; and Patrick Kirkland of Meridian.
He may be the most interesting man at UMMC.
Dr. Jim Phillips would downplay that statement, of course, but there’s no denying his accomplishments. In 2010 alone, the associate professor of anesthesiology and emergency medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and state surgeon and commander, Mississippi Army National Guard MEDCOM, received the Legion of Merit, a military decoration awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements, and the Mississippi Magnolia Cross, the state’s second-highest military award.
Yet Phillips says he treasures just as much the Resident Teacher of the Year Award and the Medical Student Teaching Award presented to him that year by the Department of Emergency Medicine at UMMC.
“Considering students in training are the lifeblood of this place (UMMC), if you can get recognized for training and helping them along, that’s pretty meaningful,” Phillips said. “Of all the things to be recognized for, as far as I’m concerned, a teaching award is the greatest. I wouldn’t trade those awards for anything.”
His colleagues wouldn’t trade Phillips for anything, either. Dr. James Kolb, professor of emergency medicine, calls him “an impressive clinician with superior expertise in the diverse areas in which he has entered.”
“When I first met him as an intern years ago, I knew this was a person with incredible self-discipline, drive and intelligence,” Kolb said. “He is an affable, straight-talk kind of person with a sharp, wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that is helpful in diffusing tense situations. He stands out as one of the most accomplished, experienced clinicians I have ever known who can figure out just about anything.
“Not only is he able to do these things, but he is also able to teach them.”
Phillips’ trainees love learning from and working for him.
“He is the best at what he does,” said Jason Lee Black, house officer in emergency medicine. “He strives for excellence in all that he does and he asks the same of his residents. He always pushes you to the next level and we are all better for it.
“He is the physician we all aspire to be.”
Although a master educator, Phillips comes by his devotion to the military honestly. His father was in the Navy for 20 years, and when his older brother enrolled in the ROTC program at Vanderbilt University, Phillips followed suit at the University of Virginia, where he played football, rugby, boxed, rowed crew and was in the Skydiving Club.
“I wasn’t going to be the only one in the family left out,” he said with a laugh.
His initial career goal was to serve in the U. S. Army before the siren song of medicine called to him. The ROTC required a service commitment, but the Army gave him a deferment so he could complete medical school in 1986 and residency training in anesthesiology from 1987-90 at UMMC before going on active duty.
He quickly built a list of military qualifications that is as impressive as it is lengthy: Special Forces; Ranger; Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE); combat diver; jumpmaster; master parachutist; flight surgeon; dive medical officer; Air Assault; and more.
He returned to UMMC in 1999 and completed residency training in emergency medicine before the military tapped him again. During 2004, Phillips was deployed to Afghanistan as a Special Forces battalion commander, part of Operation Enduring Freedom. While serving in the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, he led approximately 500 soldiers to complete hundreds of successful combat missions and earned the Bronze Star.
“I was pretty fortunate to have had a number of great experiences,” Phillips said. “I enjoyed my time in Afghanistan, but it’s not something I would jump to repeat. Being in charge of 500 guys carried a lot of responsibility, and in many cases, you realize you have been luckier than good.”
He returned to the Medical Center as anesthesiology director of resident education and helped cofound the UMMC Simulation Center. He became chief of staff in 2006, but it wasn’t long before his country called once more.
In 2007, Phillips was again assigned overseas – this time, to Iraq – as an emergency physician. He said the second deployment was a bit smoother than the first.
“Being a physician is easier because it’s very limited: you’re responsible for yourself, not in command of a unit,” he said.
After a successful tour, Phillips returned to Mississippi and settled in as state surgeon and residency program director in the Department of Emergency Medicine, but his life outside the military has been anything but leisurely. An avid runner – residents and staff say he can be seen running to and from work many days – he ran a 100-mile ultra-marathon to celebrate his 50th birthday.
“I don’t view any day as boring,” Phillips said. “If a day is boring, it’s because you’ve had your eyes closed.”
His combined contributions to the military, as a colonel and as a physician, resulted in the Legion of Merit.
“It’s obviously flattering to get one because it’s normally something one might receive at the end of a career,” he said. “To get one while you still have some tread on the tires was flattering.”
Phillips has enough tread left to embrace another academic challenge: working on a master’s degree through the Army War College and a critical care fellowship at Vanderbilt, which he is currently pursuing.
“People look at me funny when they learn I’m… a fellow again,” he said. “I enjoy learning, and it’s a unique opportunity for someone my age to get the chance to do more training.”