Mending the fragile life: UMMC’s Meeks reflects on decades of heartbreak, triumph
By Gary Pettus
He was 15 the day he got the news about Cliffie.
Dr. Rodney Meeks, far right, with his accomplished family, from left: daughter Dr. Ellen Meeks, who has a doctorate in physical therapy; daughter Dr. Shannon Meeks, a pediatrician in Atlanta; wife Dr. Sara Meeks, who retired from medicine early in her career; and son Patrick Meeks, a computer engineer in Ocala, Fla.
Some 50 years later, Dr. G. Rodney Meeks of Brandon doesn’t dwell on it, doesn’t say it propelled him into medicine, the profession he excelled at until his retirement this year.
But when asked to describe a life-changing event, he remembers his brother.
“Life is fragile,” said Meeks, repeating a truth that has dogged him as an OB-GYN and professor of medicine at UMMC, and also as a brother, son and father.
Still, there is this other truth he could always cling to, one that helped define him: You can put some people’s lives back together.
Over his 35-year turn at UMMC, he saw this. He saw younger and younger babies survive premature births.
He saw the rise of in vitro fertilization and test tube babies, progress in reconstructive surgery and cancer treatments, and a surge of women entering medicine.
“I feel very blessed to have been here,” he said, unable to name any lowlights from his career.
“There were so few of them by comparison to the good things, they just don’t stick in my mind.”
He prefers to reflect on the healing power of medicine and his acknowledged mastery of it – he specialized in pelvic-floor disorders and, in 2008, the Society of Gynecological Surgeons named him Distinguished Surgeon of the Year.
Medicine’s possibilities were first revealed to him decades earlier, by an old book he discovered in his grandmother’s house when he was 9 or 10.
It was a Merck’s manual, the classic medical textbook whose earlier, 1899 edition, for example, included treatments for collapse, perspiring feet and nightmares.
“It was fascinating,” Meeks said.
As a cure-all for life’s ills, the book, however, had nothing on his father, a World War II veteran who had landed at Normandy, and then found civilian life afterward serene by comparison.
“My dad was happy in general, even with all the hardships he faced. He always believed that he and we could deal with any situation,” said Meeks, who tried to make his father’s character his own.
Maybe that’s what sustained him that Saturday when he’d been mowing the lawn and his parents came home to break the news about his 6-year-old brother.
“I believe these were my mother’s exact words: “‘We lost Cliffie.’
“My first thought was, ‘Let’s go find him.’”
The boy he used to take swimming and on bike rides had drowned during a boating trip at the Barnett Reservoir. This left Meeks with “a certain outlook.”
Within a year or so, he would make up his mind to save lives for a living.
His family – including his sister and another brother – had been in Mississippi for several years by then, moving from Oklahoma, where Meeks was born and where he found the Merck’s.
Over time, the book continued to work its magic, and by high school in Columbia, his family’s home for several years, he believed that a doctor’s life would be “extremely rewarding.”
So did the woman who would become his wife.
Between him and Sara McDavid of Macon, there was, in every sense of the word, chemistry – their major at Millsaps College in Jackson, where they met.
During summers, Meeks would write to her from the New Mexico oil fields where he worked to earn college money. At Millsaps, they both toiled in the cafeteria, and made plans to become doctors.
Although Sara would become a pediatrician, she retired early to devote all her time to volunteering and bringing up their children: Ellen, the oldest, now a UMMC doctor of physical therapy; Shannon, a pediatrician in Atlanta; and Patrick, a computer engineer in Florida.
“I never got to the point where I could go back to work,” said Sara Meeks, noting that her husband always backed her up choices.
“We’ve been married 43 years,” she said. “Sometimes it’s been hard, but I haven’t seen anyone I’d swap him for.”
Almost two years older than her husband, she had finished her second year of medical school when Meeks was accepted in 1970, the year they were married.
“We were broke,” Sara Meeks said, “and we knew we were broke.”
Although she finished her residency at UMMC, Meeks considered a more exotic setting for his residency in OB-GYN: the University of Rochester in New York, a place recommended by some friends, and a long way from home in miles and Fahrenheit.
“I wanted to see and live in a different place,” he said.
When Dr. Henry Thiede, UMMC associate dean of academic affairs, announced he would become chair of Rochester’s OB-GYN department, Meeks, Sara and their 6-month-old daughter Ellen moved to the Empire State.
“We didn’t have a washing machine in Rochester,” Sara Meeks said. “So, when it snowed, we had to pull our dirty clothes to the laundry on a sled.”
During his residency, Meeks had more luck fixing his patients than he did his roof, which leaked whenever it rained.
But, as his family physician in Columbia warned him: “‘You can’t heal them all.’”
No one had to tell Meeks that, certainly not after his father, at 52, died of a heart attack.
“It made me realize, more than ever, that you should do whatever you can to enjoy life,” Meeks said. “I can tell you that my dad enjoyed it very much.”
He decided to enjoy it in the state he considered home, after he was lured back to Mississippi by his mentor, Dr. Winfred Wiser, then the chair of UMMC’s OB-GYN Department and the man for whom UMMC’s Hospital for Women and Infants is named.
“When I got here in 1978 after my residency, I told Dr. Wiser that I would make a commitment to stay two years,” Meeks said.
Two decades later, Meeks was named the Winfred L. Wiser Chair of Gynecological Surgery – “one of the best moments of my career,” he said.
From the moment he had returned to Mississippi, Meeks began making his reputation in UMMC’s classrooms and OR; on youth soccer fields, where he refereed with his son Patrick sometimes; and in the choir loft and pews of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Brandon.
“He gets to church early just to shake hands with everyone, to let them know they’re welcome,” said the Rev. Sandra Thomas, pastor of worship and music.
He has written thank-you notes and get-well cards about as often as he’s written prescriptions – which they are, in a way.
While Thomas’ daughter was being treated for cancer years ago, Meeks and Sara helped out by keeping Thomas’ two young sons “at the drop of a hat,” Thomas said.
“They’re just very kind people.”
As a medical student working under Meeks on research projects, Dr. Karen Cole saw his gentleness bubble up in the lab.
“When our first rabbit died, I cried like a baby,” said Cole, a Jackson OB-GYN, “and he didn’t think I was an idiot.
“He was one of the nicest people I ever encountered at UMC.”
Sister Clarice Carroll saw Meeks’ compassionate side as well when he helped her spearhead a prenatal-care program for women in prison.
Now a retired associate professor of OB-GYN, she said he was known at the medical center as a “gentleman” and the doctor “with a beautiful head of curly hair.”
That’s why she, among many others, was shocked the day he came to work bald.
Meeks’ daughter Ellen probably knows the story best.
In 2001, when she was 27, she needed surgery on the part of the brain linked to her seizures; she had to have her head shaved.
“I guess my dad figured I was tired of talking about the surgery, so he decided he’d give everyone a new topic of conversation,” Ellen Meeks said. “It worked.”
As she lay in her hospital room following the operation, in walked her father – sporting a head as barren as hers. He had also shaved off his grand, handlebar mustache – perched under his nose for years like the wings of a small bird.
The whole family was startled, Sara Meeks said. “One of the kids saw him and said, ‘Here comes Mama Jean.’ He looked so much like his mother.”
Later, Meeks would repeat the gesture after Sara lost her hair during chemotherapy for breast cancer.
“He doesn’t put the lid down any more often than the other guy,” she said, “but he is very kind.”
During his “A Faculty Farewell Dinner” retirement event Jan. 30, Dr. Rodney Meeks, second from right, receives a gift marking his 35 years of service to the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Medial Center. On hand for the presentation were, from left, Dr. Harriette Hampton, professor; Dr. Mohamed Ghafar, assistant professor; and Dr. James Shwayder, professor and chairman of the department.
Now, in his retirement, Meeks plans to travel, teach some classes part-time and, “after driving to the medical center for 35 years, see if I can force my car to turn in another direction.”
The book that helped put him on that path, the Merck’s, has vanished. But he remembers it well, the exhaustive roster of cures or treatments for almost every condition, it seemed, except heartbreak.
When it comes to that, he has to face it alone, except when Mama Jean’s in town, and they drive together to Lakewood Cemetery on Clinton Boulevard and visit Cliffie.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS and MEMBERSHIPS
- Winfred L. Wiser Chair of Gynecologic Surgery, UMMC
- Director, Division of Gynecology, UMMC
- Distinguished Surgeon of the Year, Society of Gynecologic Surgeons, 2008
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Fellow
- Ward L. Ekas Award for outstanding resident in obstetrics and gynecology, University of Rochester (N.Y.) Strong Memorial Hospital, 1978
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
- Society of Gynecologic Surgeons
- American Urogynecology Society
- Mississippi State Medical Association
- Jackson Gynecic Society
- Winfred L. Wiser Society
- Association of Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics