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Published in CenterView on January 13, 2014
Hunter, left, and Crews
Hunter, left, and Crews

Longtime SOD faculty, tobacco cessation champion leaves public health legacy

By Matt Westerfield

One day in 1998, soon after the landmark Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was signed, Dr. Karen Crews was working in the Diagnostic Sciences Clinic at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s School of Dentistry when she got a call from Mike Moore, then-attorney general of Mississippi.

“He said, ‘I heard that you were very interested in helping people quit smoking. Why don’t you come talk to me about it?’” Crews said, recalling her surprise.

Crews did meet with Moore, then with key folks around the Medical Center — including Dr. Wallace Conerly, then-vice chancellor for health affairs — and soon after the ACT Center for Tobacco Treatment, Education and Research was born in 1999.

That’s just one of the hallmarks of Crews’ career at UMMC. The professor of dentistry, director of oral oncology and bio-behavioral medicine and director of the ACT Center retires this month.

After graduating from the School of Dentistry in 1986 and joining the faculty two years later, Crews will leave the Medical Center for a new challenge: taking a stab at private practice on the Gulf Coast. And, in a curious coincidence, her longtime confidant, Debbra Hunter, is retiring at the same time.

Hunter joined the dental school in 1987 as an administrative assistant and helped Crews write the ACT Center grant. She has since served as director of clinical operations for the ACT Center for 10 years.

“This is the person who has been by my side for all of these projects, the person who did the budgets, who always said, ‘you can do it,’” Crews said. “I’m very proud of what she’s done.”

Hailing from McComb and later Mississippi State University, Crews said she was inspired to become a dentist by her hometown dentist as a child. Dedicated to public health, she worked at the Rankin County Correctional Facility for two years after graduation before a friend on the SOD faculty encouraged her to consider academic dentistry — that and the fact that she ran a tobacco-prevention research project at the prison.

“I got the bug about tobacco because of a research project I conducted under the mentorship of Dr.’s Sig Krolls and Stephen Silberman. I did a 10 percent random sample on the entire population, and what we found was that 85-88 percent of the inmates were smokers,” she said.

Once on faculty, Crews worked with two area nuns to launch the Sister Robin Dental Clinic for the Homeless in Jackson.

“That really taught me a lot about humanity and why it was so important to give back,” she said.

Crews ran the clinic during the next decade while also becoming the School of Dentistry’s first woman to make full professor and the school’s first female dean – as assistant dean for extramural programs and institutional advancement.

Then came the call from Moore.

“It was a huge responsibility,” she said of obtaining the $3.5 million ACT Center grant. “So I partnered with other people. I had to really look at not just focusing on the patients I treated every day, but how we were going to impact the hundreds of thousands of Mississippians out there who use tobacco.

“I was really given the opportunity to think of this on a statewide scale.”

In addition to Hunter, Crews found a key ally in Dr. Tom Payne, who at the time was a clinical psychologist who had created a tobacco-treatment program at the VA Medical Center. Payne co-wrote the grant and has since served as associate director of the ACT Center and will continue to lead the program.

On top of the tobacco-treatment project, Crews was approached by Dr. Scott Stringer, professor and chair of otolaryngology, to eventually develop an oral oncology program at the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center in 2005, an effort which required heavy support from both the School of Dentistry and the School of Medicine. Crews said she learned a lot about leadership working with Stringer and was one of the highlights of her career.

Dr. Harold Kolodney, professor of dentistry and former president of the Mississippi Dental Association who taught Crews while she was in dental school, will succeed her as director of the clinic. In turn, Crews and her husband are planning to move to Gulfport, where she will partner with a former student of hers, Dr. Andrea Elenbaas, who graduated in 1996. And Crews’ longtime compatriot, Hunter, plans to remain with the ACT Center on a part-time basis.

“We just developed a great relationship over that period of time,” said Hunter. “She’s just a great person.”