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Published in CenterView on December 16, 2013
Dr. Peter Arnold is making a place for himself as the new chief of medical staff at UMMC.
Dr. Peter Arnold is making a place for himself as the new chief of medical staff at UMMC.

Family ties help guide Arnold to UMMC’s chief of staff post

By Gary Pettus

In Rochester, Minn., where Dr. Peter Arnold grew up, you could hardly shake a tree without a surgeon falling out.

“Being the son of a chief of surgery wasn’t a big deal,” Arnold said. “The town was full of them.”
But there, at the home of the Mayo Clinic, even Dr. P. G. Arnold cast an enormous shadow that would loom over his son.

“I really tried not to be a doctor,” Peter Arnold said, “but there was that voice in the back of my head that wouldn’t stop talking.”

The voice that guided Arnold to a medical career in spite of himself would steer him years later to UMMC, where the plastic surgeon and recently appointed chief of the medical staff is making his own place in the sun. Appointed to the chief’s post about five months ago, and four years after his arrival, Arnold believes he pestered his way into the job.

“I guess I made enough of a nuisance of myself to be considered for it,” said Arnold, who’s also associate program director for the Plastic Surgery Residency Training Program.

As chief of the medical staff, he gets to try out all those ideas he had been bringing to the door of Dr. William Cleland, chief medical officer, who tapped Arnold with the approval of Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs.

“A couple of processes bugged me and I’d walk into Dr. Cleland’s office and tell him,” Arnold said. “Then I started thinking about the bigger picture – how do we make the process work for plastic surgery, for the Department of Surgery, for vascular surgery?”

Now he’s trying to make it work for everyone on the medical staff.

“Dr. Arnold is smart and has a lot of energy,” said Cleland, who, as chief medical officer, works for the entire Medical Center, including the hospitals, clinics and dental school, while also serving as  medical director for risk management. “He is very well-spoken and is well-respected among the staff.

“He has that mix of things that equals the right stuff for the job.”

Between the chief medical officer and chief of medical staff jobs, there is some overlap. Formerly a two-year elected position before Arnold succeeded Dr. Marion Wofford, the chief of the medical staff is now appointed – a decision Keeton and Cleland made as well.

“It was difficult to make an impact in just two years,” Cleland said.

From now on, chiefs of staff also will be given more time to do that job, thanks to a reduced clinical workload.

By tradition, Arnold will oversee the credentialing of physicians, peer reviews, ongoing professional practices, evaluations and more. Beyond those conventional duties, Keeton and Cleland tacked on a couple more: improving quality control and boosting communication among physicians and between physicians and other staff.

“I don’t think there is a perfect way of communication,” Arnold said, “but with improved communications, everything improves, more or less, in my opinion. It’s helping people understand the process, figuring out which things are working well and making sure we have better outcomes.

“But I believe I’ll always be learning. Compared to the clinical role, you have to use your brain in a very different way.”

When it was very young, his brain was exposed to the clinician’s role in one of the world’s great medical settings. Although Arnold was born in North Carolina and spent much of his adult life in Virginia, he was shaped in great part by his Minnesota childhood.

P. G. Arnold, now retired, was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for 32 years, and Peter Arnold was often his father’s guest at work.

“I went to the dissection lab with him when I was old enough not to do something stupid,” he said.
He saw his father operate, “which is why I think I got the idea of doing surgery stuck in my head,” he said. He practically watched medical history being made.

Arnold’s father and his colleague, Dr. John McCraw, coauthored a textbook published in the 1980s, McCraw & Arnold’s Atlas of Muscle and Musculocutaneous Flaps.

“I look at that book every week,” Arnold said.

After earning a Ph.D. in anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, in 2000, Arnold graduated from medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Then he surrendered completely to his destiny: At the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, he did his residency training in plastic and maxillofacial surgery.

“No two problems are the same,” he said, explaining the allure of reconstructive surgery. “It’s being able to plan something out really well, but also being able to execute a third plan if the first two don’t work out, and have the patient do well.”

It was while searching for a place where his opinions might matter the most that Arnold discovered UMMC, based on McCraw’s recommendation. The two should get along quite well, McCraw said.

“He has a way of nudging things along the way he likes them and letting everybody contribute. And so everyone leaves the room happy.”

Based on his mentor’s endorsement, Arnold visited Mississippi for the first time in his life a few years ago. He found UMMC ripe for “significant growth,” he said.

“I’m the type of person who likes to build stuff, grow stuff, rather than plug into something. It was an obvious choice for me.”

Between his research, surgery and work for the medical staff, Arnold’s constantly moving.

At the end of November, he was on a plane to Dublin, Ireland, where he was to be a presenter at the British Association of Plastic Surgeons.

His seatmate, and supporter, was a physician the prestigious group had invited there for years: his father.