In his historic first speech as president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, Dr. Claude Brunson confronted the issue of health-care access - or lack of it - for many in the rural state.
Elected to serve as the association's first African-American leader in August, he has made access one of his top priorities while helming the 4,700-member statewide organization comprised of physicians and medical students.
His commitment to bettering the quality of life for Mississippians was created during his childhood in Alabama, where he was brought up to value responsibility and education as vital tools needed in life.
But, during his journey toward a college degree, Brunson took a detour: A mere two weeks following his high school graduation, he opted to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
"It took me another two weeks to break this unforgivable news to my mother and family," Brunson said.
(Above left to right): Brunson, pictured here as a young boy, was the third of four children, with two older brother – Bobby and Delbrow – and a sister, Patsy. After enrolling at Auburn University for the summer immediately after high school, Brunson enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the urging of a recruiter visiting the campus. Brunson is proud his three daughters, shown here in a portrait taken around 1996; in matching dresses are Chelsea, left, and Claudia, holding onto to their little sister Christin. In this undated photo, Brunson, a trained anesthesiologist, takes a breather in the OR.
Admitting he never liked sleeping in the woods, Brunson said he knew if he were to enlist it would have to be with the Navy or Air Force. After signing up as a Hospital Corpsman, he was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force.
“Spent the next three-and-a-half years sleeping in the woods,” he said.
Four years of service went by, and Brunson returned home, where he had grown up in the shadow of Auburn University, the third of four children raised by his mother and grandmother.
Before enlisting in the Navy, he had even enrolled in summer classes at Auburn. Whether it was his proximity to the university or the work ethic of his mother who was employed at AU, Brunson said he always knew education was a must, an area where he was expected to excel.
So he enrolled at the University of Alabama. “They operated the medical school in Birmingham,” he said. The idea made sense to him.
“It was the second unforgivable sin I had committed from my family’s perspective,” he joked, saying it took nearly a decade before his Auburn family forgave him.
After UAB, Brunson completed an internship in internal medicine at Baptist Medical Centers in Birmingham and a residency in anesthesiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1991.
Today, Brunson serves as the senior advisor to the vice chancellor for external affairs and as a professor of anesthesiology, a position that began with his family’s encouragement to pursue education. That focus is one he freely admits to passing on to his children.
“I am a father of three beautiful daughters,” said Brunson. “My oldest, Christin, just finished Ole Miss Law School in 2013 and completed an LL.M. program in May 2014 in health-care law at the University of Houston Law School.
With the aid of his daughter Christin, Dr. Claude Brunson, second from right, takes the oath of office from Dr. Lee Voulters, right, chair of the MSMA Board of Trustees. Bearing witness is Dr. James Rish, left, outgoing MSMA president.
“My middle daughter Chelsea and youngest Claudia are still in college,” he said.
Now tasked with leading the state’s medical association, Brunson knows he has a position that allows him to influence, even more, those who are pursuing education and a better quality of life.
As the first African-American elected to lead the Mississippi State Medical Association through such challenges, Brunson has said it’s remarkable how unremarkable his election was.
“I think, until you break through the glass ceiling, people around you may not think it’s possible. Once it happens, that issue goes away,” he said. “I think I happen to be the first, but I won’t be the last.
“And now no person of color can say, ‘Well, I’ll never get to be president. They don’t allow that to happen.’ You can’t say that anymore.”
Medical leaders around the state chimed in on Brunson’s historic election to lead the association.
University of Mississippi leaders are on hand to witness the inauguration of Dr. Claude Brunson, second from right, as the new president of the Mississippi State Medical Association on Aug. 15. With him are, from left, Dr. Dan Jones, University of Mississippi chancellor; Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC associate vice chancellor for health affairs and vice dean of the School of Medicine; and Dr. James Keeton, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.
“We are delighted to have a MSMA president from UMMC, where every physician is a member,” said Charmain Kanosky, MSMA’s executive director.
“Dr. Brunson is an ideal representative of academic and office-based members. He has served MSMA in numerous leadership positions and has been a tremendous asset to the association.
“Just as notable, he benefitted MSMA while making equally valuable contributions to the practice of medicine and the University of Mississippi Medical Center.”
In his role as MSMA president, Brunson said he’s encouraged to help bring more physicians and specialists to all the corners of the state, the long-term goal in trying to give Mississippians the best access to the best health care.
Part of the group working with Gov. Phil Bryant to bring 1,000 more doctors to the state by 2025, UMMC is dedicated to helping the state reach the goal, Brunson said.
Applauding the state Legislature for also stepping up to the challenge, Brunson said the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program, authorized by the state legislature in 2007, is another tool for improving health-care access.
“We give scholarships to students that come from rural areas to pay for medical school so they don’t have debt coming out,” Brunson said. Those future doctors then go into a primary care specialty and then are committed to return to their hometowns where there are few, if any, physicians practicing.
The commitment to educating and retaining more physicians while bringing more health-care options to Mississippians is a top priority for Brunson as he leads the state’s medical association.
“That will all play into this Medical Center’s mission to improve health care and improve access to health care,” Brunson said. “And it’s right in line with what the Mississippi State Medical Association wants to do, and I believe has a responsibility to do.”
Regarding Brunson’s ability as a problem-solver, Dr. Scott Hambleton, medical director of the Mississippi Professionals Health Program said, “One thing is certain about Claude: Regardless of the complexity of the situation, he will accurately assess it and diplomatically cut to the heart of the issue, usually before most folks know that there is a situation.”
And the man whom Brunson succeeded as head of MSMA, Dr. James Rish, voiced his full faith in the new leader.
“He is a very thoughtful and articulate leader who has worked hard on behalf of the association,” Rish said. “MSMA will be in good hands under his leadership.”