NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Mississippi Medicine, the semi-annual alumni magazine for the School of Medicine. A PDF of that issue can be found here.
For as long as Katrina Poe can remember, her hometown had a doctor - Dr. L.C. Henson, who delivered her.
He was there for her when she was born; she would be there for him when he died.
He was her family's doctor, and she became his - and just about everybody else's in town - a career choice inspired by Henson and, ironically, by her mother Bessie Poe.
Kilmichael - “The Town that Cares” - is the kind of place that desperately needs physicians who care, but also the kind that usually has trouble attracting or churning them out, and maybe that's why no one could blame Bessie Poe for her response to her 10-year-old daughter the day she announced she was going to be one.
“Oh, girl, just sit down somewhere,” Bessie Poe told her.
But she didn't sit down, and she didn't sit on her dream, because, even then, 35 years ago, few people cared more about Kilmichael than did Katrina Poe.
One day, as a doctor, she would help save the town's hospital and, as a daughter, the life of her mother.
'I told you, didn't I?'
Putting a child through medical school had seemed beyond the family's means when 10-year-old Katrina had announced her intentions, Bessie Poe said.
“Back then, it was hard. We didn't have money or nothing. We were just factory workers.”
Besides, the town had never had an African-American physician.
Eventually, the factory where the Poes worked, Steel Apparel, closed and moved away. James Poe found a new job at an air conditioner manufacturing plant in Grenada, about 40 miles distant.
Before that, even Katrina worked at the factory in the hours after school, cutting material and doing inspections. She and her sister Cheryl Poe, who is earning her RN degree, learned the value of work.
“My husband used to plant peas for them, and they would pick them, and he would take them around town so they could sell them to different people,” Bessie Poe said.
“He told both of them, 'I want you to learn how to do something for yourself. Because if you get an old lazy man for a husband, you will be able to take care of yourself.'”
Besides playing basketball and running track, Poe was a cheerleader for her high school.
While growing up in Montgomery County, Katrina Poe enjoyed being around people, but she was also comfortable being alone. Although she was a cheerleader in high school and played basketball and ran track, she also spent a lot of time by herself with a book in her hand.
You wouldn't even know she was in the house if you didn't know she was in the house,” said her mom.
Math was her favorite subject, but she was so good at it, she could afford to fall asleep in Miss Vance's class, by which time she had been sated and worn out by basketball practice and lunch.
“One day Miss Vance said to me, 'Katrina, are you sick today?'” she recalled.
“I said, 'No, ma'am, why would you ask that?'” And she said, 'Because today you stayed awake.'”
Another subject that interested her greatly: the family's doctor.
“My mom was always sick when I was growing up,” Katrina Poe said, “and just watching Dr. Henson take care of her, I knew that's what I wanted to do.”
When Katrina was 12, she asked for, and received from an aunt, a toy doctor kit for Christmas. “From then on, we knew she meant business about being a doctor,” Bessie Poe said.
Dr. Katrina Poe makes a home visit in October with one of her patients, Gracie Glover of Winona.
“She kept her grades up, was the high school valedictorian, and went to college. She got all those scholarships. I think we bought her a car once, but after that, she did everything else herself.
“She was serious; she sure was.”
So, one day in 1998, Bessie and James Poe left their home between Kilmichael and Choctaw County's French Camp. They drove to Jackson to see their younger daughter fulfill her fifth-grade promise.
“I had to apologize that day,” said Bessie Poe. “Katrina said to me, 'Mama, I told you, didn't I?'”
Eviction and vindication
Katrina and her husband Calvin are bringing up two sons in Kilmichael, James, aka "Deuce," to her left, and C.J.
Long before Katrina Poe finished her family medicine residency at UMMC, Dr. Diane Beebe found out just how serious she was.
“This is the truth: She was a star from the very beginning,” said Beebe, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and the program's residency director at that time.
“She not only diagnosed patients correctly, gave them the proper medication, she also took ownership. She learned as much about them as she could - their lifestyles, their economics, so she would be better able to help them.
“And she always followed up, always wanted to know how they were doing, and made sure they didn't get lost.”
Those she cared most about were the ones she grew up with, or who taught her in school, or who shared her DNA.
“I love this small community,” Katrina Poe said. “My parents, my family are still here.”
Even before finishing medical school, she began seeing patients in Kilmichael, doing a rotation with Henson, and again as a resident. She was probably the first African-American physician any of them had ever seen; Katrina Poe didn't see her first - the legendary OB-GYN specialist, Dr. Helen Barnes - until she was in medical school.
“She always knew she was going to go back there and practice,” Beebe said, “because that's what her community needed.”
This was before the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program, which today offers incentives to doctors who agree to practice several years in physician-needy areas.
“It's amazing to me that she's still there, more than 15 years later,” Beebe said. “It's very hard to keep physicians in a small town, even if it's their hometown. They work a lot of long hours, because they live in the community; they're available to their patients just about all the time.”
Katrina Poe was a rare sight in Kilmichael, where she was only the second female physician to serve the town, following Dr. Rebecca Hodges, who had worked with Henson a few years in the 1980s. Before she took over Henson's clinic, there was to be a transition, allegedly.
“Dr. Henson said he would stay at least a year before I took over by myself,” Katrina Poe said. “But he came in one day wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans and a T-shirt, this man who always came to work in a button-down shirt and a tie.
“He said, 'I feel like you can handle it.' So he retired, left the clinic and went to his farm.” She had been there one month.
As Henson, the only physician in town, planned his retirement, Katrina Poe's return saved the local hospital, where her husband once served as administrator. Without a practicing physician in town, it would have closed. It now operates as a health clinic, an extension of North Mississippi Health Services hospital operations in Eupora.
At Poe's return, there were about 800 people in Kilmichael, or about 200 more than there are now, as estimated in 2015 by the U.S. Census Bureau. Without the presence of a physician, more might have left. As it was, some just abandoned the clinic - because of Poe.
“Everyone here was not receptive to me at first,” she said, “especially male patients, black and white. I was young and female. I actually had some white male patients who refused to see me - they said it was because I was black. One ordered me out of the room in front of Dr. Henson, who was shocked.”
Asked how she managed to overcome those less-than-accepting attitudes, she said, “By just being myself. I try to be very warm, very personable.
“I think it was hearing from other patients that changed some minds - family members going back home and saying that they liked me.” As for the man who had ordered her out of the exam room, about year later he came back, too
“I became that man's doctor,” Poe said. “He apologized to me on his deathbed.”
The only patient around
Those who have remained in Kilmichael are relieved they still have a doctor of their own, particularly one they had seen running like the dickens and shooting baskets and growing up.
On a late September morning, Poe greeted one of those - Julia “Miss Julia” Bond, a former patient of Henson's - the way she greets every patient: with a hug.
“Miss Julia, do you need any prescriptions, darling?” Poe said. Between checking patients' blood pressure and chest, Poe administers regular doses of “darling and “sweetie.”
“She doesn't fail to explain stuff to you,” Bond said later. “She always hugs your neck when you come and when you go out. You sure can't ask for a better doctor.”
Dorothy Small, who's 97, would say “amen” to that, as would her husband Frank “Mr. Frank” Small, who is proud of being married 70 years - “to the same wife.”
Dorothy Small, who suffers knee pain, tried, and succeeded, in holding Poe's attention for some time in the exam room. It was obvious she hated for Poe to leave.
“I'm trying to think of something else I need to tell you,” Dorothy Small said to her at one point.
Another of Poe's patients, Charles Austin, who coached her in basketball and track at Kilmichael High School, probably knows her as well as anyone outside Poe's family.
“She is a perfect role model for our kids here,” Austin said. “They just all flock around her.
“When you're in the treatment room with her, it's like you are the only patient anywhere. We are blessed to have her in Kilmichael. And she's really been busy since she's been here.”
She's been busy, at times, caring for the kinds of patients she may have not bargained for. There was the GoLytely incident, for instance, when Poe's lab technician ran in one day in tears: Dakota had the colic and there was no one around who could help, except Poe
So Poe found a hose and a funnel and cleaned out Dakota's gut with a dose of GoLytely, and the lab tech's beloved horse was the better for it.
Kilmichael Clinic, situated across the street from the former hospital where Henson delivered Poe, became part of the Greenwood-Leflore Hospital system in the spring of 2015.
During the switchover, and much to Stella Pittman's alarm, the clinic was closed for a couple of months.
“I just about made myself sick when she wasn't here,” said Pittman, who travels some 20 miles from her home in Eupora to be doctored by Poe.
“It seems like she's done me more good than the other doctors,” Pittman said. “Everybody I knew had started coming to her, so I thought I'd try it.”
“Everybody” is about right. From the beginning, Poe was swamped with patients - about 50 a day, back when she didn't take appointments. That number has dropped to about 40-45, a caseload she shares with the clinic's nurse practitioner Sandra Bates.
One day during flu season, she saw about 75, or 30 more than her entire high school graduating class.
Around her third year of practice, her patients were already lined up at that clinic by 7:15 a.m., about 45 minutes before it opened.
When the older of her two sons, C.J., was a little boy, she would take him with her to work, where a room served as a nursery.
Years earlier, she met C.J.'s future father, Calvin Johnson, during their junior high years when he lived in Vaiden. Although he asked her out several times in high school, she refused, as she always had a previous date with a book.
But in high school, her older sister Cheryl was seeing Johnson's uncle at the time and told Katrina that Calvin liked her. “She paid me to take Calvin to my high school senior prom,” Katrina Poe said. They began dating officially their freshman year at Mississippi State University.
Sometime later, she married him. They have two sons now: James “Deuce” Johnson, 11; and C.J. Johnson, now 14, who used to talk about becoming a doctor. Lately, though, he says to his mom, “It doesn't seem like you have a life.”
Poe also makes house calls and nursing home rounds. She's the high school's team physician. She's involved in her church. She's the medical director and physician for a community-based residential home serving the mentally disabled of all ages.
“I missed a lot of my children's lives,” she said, “especially early in my practice here, but I'm trying to be with them as much as I can.”
The physician's prayer
About four years into her practice, in 2005, she was named Country Doctor of the Year by Staff Care Incorporated, an insurance company for physicians. The honor is reserved for doctors who dedicate their careers to serving rural communities.
Now 46, she was the youngest, and first African-American, to receive the award.
Linda Turner, a former clinic nurse now living in Chicago, had put together an album of testimonials from more than 40 patients and staff; this amounted to Poe's nomination letter.
“I was shocked when I won,” Poe said. “It was a proud moment; it was for the whole town.”
The people of Kilmichael threw her a parade and staged the award presentation in the high school auditorium; it was packed.
“I reckon there were even some people from out of town who came in,” Austin said.
It would be reasonable to assume that this was the best day of her career. But that doesn't take into account her mom.
“Two years ago, she was dying before my eyes,” Katrina Poe said. “She had been so sick in my childhood, then she got better for a while, but went down again.”
Bessie Poe needed either a kidney or dialysis - but dialysis would have weakened her heart too much to make her a good candidate for a transplant, her daughter said.
“I felt helpless, being a physician and not being able to help her.”
Bessie Poe's nephrologist in Greenwood put her on a transplant list. “And Katrina started praying, 'Let me be a donor for my mama,'” Bessie Poe said.
It seems that in Kilmichael, prayer does work. “We matched up all around,” Bessie Poe said.
In November 2014, at UMMC, she received a kidney from her daughter. She has been healthier ever since.
“That was my proudest moment,” her daughter said.
At last, she had been able to help her mother, not as her doctor, but as a healer all the same.