February 28, 2022

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In Memoriam: Dr. Thomas “Tommy” Prewitt Jr.

Published on Monday, February 28, 2022

The Medical Center extends its sympathy to the family of a former faculty member in appreciation for the loved one’s contributions to the academic health sciences center.

Dr. Thomas “Tommy” Prewitt Jr.

Portrait of Dr. Thomas “Tommy” Prewitt Jr.

Dr. Thomas “Tommy” Prewitt Jr. of Jackson, a retired Medical Center breast surgical oncologist who, after a diagnosis of dementia, directed his surgeon’s mind and hands to painting, died on February 18, 2022, two days before his 61st birthday.

Prewitt, who faced up to his condition with persistent courage and humor, signed his artwork “T. Dementia.” He left his mark on the Medical Center as well.

“Although, I didn’t have the good fortune to meet Tommy before his diagnosis, we took to each other quickly,” said Dr. Thomas Mosley, Robbie and Dudley Hughes Distinguished MIND Center Chair. “I think because we were both bald-headed, middle-aged guys named Tommy.

“Tommy and his family were remarkably and admirably brave to be completely forthcoming with his diagnosis, as heartbreaking and painful as it was,” said Mosley, director of The Memory Impairment and Neurodegenerative Dementia (MIND) Center, which hosted a 2019 event to honor Prewitt.

“They faced it head-on, and turned a tragic diagnosis into a call for action.” 

Prewitt discovered his love of painting because of his wife, the artist Cissy Primos Prewitt; he discovered his love of medicine, at least in part, because of Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce.

Apparently inspired by the exploits of the fictional surgeon from the TV series M*A*S*H, Prewitt graduated in 1988 from the School of Medicine at UMMC, where he entered the general surgery residency program. Medical students voted him “Best Teaching Resident” in the Department of Surgery.

After completing a medical staff fellowship in cancer research and clinical surgical oncology at the National Cancer Institute, he ran a solo general surgery practice while affiliated for about a dozen years with three North Carolina hospitals, in Lenoir and Boone. Before re-joining UMMC in 2009, he worked with Stillwater Surgical Associates in Oklahoma, also practicing general surgery and surgical oncology.

At the Medical Center, Prewitt was, for many years, an associate professor of surgery and director of health policy, practicing as a breast surgical oncologist while also serving as an educator and vice chair for quality and safety. Among his achievements was being named “All-star Clinician” for the Carl G. Evers, MD, Society, another honor voted on by students.

A dynamic patient advocate, Prewitt has had a lasting impact on the way breast cancer patients are treated at UMMC.

“Tommy loved his patients, and the patients and their families loved him,” said Dr. Barbara Craft, professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at UMMC. “I still have patients ask about him years after he last saw them.”

In a way, he was always on call: “All of his patients, no matter who they were, had his cell phone number, said Dr. Alexandra “Ali” Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, and a former breast pathologist at UMMC.

“He did so much for our patients with breast cancer at UMMC. He wanted them to have all the information and opportunities they would receive at any large breast cancer center.”

At one time, Brown and Prewitt left the Medical Center to work together as health care quality consultants for a Ridgeland firm. It was at that time that he began talking about how often he was misplacing his phone and keys, Brown said.

“I’m afraid I dismissed it, because everyone does those things on occasion,” she said.

Prewitt received his diagnosis, in 2015, at The MIND Center; he was in his mid-50s.

“We were saddened to hear what he was going through – he and his family,” Craft said, “because he had such a great mind.”

Prewitt’s wife, Cissy, a prominent Mississippi artist, urged him to explore painting and possibly discover a new purpose in life – which he did. Craft owns some of his artwork.

“He was very talented – a very talented surgeon and artist,” she said.

Several of his pieces are displayed in The MIND Center, Mosley said. “Although he was having increasing difficulty expressing himself verbally, when we would look at his art together, his face would glow. There’s the cliché – ‘his face would light up’ – and it did. 

“I believe he was as surprised as his admirers that he had unlocked this hidden artistic talent. It’s people like Tommy and his family who inspire us every day at The MIND Center to bring these diseases to an end.”

For some time after he learned he had dementia, Prewitt was still able to “capture people with his stories,” Craft said. “That didn’t change about him for a while,” she said. “He would still have people gathered around him, holding court.”

 In October 2019, The MIND Center hosted “A Night with Beautiful Minds,” honoring Prewitt and benefitting Alzheimer’s and dementia research. The event, which featured the physician’s artwork, raised more than $225,000 to support The MIND Center and its mission.

Craft and Brown were among those who attended.

“He was a gem, for sure,” Craft said. “He was a joy to be around. He always pushed those around him to do more and learn more. He had a strong desire to make all of medicine better.

“We have missed him so much and are all better for having known him.” 

Brown, who is also chief officer of medical quality for the American Society for Clinical Pathology, gives Prewitt credit for shaping her career path, probably more than anyone else has.

“I miss my friend,” she said. “He was a treasure to UMMC and to everyone who knew him.”