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Dr. Fred Rushton, a UMMC surgeon, is known for his ability to work as part of a team, facility for memorization and recall, professionalism and dexterity - all of which contribute to his flair for handling a precise and specialized instrument: the clarinet.
He's also pretty good with a scalpel - as might be expected of the division chief and program director for the Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery.
But surgery, as much as he enjoys it, is his job. Music - listening to it and performing it - is his therapy and his thrill.
“When I come home from a bad day,” he said, “I go in my man cave and put on the Mahler symphonies or Beethoven's 7th. It's how I relax.”
“Relax,” he says. Rushton is so attuned to music, he plays clarinet for three different ensembles: the Mississippi Community Symphony Band; the Mississippi Baptist Symphony Orchestra, which is part of the Mississippi Baptist Convention; and the Worship Orchestra of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, where he's a member
“He's an incredible musician,” said Dr. Lavon Gray, the church's minister of music. “I don't know how he has time to stay up with everything musically, but he obviously does.
“He's also been on medical missions, including to Haiti, where he ran clinics for a team from the church this past July. He's a jovial Christian gentleman who brings joy to anything he touches.”
Jo Anne Posey, another Medical Center employee, is one of four clarinetists in First Baptist's Worship Orchestra, playing alongside Rushton on Sundays.
“We don't really have officially designated chairs,” said Posey, health care benefits coordinator in the Central Billing Office, “but he would be considered first chair if we did.
“Everybody respects his opinion. He's also respected as a doctor. I've seen him and another doctor take care of someone who got sick in church. I've always said First Baptist is the best place to get sick - we have so many doctors there.”
It's fair to say that Rushton is the only one making a joyful noise with a cylindrical tube.
That was not part of his plan, though. Neither was becoming a doctor. “I was a music major at Ole Miss,” he said. “I was going to be a band director; that was Plan A.”
His instrument of choice, originally, was the trumpet, not the clarinet - the “cat” instrument in “Peter and the Wolf.” “But my lips wouldn't fit into a trumpet mouthpiece,” he said.
In high school and college, Rushton took piano lessons, but as far back as the fifth grade, he began expressing his love of music mostly through the reed and bell of the clarinet, choosing the woodwind over the brass at the band director's suggestion. “And I always liked its sound,” he said.
Although he was born in Corinth, Rushton grew up in Drew, then later in Tunica County, learning to play on a metal instrument his father rented for him, rather than on the more typical wooden model.
But it was his piano teacher, a product of Juilliard named Muriel Carrier Denton, who expressed a thought that stays with him to this day: “She told me music was higher math you don't really know you're doing.”
Logical thinkers - mathematicians, scientists and physicians - often have an affinity for music. The music-medicine connection, in particular, is powerful. In many operating rooms, including Rushton's, recorded music plays in the background.
Dr. Fred Rushton, far left, anchors the clarinet section of the Mississippi Community Symphonic Band.
And in many hospitals, music therapy has been used in palliative care.
Still, if Rushton thought of himself as medical school material, he had been quick to abandon the notion early on.
“There were only 31 in my graduating class at Tunica County High School,” he said. “I figured I didn't have a chance to get in against those kids from larger schools in Jackson.”
His Ole Miss roommate had other ideas. “He talked me into taking freshman biology and chemistry,” Rushton said. “He told me, 'You can do this.' And I made the highest grades in both classes.
“I graduated from Ole Miss in 1967 and got into medical school.” After earning his M.D. in 1971, Rushton did an internship, then a residency, in surgery before his fellowship in vascular surgery.
Why vascular surgery? “I liked seeing dead feet pink up,” he said. “You're reconstructing something so it will work again. That's what appeals to me. I mainly like to fix things that are alive.
“Although, my wife will tell you I'm not Mr. Fixit around the house.”
Rushton has stitched together a long, distinguished career at the Medical Center. The Dr. Fred Rushton Teaching Award, voted on by residents, is, of course, named for him.
In his life, though, medicine never precluded music.
“I figured if I ever stopped playing I would really miss it,” he said.
During his early career, a student who had played the clarinet talked Rushton into signing up for the Capital City Concert Band - one in a long procession of groups he has joined over the years, including the Mississippi Community Symphony Band, which has more than 100 members.
“The only problem we have with Fred is sometimes he can't make rehearsal - because he's in surgery,” said Tom Riley, the band's clarinet section leader.
“Our clarinet section wouldn't be what it is without Fred. He can make less seasoned players better. I wish we had 20 more like him.”
Rushton's next performance with the Mississippi Community Symphony Band is, tentatively, Dec. 20 at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson, for a Christmas concert expected to draw 2,000 listeners. The Mississippi Baptist Symphony Orchestra, which rotates its five or so annual performances among Baptist congregations in Mississippi, performed last on Oct. 11 in Petal.
This Sunday, Rushton will either be anchoring the clarinet section at First Baptist or, possibly, performing emergency surgery if he happens to be on call - in either case, wielding an instrument with the power to heal.
To view a performance of the First Baptist Church of Jackson orchestra (Rushton and Posey can be seen at the 1:18 mark), click here.
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