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Life-altering condition gives dentist insight into empathy

Published on Thursday, May 3, 2018

Media Contact: Alana Bowman

(Banner photo above: School of Dentistry patient Annie Cooper of Jackson, right, hugs Dr. Charles Ramsey, thanking him for his care.)

If you knew you only had one remaining opportunity to impart wisdom to your students, what would you tell them?

At Wednesday’s third annual Last Lecture presentation, Dr. Charles Ramsey, assistant clinical professor at the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry, told those gathered in the student union how his personal experience with pain taught him to treat his patients’ pain with empathy and compassion. His heartfelt message brought both laughter and tears to the audience.

Ramsey's message to students was to empathize with the patients they care for.
Ramsey's message to students was to empathize with their patients.

The event was sponsored by the Office of Alumni Affairs, Student Alumni Representatives, or STARS, and the Associated Student Body. The concept of the lecture was inspired by Dr. Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who gave a talk one month after learning he had metastatic pancreatic cancer. His lecture was transcribed in the book “The Last Lecture.” Following Pausch’s example, speakers are asked to consider what message they would like to impart to the world if they knew it was the last time they would ever be able to speak publicly.

Ramsey is the first speaker to be chosen from the School of Dentistry. The two previous lecturers were chosen from the School of Medicine. This year, the students’ nominations were narrowed to four by a committee then students cast their votes to determine who would be chosen to speak.

Ramsey was introduced by third-year dental student Mary Catherine Reynolds and second-year dental student Trent Wilkerson.

Ramsey, who is a graduate of Forest Hill High School in Jackson and completed an undergraduate degree at Mississippi College, earned a doctorate of dental medicine from the UM School of Dentistry in 1988.

Ramsey utilizes techniques in muscle and joint manipulation and splint therapy to treat chronic pain sufferers who have been deemed incurable.
Ramsey uses techniques in muscle and joint manipulation and splint therapy to treat chronic pain sufferers who have been deemed incurable.

Inspired by Miss Annie, a patient who suffered from cranial cervical dystonia, who once told him, “I don’t recognize the lady in the mirror.”

To that Ramsey replied, “Miss Annie, if you had said that to me before 2011, I would have tried to understand you.” But he admitted he would not have been able to empathize with her about living with chronic pain. Ramsey shared that in his life he had seen pain and heard pain, but he never really understood pain until 2011.

He saw what pain was when, as a child of 14, he watched his mother die from cancer. He heard pain while working for a surgeon while he was in college, hearing parents being told that their daughter didn’t survive her self-inflicted gunshot wound, despite the efforts of the surgeons.

“I’ll never forget the sound of pain when they told the mother and dad that their 19-year-old daughter did not make it,” Ramsey said. “The most guttural, deepest pain I’ve ever heard.”

However, it wasn’t until he began to experience numbness in his hands in 2010 that he experienced both the physical aspect of chronic pain and the emotional pain of losing a career that he loved.

Annie Cooper of Jackson, a patient who suffers from involuntary skeletal muscle contractions that force her ear towards her shoulder, thanked Ramsey for his enthusiasm and approach to her treatment.
Annie Cooper of Jackson, who suffers from involuntary skeletal muscle contractions that force her ear towards her shoulder, thanks Ramsey for his enthusiasm and approach to her treatment.

“I was watching football when it finally registered to me that I was bilaterally numb in my fingertips,” Ramsey said. “I knew it was my neck and not my hands.”

At a routine cholesterol check with his physician, Ramsey asked to have an x-ray taken of his neck.

“When I saw my x-ray for the first time, it was absolutely devastating,” Ramsey said. “It looked like I had been dropped on my head. I had no disc space. I knew 23 years were gone. It was over.”

Thinking he would delay surgery until summer of 2011, he was told by a physical medicine specialist that he couldn’t wait that long.

“He said, ‘Let me tell you something,” and he stuck his finger in my chest and said, ‘Your next step is a wheelchair and a diaper. If you get bumped in the parking lot, you’re a quad.’”

To avoid paralysis, Ramsey underwent surgery to fuse the vertebra in his neck. He tried to return to work but lacked the fine motor skills in his hands necessary for practicing dentistry.

“It was like I had somebody else’s hands,” Ramsey said.

He was forced to sell his practice. “Quite honestly, selling my practice was emotionally a very dark place. I lost my identity,” Ramsey said. “I struggled for two years. Am I a dentist? I can’t practice dentistry. I didn’t know who I was.”

What he said saved his sanity was a call from Dr. Scott Gatewood, associate dean for academic affairs at the dental school. Gatewood apologized for passing Ramsey’s name to Beckie Barry, professor and chair of the Department of Dental Hygiene. The school was in search of a new faculty member.

Ramsey started working as an assistant clinical professor in the dental hygiene program and eventually joined the faculty in the dentistry program as well.

“I love what I do. I’m in a good place,” Ramsey said. “But like Miss Annie, I don’t recognize the person in the mirror.” He said chronic pain changes people, makes them more sensitive to everyday stressors. He advised the students to not be distant with patients.

At the end of the lecture, Annie Cooper stood before the crowd and spoke directly to Ramsey.

"I too would like to thank you for everything that you have done for me," Cooper said. "Your enthusiasm for and your approach to [my treatment] is remarkable."

She then turned to the crowd and said, "As you can guess, I am Miss Annie."

Ramsey closed with advice to the future health care providers in attendance.

“Touch your patients. Put your hand on their shoulder. Hold their hand,” Ramsey said. “All of our patients have a story. Take time to care for patients.”