May

Portrait of Denise Powell
Denise Powell "accidentally" fell in love with medicine, and especially pediatrics, after working with a "challenging" group of students.
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#UMMCGrad19: Powell's resume includes CNN, GMA, ABC – and now, M.D.

Published on Thursday, May 16, 2019

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

Denise Powell has studied spiders in Belize; spent a summer with Colorado River Tribes in New Mexico; written for CNN in Atlanta and ABC in New York; dined on fries in Quebec; and chewed the fat with The Rock in the Big Apple.

Now, she’s ready to really go somewhere.

On May 24, the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Commencement Day, the School of Medicine graduate will take another step toward her long-sought place in the world as a pediatrician, one who cares for those whose lives may not have been as rich as her own.

“Sickle cell patients, child abuse cases, those with health care disparities – this is what I’m very passionate about,” she said.

If a child’s formative days begin in the womb, then perhaps Powell’s soft spot for the underdog and the underserved emerged when she was in prison. That was in Angola, Louisiana, with her mother, family physician Dr. Selika Sweet of Jackson.

Portrait of Denise Powell's family on Match Day.
On Match Day, Denise Powell, second from left, spends time with her family, from left, Dr. Selika Sweet, mother; Grace Britton Sweet, grandmother; and Roland "Roe" Powell III, brother.

“My mom was pregnant with me while working at the Louisiana State Penitentiary,” Powell said. “The inmates wanted to name me ‘Angolita.’ That’s when she decided it was time to move on.

“The thing is, my mom wants to work with anyone she thinks needs an advocate or a chance, and I believe that has rubbed off on me. She is a force to be reckoned with, and people love her. My pops gave me my down-to-earth, carefree spirit.

“They're both up for my crazy adventures. I drove to New York and met Dr. Phil one Thanksgiving with my mom, and my dad drove to Montreal, Canada, with me to try poutine [French fries with gravy and cheese curds].”

Selika Sweet and Roland Powell Jr. of Jackson had two children, including Denise Powell’s sibling, Roland “Roe” Powell III. She has another “very supportive” brother, Julian Taylor of Detroit.

Although she was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, young Denise was brought up in a clutch of Mississippi towns, including Pearl; Jackson; Madison, where she was a student at St. Joseph Catholic School; and Bay St. Louis, where she attended Our Lady Academy.

While growing up, her maternal grandmother, Grace Britton Sweet of Jackson, has also held sway in Powell’s life.

“My grandmother was a school teacher in Jackson. To this day, when I take her grocery shopping, her students come up and say how much of an impact she made on their lives,” Powell said. “That's the kind of difference I want to make in my community.

“My mother is similarly there in such a defining way for her patients. She has worked with so many different communities, from Native American reservations to rural Mississippians to really sporty people in Colorado to male inmates to female veterans.”

Still, Selika Sweet may have thought her daughter was more likely to play a doctor on TV than be one.

“It really surprised me when she said she wanted to become a physician,” Selika Sweet said. “She was so interested in acting and modeling. I thought she would be in the entertainment business.”

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An apparent arachnophile, Powell took on tarantulas in Belize as a biology major enrolled at Loyola University in New Orleans.

But along came the spiders. And then the children.

As a biology major enrolled at New Orleans’ Loyola University, Powell scrutinized arachnids in Belize before “accidentally falling in love with medicine.” That happened during a stint at a charter school in New Orleans, working with academically, or behaviorally, compromised students.

“Instead of feeling challenged and defeated, I looked forward to seeing my students every week,” she said. “And I knew pediatrics and adolescent medicine were for me.”

Still, her mother had good reason to believe her daughter was a born entertainer. A veteran of local and school theater productions, Powell at one time also hopped back and forth between Jackson and Gulfport to play the viola with two youth symphony orchestras on weekends, while running track and cross-country during the week. She also played basketball and joined a school swim team.

And, while she hasn’t been a face on national TV, she has worked for mass media for about a year, writing online about health matters, such as childhood trauma, the opioid epidemic and coping with tax season stress.

“Honestly, I just reached out to the ABC News producer, introduced myself, and sent over my writing material from college and medical school – for the American Academy of Pediatrics, [the UMMC student newspaper] The Murmur, pieces like that.” An ABC News producer bit.

“Then, I was off to the Big Apple to write and help out with ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘20/20,’ ‘World News Tonight’ and ABC News,” Powell said.

“My favorite moment was walking into a meeting and seeing [news anchor] David Muir just chilling at the end of the table to hear our pitches.

“I love being in a room of people who know more than me, because it allows me to learn. Working in these spaces, everyone knows something different and has a different degree or background, and that has helped me grow a lot.” 

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Among the national news organizations Denise Powell has written for is CNN in Atlanta.

On the set of “Good Morning America,” she met her favorite actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “He asked me where I’m from, to which I replied, ‘Mississippi,’” Powell said. “He then said with a chuckle, ‘You don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi.’

“I don’t get nervous easily, but I nearly fainted right then and there.”

The reporting and writing experience for her was also heady, said Powell, who landed a similar job with the CNN News Health Unit. To her surprise, reporting roused her interest in politics.

“If anything, journalism will help me understand how reporters work if I ever run for office,” she said. “I do want to continue writing in the long run.”

In the short run, Powell will write for CNN until graduation; but the highlight of this semester for her, and about 139 of her fellow medical students, was Match Day 2019 in March, when she learned where she was accepted for her post-graduate, or residency, training in pediatrics: UC San Francisco.

After the ceremony, she took photos with her family, living in the moment, but also in in the future: “I’ll definitely come back here and practice,” she said.

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Josey

That suits Dr. David Josey Jr. “She’ll make an excellent physician,” said Josey, UMMC associate professor of pediatric pulmonology, whose affinity for his sickle cell patients so impressed Powell during her rotation with him.

“The children really responded well to her. She wants to help people, not just medically, but also with a holistic approach. We definitely need physicians like her in Mississippi.”

As a recipient of a Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship, Powell will follow up her residency by practicing in a rural or underserved area of this state.

“I do believe there's a lot of work to be done here,” she said.

“By seeing some pretty serious pathology already, you really feel prepared for anything. The patient population in Mississippi is unlike anything you will experience anywhere” – a compelling remark from someone who, it seems, has been almost everywhere.