Portrait of Dr. Marty Tucker
Dr. Marty Tucker, who became ob-gyn chair at UMMC in January, said, "The opportunity to come back and work at a university I loved and still love, and to a department I love, was overwhelming.”
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In ob-gyn chair’s life and career, it’s always something – worthwhile

Published on Monday, March 9, 2020

By: Gary Pettus,

Dr. J. Martin “Marty” Tucker, who learned how to be a physician from some of the state’s best minds, wonders sometimes where he would be today if it weren’t for a two-minute talk with a maintenance man.

Tucker, who was around 19 at the time, was working in a chemical factory while studying at the University of Mississippi, a hardworking pre-med undergraduate musing about the chunk of time he still had left in college, on top of long stretches in medical school and residency – a trainload of years that seemed a “lifetime” to someone his age.

“I wondered aloud if it was worth it,” Tucker said, “and this maintenance man in that factory looked at me and said, ‘Well, when you get up every day, you gotta be doing something.’

“I still think about what he said every day, I believe. He summed up everything in about five words. If you gotta be doing something, then you can either be doing something productive or sitting around watching Sports Center.”

Tucker has always been, and is now, doing something productive; a member of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s affiliate faculty for nearly 30 years, he became, in January, the UMMC professor and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, taking over for interim chair Dr. Jermaine Gray.

Portrait of Dr. LouAnn Woodward

“Dr. Tucker is the right person to head the department,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

“He is insightful and forward-looking, and has established a long and valued relationship with the Medical Center. I am confident he will help uphold our tradition of delivering state-of the art care for women and infants.”

In short, he’s doing something he just could not pass up.

“Every day you let an opportunity slip by is an opportunity missed for good,” Tucker said. “It could be an opportunity to give someone a pat on the back, or to take care of a patient. Occasionally, one comes along that is big. This is a huge one.

“The opportunity to come back and work at a university I loved and still love, and to a department I love, was overwhelming.”

Overwhelming, too, are his qualifications, say his colleagues and friends.

“When Marty and I were in training, the [OB-GYN] department was kind of in its heyday,” said Dr. Richard Rushing, an OB-GYN physician in Brookhaven who has known Tucker for more than 40 years.

Doctor talking to group of medical students in hallway.
Tucker, center, gets to know, from left, Tori Wilson and Ruth Fowler, medical students, and Dr. Shelby Walters and Dr. Natalie Clericuzio, ob-gyn residents.

“Dr. [Winfred} Wiser was the chair then,” said Rushing, invoking the legendary name attached to UMMC’s Hospital for Women and Infants, “and Marty trained under him. It was a very well-respected department; Marty has that in his DNA.

“He loves what he does, he has the gifts to do it and he has the connections with the faculty and the residents. He has a desire that the department be the best it can possibly be.

“I don’t think there is anybody else who can do for the University, and for the Department of OB-GYN in particular, what Marty will be able to accomplish.”

One of those accomplishments is personal for Rushing: Tucker saw Rushing’s daughter-in-law through a difficult pregnancy a couple of years ago. But their bond began long before that.

“When I went into medical school, OB-GYN was the last thing on my mind,” Rushing said. “I thought I was going to become general surgeon. But when we did our third-year rotations, there was something about the specialty that connected with us – the clinical aspect, the surgical aspect. It was the best of both worlds.

“We had a patient population that, in general, was healthy and a pleasure to take care of. The people involved in the program and their personalities –a lot of them were like mine and Marty’s. His decision to choose OB-GYN probably influenced mine.”

Tucker’s decision to become a physician began to brew in Aberdeen, the town where he and his sister grew up. “In high school, if you made good grades, that was what people thought you should do: become a doctor,” he said.

Many thought you should also have a job, good grades or not. One of those people was an accountant in town, who was also his dad.  So Tucker sacked groceries at the IGA and mowed yards.

Photo of tucker with his mother and daughter.
Tucker and his daughter, Clara, left, and his mother, Dorothy, take in the Pavilion at Ole Miss in February 2019.

His mom worked hard, too. At 86, she only recently retired from her job at a bank.

“What good parents I had,” Tucker said. “They always wanted what was best for me and my sister. They emphasized education, and that’s what led me to be where I am today.

“I’m proud of my small-town upbringing. Something about growing up there gives you a different outlook on life, a view of the world I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“I also had a nucleus of friends who kind of drove each other to success.” Among them was Tommy Shepherd, now a Jackson attorney, who has been Tucker’s friend since they were 5.

“I don’t remember my first day in Kindergarten,” Shepherd said, “but Marty does. He says I wore a red cowboy hat.” Whatever it was that brought them together, that hat or something else, it has lasted through the years and the miles between Aberdeen and Jackson.

Portrait of Marty Tucker with his father.
Tucker said his father, Kelly, left, and his mother, Dorothy, "always wanted what was best for me and my sister." (Photo courtesy of Dr. Marty Tucker)

In Aberdeen, they worked at the grocery store together, acted as managers of the high school football team together. Performed the same schoolboy pranks together.

“I’m not sure the statute of limitations has run out on those,” said, Shepherd, declining to reveal their specific nature.

They made the same grades, practically. “Marty was No. 1 in the class when we graduated,” Shepherd said. “I was No. 2.

“On Honors Day our senior year, we had to go all the way back to the ninth grade to figure out who would get the Math Award. I got it, by the way.

“We seemed to feed off each other in a friendly sort of way. It wasn’t a rivalry at all. Even though Marty was smart, he worked hard. He was still a regular guy. And he has always been there. I would trust him with my life.

“Our wives laugh at us; they say when we get together, we both drop back into Aberdeen. We speak a language they don’t understand because we had this experience together, this history together, for so long.”

In Aberdeen and beyond, Tucker held down other jobs. He was an orderly in a hospital, where he hung IV’s and recorded EKG’s. In the Hamilton community near Aberdeen, he was a laborer in the chemical factory where the light of the maintenance man’s wisdom rearranged the substance of Tucker’s misgivings, so to speak.

That is, Tucker was moved to persevere, which he did through college, medical school – Class of 1984 – and into his residency at UMMC, a rich vein of mentors such as Wiser, Dr. John Morrison, Dr. James Martin Jr., Dr. Rodney Meeks and Dr. Mitch Rivlin.

“We didn’t call it mentorship then,” Tucker said. “They were just good doctors who taught us the right way to treat people.”

Group photo with Marty Tucker and students.
Tucker meets with a group of 2018-19 maternal-fetal medicine fellows during spring 2019, including front row from left, Dr. Aswathi Jayaram, Dr. Sarah Araji, Dr. Jamie Szczepanksi and Dr. Kristin Reeve, and Dr. Jesse Cottrell, back row, right. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Marty Tucker)

One of the first to teach him that had been a physician who delivered his sister when she was born, in 1964: Dr. Richard Hollis, one of the first OB-GYN’s to return to north Mississippi and practice there, Tucker said. And the first, perhaps, whose gifts inspired Tucker to become an obstetrician.

“The appeal to me of OB-GYN, especially OB, was being able to take care of people, basically, their whole lives,” Tucker said.

In order to enrich his ability to do so, he pursued a fellowship in maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I saw at that time – this was the 1980’s – that OB-GYN was transitioning into more specialty care,” he said. “There was this next level of expectation.”

Over the years, Tucker has spread his bona fides to St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Jackson Healthcare for Women and Merit Health Woman’s Hospital in Flowood, and, earlier, at UMMC, rising to the rank of clinical professor of OB-GYN there in 2011.

He has been a leader for organizations well beyond those hospitals’ borders – namely, the Mississippi Infant Mortality Task Force and the Mississippi State Medical Association.

Since 2006, he has served on the Medical Center’s Obstetrics and Gynecology Resident Education Committee, another wheelhouse for Tucker’s skills, says Dr. James “Jim” Martin Jr., UMMC professor emeritus of OB-GYN.

“Marty is a very good teacher,” Martin said. “When he was at Women’s Hospital, we had him over several times to speak to the residents.

“He is probably one of, if not THE, leading coding experts for OB-GYN in the United States. He is president-elect in nomination for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and is on track to be president in April 2021 – elected on the first vote.

“Marty is just so thoughtful and interested in what people are saying and thinking, and has a zeal for improving health care for women. His wealth of experience, integrity, judgment, common sense and interpersonal care, I believe, will make him a very special chair.

Tucker receiving award
Tucker receives the 2018 Distinguished Medical Alumnus Award on Aug. 23, 2018, from Dr. Tim Folse, right, then-president of the University of Mississippi Medical Alumni Chapter.

“He enjoys the respect of all of us in the field, something that can’t be bought or beggared in this day and time.”

Martin, along with Rushing, introduced Tucker as the Distinguished Alumnus Award honoree during the annual Medical Alumni Chapter Awards Dinner in 2018. Tucker’s speech was sprinkled with salutes to his maintenance-man mentor and, especially, to his family and wife Robin, a 1983 graduate of UMMC’s School of Nursing.

“This award belongs to her more than me,” he said.

Marty Tucker and Robin Smith Tucker have four daughters: Clara Beth Tucker, a UMMC nurse; Sarah Martin Tucker, a certified public accountant, who’s engaged to be married to Duncan Maxwell, a second year medical student at UMMC; Dr. Mary Grace Sessums, an internal medicine resident at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida; and Dr. Ann Tucker, an instructor in the department her father chairs.

Portrait of Tucker family
Tucker and his daughters, from left, Dr. Ann Tucker, Dr. Mary Sessums, Clara Tucker and Sarah Tucker visit together in November 2018. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Marty Tucker)

Their son-in-law, Dr. Price Sessums, is a resident in orthopedic surgery at the University of Florida in Jacksonville. 

Whenever Tucker is able to wrangle some time away from his professional life, his private life is often spent with them. He also likes to travel, do some deer hunting and, particularly, track down turkeys. “If I could do anything I wanted to tomorrow, and it was in season, that would be it,” he said.

But perhaps the hunt he ponders most is the search for solutions to Mississippi’s enduring health burdens, particularly its bottom-of-the-list rankings in low birthweight, infant mortality and more.

“Those statewide statistics haven’t changed in my lifetime,” said Tucker, who, in this regard, feels personally challenged by the phrase, “thank God for Mississippi.”

“I’ve heard that at professional meetings, even in Louisiana,” he said.

My dream would be to sit in that same meeting one day and hear someone say, ‘thank God for fill-in-the-blank.’ And for Mississippi to be, not just off the bottom of the list, but near the top.

“Success and helping people – that should be our goal every day.”

And that’s something.