People of the U: Dr. Savannah Duckworth
Published on Tuesday, June 1, 2021
By: Gary Pettus, email@example.com
Editor's Note: People of the U is part of an ongoing series featuring UMMC's faculty, staff and students. See more People of the U features.
It might have been the most ominous photograph Dr. Savannah Duckworth ever took: a picture of a mosquito bite on her leg.
The image marks the beginning of a story that didn’t end until many painful weeks afterward and, to tell the truth, is still told at times by a souvenir twinge in her neck or shoulders.
But the ghost of her primal pain that had throbbed in her bones and muscles and joints survives mostly in her memory, commanding her conduct and philosophy as a physician in the presence of patients who need her help – sometimes as desperately as she had needed help herself; and, by all accounts, she has transferred her concern and kindness to those who are learning from her how to be a doctor.
Duckworth, a 2014 graduate of the School of Medicine, is now an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center who accepted her destiny in academic medicine relatively late, as a resident at UMMC.
“I found out that I just loved teaching medical students,” said Duckworth, whose many teaching honors are a testament to her flair. “I realized that the days they were off weren’t as fun.
“I had never considered academic medicine before that. But if teaching is in your blood, it’s in your blood.”
That blood type runs through the veins of her mother, Robbie Duckworth, a former teacher who still advises the 4-H “bug club” in Union County, where Savannah was brought up from age 2.
“Growing up, I did see how much she loved her students and how much they loved her,” Duckworth said. “I learned from her that even the little things you share as a teacher can be worthwhile.” She would remember this when she finally discovered that teaching was a passion they shared.
Many of her students also consider teaching her gift. “Even when she's explaining something to you that you should probably already know, she makes you feel worthwhile,” said medical student JoJo Dodd.
“Her approach to students leaves them feeling like teaching them is the most important thing she has to do. No matter what she's doing – in the big gestures and the small graces – she's always giving of herself to others.”
Certainly, she was a gift to her parents. In New Albany, Savannah’s hometown, Glenn and Robbie Duckworth had been married about 17 years before their daughter was born; he was 40 and she was 38.
“I heard from them that ‘it was a blessing to have you; you’re here to make a difference in the world,’” Duckworth said. She figured the best way to do that was to be a doctor. She was 5 at the time.
“That never wavered,” she said. I’ve never second-guessed it.”
On her way to her unwavering goal, Duckworth explored the animal world scientifically, but unmolested by her allergies to fur: after attending “bug camp” during her younger years, while she was at Mississippi State University she worked in the entomology lab labeling various specimens.
Later, a run-in with a bug that wasn’t dead proved much more menacing.
It was her first trip to Haiti and her first month as a doctor, as she would recount in the aftermath. As a first-year internal medicine resident, she was part of a medical mission in coastal Leogane, where she took the mosquito bite photo that would bear witness against her attacker, a horrifying disease with a name like the garbled punchline of a joke about poultry: chikungunya.
The scourge known to Haitians as “the fever” is anything but funny. A mosquito-borne virus undeterred by any known drug or vaccine, chikungunya lit into Duckworth’s limbs, head and stomach with fevers, aches, nausea and energy-draining agony.
Describing her sickened state as a passenger in a truck being convulsed by a potholed Haitian road, she wrote: “By the time we reached the hospital in Leogane, I had a steady stream of tears down my face and it hurt to think about moving.”
It got worse. Dr. David Norris, Duckworth’s long-time mentor, was with her in Haiti, taking care of her and updating her parents when she was sick. Perhaps his description of her offers a clue to how she coped with one of the worst times of her young life.
“While she is quiet and demure in her demeanor, underneath is a font of strength that allows her to approach the most difficult situations with passion and calmness,” said Norris, professor of family medicine and assistant dean for academic affairs in the School of Medicine.
Although she faced down the virus, her ultimate recovery is marred occasionally by its lingering phantom, even now.
But the ordeal only bolstered her commitment to medical mission work, not just for Haiti, but also for other countries whose people struggle to find a job, and, often, a doctor. Since Haiti, she has been to Peru and Honduras – where she plans to return next year with her church.
This does not surprise those who know her, including Dr. Lyssa Weatherly, her colleague and friend. “Savannah is golden to her core,” said Weatherly, assistant professor of geriatrics and gerontology and assistant dean of student affairs for the School of Medicine.
“After you’ve spent some time with her, you are better person for it.”
Medical student Chrissy Miller has spent some time with her volunteering at the Jackson Free Clinic. “Dr. Duckworth has a heart for the underserved, takes compassion to a new level when treating patients,” Miller said, “and is always willing to step up and help out when no one else can.”
But, for a while, Duckworth “just wanted to see patients,” she said. “There are some whose stories you will never forget. They tell you about the chickens on their farm. The name of their cat. You hear about their priorities, what is going on in their lives; I just love that.”
Like many of her colleagues, she remembers the first time she saw a patient pass away. “In time, we see so many sick people, so it’s easy to get numb,” she said. “But it’s a person’s life. It should always affect you. It should be a big deal. If it’s not, there’s something you need to re-examine about yourself.”
During her residency training, she did some re-examining of her own; as much as she loves patient care, she said, “I realized I also liked the teaching atmosphere. It was very eye-opening.”
Apparently, as a teacher, she has opened some eyes herself. Earlier this year, she was named the first recipient of the Trailblazer of the Year by the School of Medicine, which singled her out among the winners of the Trailblazer Teaching Award, the only school honor for which a faculty member is recognized for outstanding performance by his or her peers, Norris said.
It is one of the latest in a list that includes, among others, the 2020 Clinical Professor of the Year Award; the Nelson Order of Teaching Excellence 2019-2020; the Gold Humanism Society’s 2019 Leonard Tow Award (for excellence as a compassionate clinician); the Evers Society Hall of Fame, 2018; and the Humanism and Excellence in Teaching Award from the Gold Humanism Honor Society, 2016 and 2017.
“Savannah has a sweet charm about her that instantly wins over people,” Weatherly said. “It makes her particularly effective as a teacher because students instantly feel safe – and when you’re learning, that’s the best place to be.
“She is instantly relatable, whether she is in a lecture hall or outside under a tree.”
That part about the tree is not a joke. Duckworth calls it “outside rounds’: When the weather is nice, she may fold out a quilt in the wooded area between State Street and Parking Garage A and sit down with students and residents while they snack on granola bars and discuss their patients.
“I started this in 2019 and it's been such a blast,” Duckworth said. “It's always fun and a break from formal rounds.”
Weatherly believes that her friend realized a long time ago that if she didn’t teach, “a part of her would be missing.
“As a teacher, she probably deserves every award you can get,” Weatherly said. “But here’s another lovely trait about her: She is perfectly content to sit in the background when others are in the spotlight, and she’s the first person to congratulate those who succeed.
“When there is good news in my life, she is the first person to tell me how proud she is of me. I don’t know too many people who are really like Savannah.”
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