Corley Henderson's journey to medical school school took many years, thousands of miles and a life-changing encounter along the way.
Corley Henderson's journey to medical school school took many years, thousands of miles and a life-changing encounter along the way.
Main Content

Front and Center: Corley Henderson

Published on Monday, July 10, 2023

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

Photos By: Joe Ellis/ UMMC Communications

Sometime after her visit to the emergency room, Corley Henderson figured it was time to “stop hanging onto” one of her organs.

She had two kidneys, needed only one, and someone else certainly could use the other one, she reasoned.

“I got the feeling that I should do something to help others who had actual problems,” she said.

That day in the ER not only saved her life, it also changed how she decided to live it; it is why she eventually chose to give up a kidney and to give her life to medicine.

Now a second-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Henderson believes the life of a physician is the one she is meant to lead, after having led so many others – as an actor, a delivery driver, an IT specialist and an employee for a commodities trading company.

Portrait of Dr. Felicitas Koller

“I love that she has come to medicine after having already had such an interesting and diverse life,” said Dr. Felicitas Koller, associate professor of surgery-transplant at UMMC.

“I have seen her with patients,” said Koller, who is Corley’s mentor during a summer-long program called Surgical Scholars. “She is friendly and personable and has a completely reassuring manner. Because of her experiences, Corley is really able to relate well to others.”

But her journey to medical school took many years and thousands of miles – taking her from Mississippi to Alabama to California and back to the state where she was born.

Born in Columbus and brought up in Clinton, Henderson left Mississippi for Alabama after high school to earn a mathematics degree at Samford University near Birmingham; she would return there one day to surrender part of her body and find her calling.

For a math major, though, she has not done things by the numbers.

“After earning my degree, I moved to L.A.,” she said, “and started working as an actor.”  She found jobs in short films, as well as in commercials for Neutrogena and a Zoom-type business, pre-Zoom.

“But acting clearly wasn’t my calling in life,” she said. It wasn’t sustaining her life, either. In order to be able to afford food, she started delivering it – as a driver for an online grocery store.

After four years of this, she discovered “I couldn’t afford to live there anymore.” It was 2013, the year she returned to Mississippi, the land of friendlier prices and family.

Thanks to her mom’s contacts, and her math skills, Henderson found a job in information technology at an oil and gas company in Brandon. Later, she worked for a profit-and-loss commodities trading company in Raymond; but it was she who was at a loss.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” she said. “Those were wonderful bosses and wonderful jobs, but I didn’t believe I was working at the level of my potential. I felt like this wasn’t going to be it for me.”

Henderson's commitment to the study of medicine was triggered by another monumental decision in her life.
Henderson's commitment to the study of medicine was triggered by another monumental decision in her life.

And, then, she got her lucky break: severe anemia. Henderson had to go to the emergency room, where she learned she needed a blood transfusion. “It was my fault,” she said. She had neglected to take her prescription pills, an omission on which the rest of her life has turned.

Unlike the other patients she saw in the ER, she said, “no one in my immediate circle has ever been in a severe crash or fallen off a ladder. It was eye-opening to see other people there who were hurting so much.”

She thought about them a lot: people in broken health and shattered circumstances. She wondered what she could do to help others like them, not for a day or a year, but maybe for the rest of their lives.

“I don’t know how else to explain it,” she said. “The Lord just told me, ‘donate a kidney.’”

Patients who must resort only to dialysis during end-stage renal disease suffer a mortality rate that is “considerable.”  While all kidney donations can be life-saving, compared to recipients of deceased-donor transplants, patients who benefit from a living donor are more likely to survive, long-term.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for people with end-stage renal disease on dialysis to get a kidney right when they need it,” Koller said.

“Typically, there is no waiting. What makes Corley’s donation so remarkable is that most living donations are between people who are family or who know each other.

“But some people are like Corley; they’re in excellent health, realize they have two kidneys and want to donate one, and that they can donate it to a stranger. It helps those who otherwise may have had to wait a long time, or who may not get a transplant at all.”

Henderson realizes that asking someone to undergo elective surgery is different from asking them to donate a kidney after they’re gone. “But giving someone life seems completely worth it to me,” she said.

What a great idea, almost everyone thought; everyone except Tom and Tommye Henderson. “But my parents did come around, I believe,” she said, “after they saw the impact it had on me.

“And it made me realize my purpose here is to serve other people, not just myself,” said Henderson, who recited a Bible verse: “‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

“I don’t believe it literally means just your friends,” she said. “I believe it means anyone.” Anyway, it must have been hard to argue with someone quoting St. John; her parents even drove her to Alabama, where their daughter became a donor.

“Because I had gone to Samford, I had contacts in that area,” Henderson said. “That’s why I decided to donate there.” It was at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; she went in on a Thursday and was discharged on a Sunday: four days that “changed my life,” she said.

The doctors she met at the hospital helped change it. “It was realizing that the work physicians do, especially surgeons, makes an immediate impact,” she said. “And that’s what I wanted to do.”

It was in the spring of 2019 that Henderson knew for sure that she wanted to go to medical school, just a few months after the transplant. It took about three more years to get there – to complete requisite science courses at Mississippi College and to earn a master’s degree in biomedical sciences – as she pumped up her resume.

Last fall, she entered the School of Medicine. It has not been easy, she said.

“But, even on the days when I think I have nothing left to give, I remind myself that it’s not about me; it’s about my patients. And, as cliched as it may sound, if I were a patient, I would want my physician to give everything they have.

“I can donate only one kidney; I can physically change just one person’s life that way, but this is what’s great about becoming a doctor: I don’t get to help just one.”

Read more Front and Center stories online. Do you know a student, staff, volunteer or faculty member at the University of Mississippi Medical Center whose story would make an interesting feature or deserves to be recognized? Think about someone with outstanding job commitment, fascinating hobby or amazing accomplishment.

To nominate someone to be considered for a Front and Center feature, just complete and submit this short form. If that person is picked for a feature, a member of the Communications and Marketing staff will contact him or her to learn more about his or her personal story.