In spite of the demands of medical school, M2 Mackenzie Downs finds time to help out with the family's restaurant and catering business.
In spite of the demands of medical school, M2 Mackenzie Downs finds time to help out with the family's restaurant and catering business.
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Front and Center: Makenzie Downs

Published on Tuesday, December 26, 2023

By: Gary Pettus,

Photos By: Joe Ellis/ UMMC Photography

There are many ways to help people get better, and Makenzie Downs has learned a lot about two of them.

You can treat them in a clinic or you can feed them in your kitchen.

As a second-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Downs, 24, is learning more and more about the power of medicine to heal; but, ever since she was a little girl, she has known about the power of a home-cooked meal.

“You had to know how to cook in my household,” she said. “And whenever someone got sick, people wanted to send them food, so they would call Mama.”

In spite of a massive diet of medical textbooks and classroom schedules, she still makes time to keep her hand in food – in her family’s Brandon-based catering business, Three Peas in a Pod, and in its eight-month-old restaurant in Mendenhall, the Steakhouse on Main.

“Three Peas” refers to herself, her younger sister Kaitlyn, 18, and their mom, Sheila Downs. “Steakhouse” is self-explanatory, although other varieties of meat also adorn the menu.

Not everyone would argue for subbing out penicillin for a grilled pork chop or a fried bologna sandwich, but sometimes, the latter may be just what the doctor ordered – whether it’s served in a restaurant or at an ailing neighbor’s front doorstep.

Makenzie Downs and her mom, Sheila Downs, manage to stop and take a breath at the family's busy restaurant in Mendenhall. (Photo courtesy of Makenzie Downs)
Makenzie Downs and her mom, Sheila Downs, manage to stop and take a breath at the family's busy restaurant in Mendenhall. (Photo courtesy of Makenzie Downs)

“My mom has the epitome of the Southern heart,” Downs said, “and one thing I learned from her is that the way to show people you love them is to feed them.

“In medicine, it’s also important to have that human aspect, that heart for people.”

Brought up in Brandon until her family moved to Puckett when she was in the eighth grade, Downs, as a little girl, climbed up on a wooden stool to perch next to her mom in the kitchen. “And we would make biscuits together,” she said. “She would spread flour on the counter and I would play in it.”

For a time, her dad, Randy Downs, ran a body shop next to their house; she worked there until she was 18, when he retired. “I swept floors, helped Dad Bondo cars and, when I was little, pretended to answer the phones.”

In the kitchen and in the body shop, she learned what her mom and dad are made of. “The work ethic is a big deal in my family,” she said. “Neither of my parents went to college; they were married young and have worked ever since and they’re both 65.

“They wanted to provide an education for me and my sister. Although, I never really thought medical school would be in the books for me.”

The truth is, Downs said, “I never wanted to be a doctor; I wanted to be a pediatrician.

“I’ve always been drawn to children. Maybe because I’m a big kid myself.” But there was nothing childish about her dream. And it grew bigger every time she saw “Dr. Ray.”

“Dr. Ray was exactly that: a ray of sunshine,” she said. “She was my pediatrician. You’re a kid going to the doctor and you’re scared to death because you know what’s behind the door: You’re going to get a shot.

“But Dr. Ray would tickle my ear or whistle like a bird; she made me feel better and I forgot about being scared.”

Determined to be her own version of Dr. Ray, she enrolled at Mississippi State University and majored in biochemistry/pre-med. She was the first high school graduate in her family and, four years later, she became the first college graduate.

“And I hope I’ll be the first medical school graduate,” she said.

That became highly possible when she was awarded, in her words, “such a beautiful thing”: a Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship – $30,000 a year for medical school.

What she has seen so far as a medical student hasn’t shaken her dream, but only shored it up. This past summer she joined a medical mission trip organized by Dr. Jerry Clark, student liaison in the School of Medicine. For two weeks she was part of a group working with special-needs children in Ecuador.

Downs doesn’t speak Spanish or Quichua, but “you don’t have to know any language to love on children,” she said. “And they will love you just the same.”

As a medical student, she has also gotten married. Dylan Baker, whom she’s known since the ninth grade in Puckett, is an MSU architecture student, the head chef at her mom’s business and, since December 16, her husband.

“Dylan helps me study,” she said. “But, Lord knows, he doesn’t know anything about medicine. He tries, though. One day he was calling out medical terms and it was like another language. I said, ‘I have no idea what you’re saying.’

“We laughed until we cried.”

Still, she’s grateful for the help. Her first year in medical school was harder than this one has been. One day last year, she had to leave the gross anatomy lab directly for Three Peas. “But I got cleaned up and we worked three events,” she said.

Many of the catering jobs involve major productions – for instance, the Dixie National Rodeo in Jackson and concerts by national acts at the Mississippi Coliseum, where she has met country music stars Dylan Scott and Lainey Wilson, and the Commodores.

From around 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., she helps out at the restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays. If there’s a catering job, she may log longer hours. But the food business has taught her to “think fast on my feet and adapt,” she said.

“It has also taught me about relationships.”

To be honest, she said, the work is not a distraction from medical school; it is an attraction away from it. “It’s refreshing to get my head out of a book. It’s not a job. I get to love on people. And I also get to be with family.

“I don’t like it when I’m not able to help with the business, knowing how hard my parents have worked for me and Kaitlyn. Having seen that has kept me going.

“Anyway, none of us are going to stop. We can’t sit down.”