Defined by the Delta -- now leading the nation's physicians

Incoming AMA President J. Edward Hill, MD, will stress the need for health education -- a lesson learned from his Southern roots.

By Damon Adams — Posted June 27, 2005

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They call it Delta Day, a day when patients pile into cars and journey more than three hours to see the doctor who delivered their babies, treated their diabetes and healed their wounds for more than a quarter of a century.

Once a month, the people of the rural Mississippi Delta take a day trip on two-lane back roads, past catfish ponds and fields of cotton and corn, to Tupelo, Miss., to visit J. Edward Hill, MD. They haven't forgotten Dr. Hill's years of dedication when he practiced family medicine at three clinics in the downtrodden Delta.

And he hasn't forgotten them.

Delta Day is about much more than getting prescriptions and routine medical care. It's about the respect and gratitude patients show for the man who cared for them all those years, and it's about the bond they formed that can't be broken by distance.

"My heart was in the Delta," said Dr. Hill, who takes over this month as president of the American Medical Association. "We brought medicine to a medically destitute area. It made you feel good."

Dr. Hill grew up in Vicksburg, Miss., where his family moved when he was 6. He arrived in the Mississippi Delta in 1968. He calls this time his "missionary years," a period that shaped him as a physician. He planned to stay three years but instead stayed 27.

"I sort of made my career there. It's the thing I'm most proud of," he said.

When he arrived in the Delta, one of the first things he did was take down the "colored" signs that separated whites and blacks in the waiting room and bathrooms at one clinic. He became a champion of the uninsured. He worked tirelessly, family and co-workers said, usually awakening at 4 a.m., even taking time on occasion to bake biscuits and take them to nurses at the local hospital.

Dr. Hill regularly made house calls and, for many years, delivered babies. Church buses brought patients from Arkansas. His house was next to the clinic in Hollandale, Miss., so nurses would press a buzzer to notify him to hurry back for an emergency or another need.

Dr. Hill also developed a maternal child health program that helped lower the fetal mortality rate from one of the highest in the nation. "We did it because it was badly needed to take care of those people."

He said of the clinics where he practiced: "It was the team approach to care, which is the right way to deliver care. We kind of prided ourselves on bringing modern medical care to third-world America."

His work was recognized: He was named Mississippi Family Doctor of the Year in 1991 and was runner-up for Good Housekeeping magazine's Family Doctor of the Year in 1977.

Through the years, he built a strong following in the community.

"He was like the pied piper of patients. Wherever he was, they went," said John Estess, MD, who worked with Dr. Hill in the Delta clinics for 26 years.

A grateful community

Patients often showed their appreciation in unusual ways. One man brought a turtle in a wheelbarrow to the Hill family.

"He thought I would love to make turtle soup," said Jean W. Hill, Dr. Hill's wife of 42 years.

The turtle was given to a friend.

Another time, someone offered Dr. Hill corn, then showed up with a dump truck full of the crop, which was left in the Hills' driveway.

"We had everybody out in the yard shucking corn," said Jean. That included the Hills' daughters, Ginger and Kathy.

"People brought us stuff all the time," Dr. Hill said.

"I still get jelly," Jean added. "That's their way of saying thank you."

Dr. Hill, 67, said patients in the Delta were served well by the three clinics in Hollandale, Leland and Greenville. But after 27 years, he was asked to become director of the Family Practice Residency Program at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. He was ready for another challenge and moved from the Delta to Tupelo, where he started his new position in January 1995.

The program, which had two residents its second year, has grown to 20 residents and seven faculty. The center where the program is based uses electronic medical records and is developing telemedicine skills in residents.

He left the directorship in July 2001 after being named chair-elect of the AMA Board of Trustees. But he still stays active in the program, seeing patients a few days a month and lecturing to residents when he can.

"It keeps my skills up and keeps my mind in the game," he said. "[Residents] kid me, 'Tell us what it was like in the old days, Dr. Hill.' "

During a recent visit to the center, a nurse spotted the energetic doctor in a hallway and gave him a big hug. "We don't get to see him very often. We love Dr. Hill," she said.

When he is in town, Dr. Hill is sometimes heard before he's seen.

"I know Ed's around when I hear Puccini being whistled," said Michael O'Dell, MD, director of the residency program. "Ed's a wonderful teacher, and he brings back information that all of us benefit from."

Dr. Hill was born in Omaha, Neb., but is a product of Mississippi. His love of music started early when his mother sang around the house.

"It was not unusual for her to be singing 'La Boheme' when she did the morning wash," Dr. Hill said, his blue eyes brightening at the memory. He sang in church and still likes to whistle to Nat King Cole and Rod Stewart.

"He tells us he could have been Barry Manilow," daughter Kathy said. "He has a great voice."

Dr. Hill learned to play the flute and piccolo and later performed in the symphony orchestra at the University of Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry. He decided to become a doctor and attended the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

He got his MD in 1964, then he did his internship in the U.S. Navy. He then was a general medical officer, serving on the USS Frontier and at a naval hospital in Bremerton, Wash., before he started practicing in the Mississippi Delta.

He's been in Tupelo for more than 10 years now and clearly loves his Southern roots. "In the South, we'd fry water if we could," he joked.

He spends as much time as he can with his wife and two children and five grandchildren when he's not traveling. On a recent trip home, he was nearly knocked down when his grandchildren, ages 3 to 7, rushed to greet him and smothered him with hugs. They call him "Gran Doc."

Dr. Hill gladly obliges when it comes to showing off Tupelo to a visitor. Just outside the town's small airport is the Tupelo Buffalo Park, home to one of the largest buffalo herds east of the Mississippi River, according to Dr. Hill.

"[The park's] got a white buffalo there called Tukota," he said.

And don't forget that Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis. The Presleys' shack is still there.

"Elvis sightings are still common," Dr. Hill said with a grin.

As AMA president-elect the past year, he didn't see much of Tupelo, traveling about 200 days to fulfill his duties. He likes the traveling, though, and enjoys the chance to spread the AMA's message.

Goals for the AMA

As AMA President -- the first from Mississippi -- one area he plans to promote is lifestyle changes and preventive behavior among youths.

He said the medical community should embrace a primary prevention approach to behavioral issues to keep youths from problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases.

"This has been a passion of mine since I delivered some 12- and 13-year-old girls' babies in my first month in Hollandale in 1968. I became terribly interested in teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and have been promoting school health ever since then," he said.

At press time, Dr. Hill said the AMA this summer planned to launch a coalition-building effort to get comprehensive school health education in classrooms for students pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

"We think we can reduce these behavioral problems by 50%, and if we can do that, we've saved this nation around $400 billion a year," he said. "We have good evidence that children who have school health education are less likely to drink, less likely to smoke, less likely to drive in a car when somebody else is drinking and more likely to wear their seatbelts."

Another major issue that Dr. Hill plans to push for as AMA president is medical liability reform.

"We're not going to let up at all on our desire and our push for federal liability reform," he said. "I'm the most optimistic I've ever been that we will have it. I don't think it's a matter of if; it's a matter of when. We must not let up. We must be persistent in our drive for federal medical liability reform. The only way we'll lose is if we quit."

Dr. Hill's other priorities include addressing reimbursements, coverage for the uninsured and strategies for quality medical care.

After his year as president, he expects to travel for another year as AMA immediate past president. He also wants to spend more time teaching residents in the program in Tupelo and would like to work with a health policy research center.

And he hopes to pass on one of his favorite hobbies to his grandchildren -- fly fishing.

"I will not retire completely. I'm not the type."

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J. Edward Hill, MD

Specialty: Family medicine

Home: Tupelo, Miss.

Medical education: University of Mississippi Medical Center

Family: Wife, Jean; two grown children; five grandchildren

AMA positions: Chair, Board of Trustees; vice chair, Council on Legislation; trustee

Other posts: Board member, National Health Museum; board member, National Center for Health Education; former president, Southern Medical Assn.; former president, Mississippi State Medical Assn.; former president, Mississippi Academy of Family Physicians

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