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mmorris

Since joining the Daily Journal staff in 1996, I’ve covered crime, courts, education, elections, Tupelo city hall, fashion, features and health care. I’m married to Daily Journal staff writer M. Scott Morris, and we have two children, a dog and a cat. I’m often inspired by the passion of our medical professionals and the determination of individuals facing down serious health issues. I love my work because I learn something new every day that can help my family and Daily Journal readers lead fuller, healthier lives. In the past two years, I’ve taken charge of my own health and lost 85 pounds.

Stories Written by Michaela Morris

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com Joannah Ballard, right, leads the children in a short dance to get them ready for their different runs at the first Boerner Be Wild fun day at Ballard Park last year.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Joannah Ballard, right, leads the children in a short dance to get them ready for their different runs at the first Boerner Be Wild fun day at Ballard Park last year.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Wellness will go a little bit wild on April 19.

The Boerner Be Wild Fitness Challenge, sponsored by the Healthy Tupelo Task Force, will dare participants to run, jump, flip tires and climb walls on a 17-station course set up around the North Mississippi Medical Center Community Walking Track at the intersection of Madison and Garfield streets in Tupelo.

The challenge, designed to be tougher than a Warrior Dash, will end with a surprise, said NMMC Wellness Center fitness supervisor Edwin Crenshaw.

“You will get a little wet,” Crenshaw said.

The fitness challenge honors the late community and fitness advocate Hank Boerner, who died unexpectedly in December 2012. Boerner served as the NMMC Wellness Center director and co-chairman of the Healthy Tupelo Task Force.

“He was all about making fitness available to anybody, not just athletes,” said Liz Dawson, director of NMMC Community Health, who served on the task force with Boerner.

The proceeds from the event will be distributed through the Healthy Tupelo Task Force for projects to educate youth on the importance of physical fitness. Boerner Be Wild events last year raised $10,000. The task force has already made its first grant of $500 to support the Boern to Run kids races, which will be held April 25 at Fairpark.

The Boerner Be Wild event runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Participants will be able to choose their start time based on the order of registration. Children’s activities will be available. Cash prizes will be given for first, second and third places in men’s and women’s divisions.

Early registration fee is $25; onsite registration will be available for $35 the day of the event.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

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TO REGISTER

Boerner Be Wild registration forms are available at Tupelo City Hall, Tupelo Parks and Recreation, Longtown Medical Park, NMMC Wellness Center and Tupelo Aquatic Center for the April 19 event.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Six weeks ago, Rachel Cobb was the second Mississippian and first woman to receive a kidney-pancreas transplant at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Six weeks ago, Rachel Cobb was the second Mississippian and first woman to receive a kidney-pancreas transplant at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Rachel Cobb is six weeks into a new life without diabetes or dialysis.

The 30-year-old Tupelo woman went through a kidney-pancreas transplant Feb. 25 at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

“This is such a gift,” said Cobb, who lived with Type I diabetes for 22 years and endured a year and a half of dialysis while she waited for a transplant.

Cobb was the second person and the first woman to go through the kidney-pancreas transplant in Mississippi at UMMC. Implementing kidney-pancreas transplants was the final goal of the initial plan re-establishing the medical center’s abdominal transplant program.

“We’re really happy to be offering this surgery in Mississippi so patients don’t have to travel out of state,” said Dr. Mark Earl, Cobb’s transplant surgeon.

The kidney-pancreas transplant carries increased risk, Earl said. The pancreas is a finicky organ and relatively few are available for transplant – 10 to 12 a year in Mississippi. However, adding the pancreas to the kidney transplant for people with Type I diabetes and end stage renal disease greatly improves the odds for the transplanted kidney.

“It has a dramatic impact on their quality of life,” Earl said. “They’ve been sick so long … it’s like a new world opens up.”

Fighting for life

For Cobb, diabetes has been a fight, especially in her teens and early 20s. She remembers passing out at Pontotoc High School and in the Walmart parking lot. She was hospitalized for infections and diabetic coma. Diabetic retinopathy threatened to take her eyesight, leading to a series of surgeries.

“There’s so many times that I’ve almost died,” Cobb said.

The fight for her kidneys began in 2010 when she was pregnant with her son Jackson. It prompted her to get deeply serious about managing her diabetes. With the help of Tupelo nephrologist Dr. Ken Kellum, she was able to hold the line on her kidney function through her pregnancy.

“Every time we saw her, her kidney function got a little worse,” Kellum said. “Unfortunately there’s no medicine to reverse the damage.”

Cobb was able to delay going on dialysis until her son was a toddler. For a year and a half, she went through the four-and-a-half hour sessions three to four times a week.

“I took lemons and made lemonade,” Cobb said. “I met a lot of wonderful people through dialysis. If it wasn’t for the techs and nurses at dialysis, I wouldn’t have been able to get to transplant.”

During the hours of dialysis – four and a half-hour sessions, three or four days a week, Cobb took college courses online. Her goal is to become a nurse working with people with diabetes.

“This disease has been such a burden in my life, but I can learn from the negative things and inspire others,” Cobb said.

Her family – especially fiancé Thomas Clark, her mother Regina Monts and grandfather Harold Hill – has wrapped around her during the journey. Her church family has been an incredible source of prayer and support.

This past Sunday marked six weeks since the surgery, a significant milestone on the road to full recovery. She’s had a few hiccups as the UMMC team fine tuned her medications, but “there’s no sign of rejection,” said Cobb, who sings the praises of her transplant team.

Although she no longer has to take insulin shots or spend hours on dialysis each week, she still has to carefully monitor her blood sugar to track the function of her new pancreas, and watch her blood pressure to make sure her new kidney is protected.

These days, she takes 28 pills each day including immune-suppressing medications to prevent rejection, antifungals and antibiotics to protect against infections as well as blood pressure medications to protect her kidneys.

“It’s definitely a different routine,” Cobb said.

Cobb said she feels an incredible debt to the family of her organ donor who made the generous decision in the face of their personal tragedy. She hopes to meet them someday.

“My heart goes out to that family,” Cobb said. “I want to be a part of remembering that person.”

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Tupelo Physical Therapist Joe Elmer using dry needling technique to stimulate trigger points to address Wendy Martin's chronic neck pain. He is one of 15 physical therapists in Mississippi certified to use the technique.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Tupelo Physical Therapist Joe Elmer using dry needling technique to stimulate trigger points to address Wendy Martin’s chronic neck pain. He is one of 15 physical therapists in Mississippi certified to use the technique.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Muscles have their own logic.

Where it hurts may not be the source of the problem.

Pain in the arm could come from the chest. Headache or chest pain could be originating in the trapezius muscle that stretches across the upper back. These trigger points inside the muscles can become sensitized, turning into hard knots that keep the pain coming.

Tupelo physical therapist Joe Elmer is using dry needling as an effective tool in treating trigger points. He’s one of 15 Mississippi physical therapists who are certified to use the technique.

“It’s been around for a while,” Elmer said. “It’s proving to be a very effective treatment.”

Dry needling developed separately from traditional Chinese acupuncture, although both modalities use solid needles. The dry needling technique, which is also called intramuscular stimulation, is based on trigger points first described in the 1940s by cardiologist Dr. Janet Travell, who started researching the phenomenon of referred pain from heart attacks that radiates into the arm. Acupuncture developed over centuries in China and is based on concepts of meridians and energy flow through the body.

Knotted up

Trigger points in muscles in and around joints can produce pain that mimics common, painful conditions, Elmer said. A portion of the muscle becomes sensitized from an injury. The injury heals, but a hard knot persists in the muscle. A chemical builds up along with the knot, creating a persistent loop of pain.

Elmer pinpoints the knotted trigger point and uses a thin, solid needle to stimulate the knot. He watches for a twitch response in the muscle and listens to his patients, who will tell him when he’s hit the source of the trouble.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Elmer locates knots deep in the muscles that correspond to the areas where Martin experiences chronic pain. Several months of dry needling treatment have allowed Martin to greatly decrease the amount of medication she needs to manage her chronic pain connected to several trauma injuries.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Elmer locates knots deep in the muscles that correspond to the areas where Martin experiences chronic pain. Several months of dry needling treatment have allowed Martin to greatly decrease the amount of medication she needs to manage her chronic pain connected to several trauma injuries.

“The needle itself releases the chemical,” Elmer said. “It seems to release like lactic acid.”

The dry needling technique allows Elmer to go much deeper than manual massage.

“This is one tool,” Elmer said. “We usually do it in combination with a lot of other things,” such as range of motion and strengthening work.

In conjunction with other forms of therapy, Elmer finds dry needling can be an effective treatment for a number of chronic pain conditions, including headaches, neck and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, low back pain, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and myofascial pain syndrome.

The needles themselves don’t hurt, Elmer said. Manipulating the trigger points is usually uncomfortable for patients, but not as painful as the condition they are seeking relief from. Patients typically report being sore for 30 minutes to 24 hours after a treatment.

For most of Elmer’s patients, dry needling is done as a course of six to eight sessions to treat an acute problem or three to four months for chronic issues.

Dry needling isn’t a technique to use on acute injuries that are still healing, Elmer said. If muscles are still swollen, it’s too soon to use the technique. Although the needles are sterile and Elmer uses a clean technique, he would also avoid using dry needling during the post-surgical healing period.

Dry needling would not be indicated for people with active infections and those with bleeding disorders. Its use would be limited to specific areas in people who are taking blood thinners.

Success story

Dry needling has been an important tool for Wendy Martin’s fight against chronic pain. Martin has been through multiple car wrecks during her life and had two cervical spine fusions. Over the past few years, the pain had gotten so bad, she had started slipping into severe depression. Her doctor referred her for physical therapy, and during her treatment, the therapists suggested dry needling to treat multiple trigger points.

After her first visit, she was extremely sore, but the second night, she was able to sleep through the night – a significant improvement for her.

Martin’s ongoing problems are so severe, she gets dry needle treatments each week. It has allowed her to continue working and get back to the things she enjoys, including gardening, jewelry making and archery.

“I’m less medicated than I’ve been in 10 years,” Martin said.

lifestyle_healthnewsBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Thousands crossed the finish line in October, but the money raised by the 2013 Komen North Mississippi Race for the Cure is beginning a new race against breast cancer.

The North Mississippi affiliate board announced $135,000 in grants to 10 organizations to provide screening programs to the medically underserved and community breast health education.

Access Family Health Services will use its $12,000 grant to provide screening and education for its patients in Tupelo, Smithville, Tremont and Houlka. It’s the third year the community health centers have received a Komen grant.

“It’s allowed us to make our funds go farther,” said Marilyn Sumerford, Access Family Health executive director. Other grants announced Tuesday include:

• $32,500 to Baptist Memorial Healthcare Foundation to provide mammograms at hospitals in New Albany, Booneville, Columbus and Oxford.

• $25,000 to NMMC Breast Care Center, Tupelo, to provide mammograms and education programs.

• $26,703 to Sisters Network, Tupelo, to provide mammograms and education programs.

• $15,000 to Antone Tannehill Good Samaritan Free Clinic, Tupelo, to provide mammograms.

• $10,000 to Columbus-Lowndes Free Medical Clinic to provide screening mammograms.

• $6,500 to Magnolia Regional Health Center Foundation, Corinth, for a breast cancer education program.

• $1,000 to Lift Inc., Tupelo, to provide mammogram assistance.

• $3,500 to NMMC-West Point, to provide mammograms.

• $2,797 to NMMC-Iuka, to provide mammograms.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

lifestyle_healthnewsBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Health insurance shoppers kept Northeast Mississippi organizations busy with last-minute sign-ups on Monday.

“Today is extremely busy with walk-ins and appointments,” said Melissa Kuykendall, certified enrollment counselor with Access Family Health in Tupelo.

Other Northeast Mississippi organizations offering in-person assistance, like CATCH Kids in Tupelo and Gilmore Regional Medical Center in Amory, also reported an uptick in people looking for help with insurance sign-up ahead of the deadline.

Healthcare.gov reported record traffic with 1.2 million users as of noon Monday, and 125,000 people on the site at one time. The heavy volume put the system under strain and prevented some from being able to process their applications.

The official open enrollment period for the federal health insurance exchange ended at midnight Monday, but anyone who has attempted to apply will have two weeks to complete enrollment.

Additionally, anyone with a major life change – such as a change in employment, marriage or the birth of a child – has a 60-day period to apply for coverage through the exchange for the rest of the year, Kuykendall said.

People who don’t have credible insurance face penalties on their 2015 taxes next year, although those who couldn’t access affordable insurance are exempt. The insurance can come through employers, the private marketplace or public programs. However, for Mississippians, the federal health insurance marketplace is the only place to access income-based subsidies.

As of mid-March, about 32,000 Mississippians had enrolled in coverage through the state’s federally-run website.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

lifestyle_healthnewsBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – It’s crunch time for folks considering health insurance.

March 31 is the last day for open enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace, where people who don’t receive health insurance through employers can access plans and apply for federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

“We hope this last week we can get as many as we can signed up,” said Valerie Long, executive director of CATCH Kids, which has trained navigators available at its Tupelo office to assist with the health insurance exchange.

Mid-March enrollment numbers show 28,500 Mississippians are among the 5 million Americans who have enrolled through the health insurance marketplaces since Oct. 1. Updated numbers are due to be released today in Jackson.

Investigating options through healthcare.gov or making an appointment for in-person assistance doesn’t obligate anyone to purchase health insurance.

“I’m encouraging people to ask questions,” said Melissa Kuykendall, Access Family Health’s certified enrollment counselor in Tupelo. “It’s better to get the whole picture.”

It’s important for people to consider not only the monthly premium, but the deductibles and copays that affect how much they have to pay out of pocket. The sliding scale subsidies are available to a wide range of lower and middle-income families up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line – $94,500 for a family of four.

“A lot more people qualify than they think,” Kukendall said.

People who don’t have health insurance could face a penalty on their 2015 taxes if they don’t qualify for an exemption.

Kuykendall is available until 7 p.m. today at the Access Family Health office in Midtown Pointe, formerly Gloster Creek Village, and can be available after hours by appointment.

CATCH Kids is available during regular office hours; appointments are encouraged so people don’t have to wait.

“It takes about 30 minutes to set up,” Long said.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

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RESOURCES

By phone or online

Healthcare.gov

• Health Help – Mississippi Health Advocacy Program (877) 314-3843, or coverms.org

In-person help

• Access Family Health Outreach 844-4252 or enroll@accessfamilyhealth.com

• CATCH Kids (662) 377-2194

• Sign-up event, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Plantersville

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Brandi Dabbs, from left, was inspired by son Dawson and the Autism Center of North Mississippi to create the Small Town Run Around 5K. The entire family, including dad Steven and younger brother Everett, all get into the act.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Brandi Dabbs, from left, was inspired by son Dawson and the Autism Center of North Mississippi to create the Small Town Run Around 5K. The entire family, including dad Steven and younger brother Everett, all get into the act.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

NETTLETON – Brandi Dabbs isn’t a runner, but she had to chart a course.

Inspired by her son Dawson’s struggles with autism, the Nettleton mom founded the Small Town Run Around 5k to support the Autism Center of North Mississippi. The third annual race will start at 9 a.m. April 5.

“Steven (her husband and Dawson’s dad) is the runner,” Dabbs said. “I like to plan and do.”

She wanted to do something to help connect parents and children with the diagnostic, therapy and advocacy services that have benefited her son, who is now 10.

“He’s come a long, long way,” Dabbs said. “Therapy – that’s been the saving grace.”

Dawson began showing signs of autism at age 3, but it took years to get an accurate diagnosis because he is so high functioning. When he was 8, the Dabbs family connected with the autism center, which was formed in 2009.

“It was awesome,” Dabbs said. “We made leaps and bounds.”

The autism center not only has helped Dawson directly with occupational and speech therapy, but it also helped Dabbs advocate effectively for Dawson at school.

“The school has really stepped up,” Dabbs said.

When Dabbs started floating the idea of a 5k, her father, Nettleton Alderman Charles Morris, encouraged her to bring a proposal for the run to the town board.

“They were all about it,” Dabbs said.

In 2012, more than 100 people took part in the race, and even more came out to support the run.

“It was more than we anticipated; I was thankful,” Dabbs said. “Last year we doubled it.”

More than a race, the Small Town Run Around has taken on the air of a town festival with inflatables and children’s activities.

“We wanted to make it special, especially for the kids on the spectrum,” she said.

Dabbs said she’s been overwhelmed by the community support. Over two years, the race has raised $10,000 for the autism center.

“They said, ‘We want there to be help for the kids that need it,’” Dabbs said. “I just squalled at the end.”

The efforts of Dabbs and her family, as well as Nettleton volunteers, have been heartwarming for the center’s staff, said Brittany Cuevas, director of business development for Autism Center of North Mississippi.

“We are all in this together,” to aid children with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities, Cuevas said. “They need our help, and (the center) needs volunteers like Brandi and others who support the Small Town Run Around.”

For information and registration, visit smalltownrunaround.com.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com Shane Spees is the new chief executive of North Mississippi Health Services.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Shane Spees is the new chief executive of North Mississippi Health Services.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Shane Spees’ career in health care administration took him to Houston, Texas, and Birmingham, Ala., before circling back home.

Now, the new chief executive of North Mississippi Health Services has an office on the same campus where he was born and had his tonsils removed.

“We’ve been away from Tupelo for 25 years,” Spees said. “It’s nice to reconnect.”

Spees’ career began at Memorial-Hermann Healthcare System and took him leadership roles first at Valley Baptist Health System in the Rio Grande Valley and on to Baptist Health System in Birmingham, Ala., where he served as president and chief executive from 2007 to 2014.

Since January when he took over the Tupelo-based six-hospital system, Spees said he’s found that North Mississippi Health Services has a lot to be proud of.

“We’re as good, if not better, than the providers in Houston and Birmingham,” Spees said.

There’s more on the line for Spees in his new role than just professional pride. His mother, Sandra Spees, recently moved back to Tupelo. His grandparents, Charles and Naomi Lee, live here, along with aunts, uncles and cousins. His father, Mike Spees, died in 2006.

“Being back brings a lot of reality to (the old saying) ‘if it was your mother, what would you do?’” Spees said.

Finding a vocation

Growing up, Spees never had any ambition to work in health care.

“I had no aspirations other than playing professional baseball,” Spees said.

Spees may not have seen his direction, but the people around him saw someone special.

“You could tell right away he had great things ahead of him,” said Larry Harmon, who coached Spees on the Tupelo High School baseball team.

Spees excelled on the diamond and in the classroom, Harmon remembered.

“He was serious about reaching his goals,” he said.

Spees worked for Jimmy Long at MLM Clothiers in downtown Tupelo during high school and college.

“He wanted to do things well,” Long said. “He worked hard, he studied hard… I’ve never met a kid that had more honor and integrity.”

Following a clerkship after his first year of law school, Spees came to a crossroads.

“I realized I didn’t want to practice law,” Spees said, and he started considering his career options.

That exploration led him to call Dan Wilford, who had served as the chief executive of NMMC in the 1970s and 1980s, and was then the chief executive of the Memorial-Hermann system in Houston. The connection led to a job offer and a plan. After he finished law school, he would work part time as an administrative resident and pursue a master’s in health care administration at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

“It was literally a leap of faith,” for Spees and his wife Parker, he remembered.

Wilford, who is now retired, describes Spees as smart, talented and a quick learner who is great with people.

“He’s one of the best,” Wilford said. “Of the young people in hospital administration, I don’t know of anybody better than Shane Spees.”

For Spees, managing nonprofit health care organizations became a vocation, offering the challenges of working with teams and managing resources with a great purpose, he said.

“There’s a direct connection with what we do every day and serving the broader community,” Spees said.

Early impressions

North Mississippi Health Services is in an enviable position with a strong system of community hospitals and clinics through its 24-county service area.

“You see firsthand the support the community has for the health system,” said Spees, who has been visiting doctors, nurse practitioners and community hospital staffs around the system. “You don’t get that in markets like Birmingham or Houston.”

However, health care is in a period of tremendous transformation, and the health care team is changing rapidly.

“It’s like straddling two canoes,” Spees said.

The challenge is to balance between the old model of health care – taking care of people when they get sick – and the new model – helping people optimize their health.

“We would like to be innovators, help the community move toward wellness and better managing their health,” Spees said. “We will push ourselves to be as efficient as we possibly can be while providing the highest quality care.”

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com Leigh Ann Foster laughs at one of the many funny stories from two-time breast caner survivor Lillie Shockney during the annual NMMC Spirit of Women Pretty in Pink luncheon. Lisa Diallo of Tupelo, not pictured, won the prize for "Prettiest in Pink" at the annual breast cancer awareness event.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Leigh Ann Foster laughs at one of the many funny stories from two-time breast caner survivor Lillie Shockney during the annual NMMC Spirit of Women Pretty in Pink luncheon. Lisa Diallo of Tupelo, not pictured, won the prize for “Prettiest in Pink” at the annual breast cancer awareness event.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – A year and two snow storms later, nurse and breast cancer survivor Lillie Shockney finally got her chance to tickle Tupelo pink.

Shockney is a registered nurse who was set to come to the 2013 Pretty in Pink breast cancer awareness lunch when a winter storm derailed air travel.

Ten inches of snow threatened her second trip, too.

“When I saw there was a winter storm warning in the northeast I was sweating bullets,” said Liz Dawson, director of NMMC Community Health, which organizes the Spirit of Women events.

But Shockney, who serves as the administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center in Baltimore, made it to Tupelo at 3 a.m. Tuesday, in time to have the 172 women who came to the 2014 Pretty in Pink luncheon howling over tales of breast prostheses that didn’t stay put and her then-12-year-old daughter’s suggestion that they put her amputated breast in a pickle jar.

From a family friend, Ms. Bertha, who survived metastatic breast cancer decades ago, Shockney learned three key lessons:

• Have a good oncology team;

• Be optimistic as long as it’s realistic;

• Laugh every day.

“Ms. Bertha was 35 years ahead of science,” Shockney said, noting research has shown that laughter, in fact, stimulates the immune system.

There were serious moments, too, as Shockney talked about her cancer journey. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer before she was 40. She had a cyst removed from her right breast, and the doctor recommended getting a baseline mammogram. The mammogram found suspicious areas in her left breast that turned out to be cancer.

“I do believe the mammogram saved your life,” Shockney remembered the surgeon telling her.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

news_medical_greenBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Four Northeast Mississippi health care facilities have been selected to participate in a telemedicine grant through University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Calhoun County Medical Clinic in Calhoun City, Trace Regional Medical Center in Houston, NMMC-Pontotoc and NMMC-Iuka each will receive a telemedicine cart that will allow health care providers at those facilities to consult with the academic medical center and trauma center in Jackson.

“Our hope is to bring them more access to those subspecialties that they don’t have in their communities,” said Kristi Henderson, a UMMC nursing professor who serves as the director of telehealth. “We want to help fill gaps or add additional capacity.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Appalachian Regional Commission have funded a $578,000 distance-learning and telemedicine grant to nine hospitals in towns with fewer than 5,000 residents in areas that are considered medically underserved and have health professional shortage areas. A 10th site is being finalized for the grant. The new sites will bring UMMC’s telehealth system to 104 sites and connect 168,000 rural residents.

The mobile telemedicine carts have two-way, secure audio-visual connections between UMMC and the rural facilities. The carts will be set up to connect with UMMC, but the facilities also will be able to use them to connect with other telehealth sites, Henderson said. For example, the NMMC sites could use them to connect with specialists at NMMC-Tupelo, too.

UMMC is leading the way in establishing telemedicine networks that will allow the state to extend the reach of medical specialists, said Dr. Mark Williams, chief medical officer for North Mississippi Health Services, which has four facilities among the nine grant sites.

“We view it as a potential partnership,” Williams said. “We may be able to be a resource for them” with Tupelo-based specialists helping to provide coverage for the state.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com