VOL. 41 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 30, 2017
Shumaker brings ‘freaky’ energy to TMA post
By Nancy Henderson
After checking on the progess of Emma Leigh Snyder’s recovery from a soccer injury, Dr. Nita Shumaker takes time to catch up with the Soddy Daisy Middle School student. -- Alex Mcmahan | The Ledger
Since becoming president of the Tennessee Medical Association in April, Dr. Nita Shumaker has shrugged off most of the comments about her unique role.
“Everybody thinks it’s so astounding that there’s a second female president in 163 years, but I never felt like any man was holding me back from that position,” says the forthright physician and partner at Galen North Pediatrics.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I want to do it.’ And they said, ‘OK.’ Maybe it’s in our own minds that we have a glass ceiling.”
Shumaker, 55, grew up in a poor family in Winton, a small rural town in northeast North Carolina with no traffic lights and a population of about 400 if “you count the dogs.” None of her relatives had attended college, so she didn’t anticipate going either.
An energetic, “mouthy” kid – “I’m sure when I was born, I slapped the obstetrician and told him he didn’t cut the cord right,” she jokes, Shumaker was a bit of a troublemaker in elementary school, prompting the teacher to keep her busy with classroom chores.
But her focus sharpened in second grade when educators brought in a “reading machine” that scrolled one word at a time on a screen. Spellbound by the contraption, Shumaker learned to speed read and retain the information, skills that would serve her well in her future career.
The summer after high school graduation, while working at a drugstore in a larger town 10 miles away, she listened as some of her female co-workers talked about starting college that fall. Confident that she was as smart as they were, maybe more so, she landed a scholarship at East Carolina University but felt the uncovered expenses were creating a hardship for her parents.
“So, after a semester, I quit and went back home because I felt so guilty about spending their money,” she recalls. But after going to work with her mom, an office manager at an aluminum plant, she realized a college degree was essential if she wanted to earn more than minimum wage.
Biology had always been one of her favorite subjects, so on a whim she declared she was going to be a doctor. She had no idea what that really meant, she admits.
“That’s kind of my personality,” she says. “It’s like, ‘I’m going to do this. Now, how do we do it?’”
In 1989, she graduated from East Carolina University Medical School and joined the U.S. Air Force, caring for the children of military families on a base in southern California while completing her internship and residency at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. The Air Force position gave her a break from the exhausting, 120-hour-a-week schedule as an intern, and it paid more, allowing her husband Kevin to stay home with their new baby.
Originally planning to be a surgeon or obstetrician-gynecologist, she chose pediatrics after her spouse pointed out that she never wanted to come home from the hospital when she was on rotation in the “pedes” unit.
Working with children, Shumaker says, is “joyous. They’re always happy. They always tell you the truth. When they’re sick, they let you know, but they’re almost always well. It gives me the opportunity to do a lot of preventative guidance. There’s a lot of psychology to it.”
Looking for a job in the South, but not necessarily close to her hometown, in 1994 she moved to Chattanooga and went to work for a local physician, moonlighting in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger. In 1997, she joined Galen Medical Group and established a practice that now includes four other partners in an office on the outskirts of Northgate Mall.
Both of her children have followed in her scientific footsteps. Oldest son Alex, 26, is a Ph.D. candidate in the microbial biology program at Rutgers University, and 24-year-old Rocklin is studying at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
Like her personality, Shumaker’s bedside manner is straightforward and sarcastically fun.
“I tend to open the door and just look at them like, ‘What are you doing here?’” she says, mimicking the bold, teasing stare she often gives her pint-sized patients.
“It’s hysterical. I laugh all day. I terrorize teenagers all day. I mortify them. I tease them. I pick on them. As I tell parents, ‘As long as I’m smiling, you don’t have anything to worry about. If I stop smiling, we may have a medical issue. But I’ve never had a kid die from being sick in 25 years, which is amazing.”
Shumaker, who calls herself a “grand-doctor” because she now treats the children of her grown patients, says she strongly believes in preventive medicine. She makes time to talk to parents about everything from their children’s sleep cycles, nutrition and exercise to school performance, signs of anxiety or depression and the value of establishing a daily routine.
She is fiercely protective of her patients, excels at making everyone feel at ease and senses when marital problems are affecting a child or when something just isn’t right.
“We have a servant mentality, and we want to help people. We identify with people suffering and we want to make that better,” she says of her professional peers. “Every day we’re intimately involved in loving relationships with our patients, and we’re part of their family. They let us into places that nobody else gets to go and let us say things to them that they don’t necessarily want to hear.
“But they understand that we’re acting in their best interests. Who else can say that about their job?
“It is such an honor and a privilege,” Shumaker adds. “It’s always amazing to me that when I walk in the room, people will tell me their deepest, darkest secrets that they haven’t necessarily even shared with their family, the trust that they inherently put in us. If a child is having a seizure here in the office, the parent hands the child to me, immediately.
“Once you have a baby, you realize that you never loved anything the way you love your children, and when they look at me and hand me their child who is ill, that’s just an awesome moment. It just always takes my breath away that parents trust us to care for their most valuable assets.”
Still, Shumaker is sometimes frustrated by misconceptions, like the myth that doctors keep patients waiting for no good reason. What they don’t realize, she points out, is that on any given day she might discover that a child with a “routine” cough actually has pneumonia, or a baby might have a seizure in the office and need emergency care.
“Am I running late because the last patient in the room said they had a rash, but they were actually there because they had gotten date-raped in college?” she says. “Or, am I late because somebody called up and said, ‘I think my child just stopped breathing?’ We also can’t walk in the room and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you won’t believe what happened in the last room.’”
Shumaker’s “freaky” natural energy spurs her to accomplish a lot at once and keep going despite the long hours. To stay in shape – and practice what she preaches about healthy living – she cycles on weekends and works out at the gym.
“You know, when you’re 55, you’ve got to do something to stay the way God intended us to. And it wasn’t sitting in front of a computer screen typing. I’ve got to walk the walk because I’m going to talk the talk.”
Shumaker has served in a number of leadership roles over the years, including chief of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital, chief of staff at Erlanger Medical System (again, she was the second woman to do so, after Dr. Phyllis Miller, who also served as the first female president of the Tennessee Medical Association from 2005-2006), and president of the Chattanooga & Hamilton County Medical Society.
Before assuming the TMA’s top post this year, she served on numerous committees and task forces for the organization, as well as its board of trustees. As president of the TMA, she is now the public spokesperson and advocate for nearly 9,000 members of the state’s largest professional organization of doctors.
Not surprisingly, she has no trouble speaking up at board meetings. “(When someone brings up an idea), I say, ‘OK, well that’s great, but we need to do this,’ because there’s always something else. Why go to a meeting if you’re not going to voice your opinion or try to make things better? It doesn’t make me uncomfortable to voice uncomfortable things.”
Her next professional goal is to serve on the board of the American Medical Association because, she says, “We have some larger work to do.”
She also wants to mentor young girls and encourage them to pursue their passions. “Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemy, or we don’t have a mentor that’s done it before us,” Shumaker explains. “I want every young woman to do what I did and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a such and such. How do you do it?’ I [want to] teach young women to dream that dream and then find out how to get it done and say, ‘Nobody’s going to stop you.’”