My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Mark D. Anderson, MD, FACP
On the farm where Mark Anderson grew up in Mississippi, there were always things that needed fixing, and Mark was terrible at it. His brother on the other hand, was a whiz—effortlessly saving the day time and time again with a gracefully held pair of pliers or a wrench. In “hill country” in a family that had worked in farming for multiple generations, this was not a desirable position to be in, but it wasn’t long before he would become quite good at solving problems on his own.
As a college student, Dr. Anderson knew he wanted a job working with people but that also challenged him as well. He chose pre-med at the University of Mississippi and took a job after college at a hospital as an “attendant,” cleaning up soiled patients and doing things like performing what were referred to as “tap water cleansing enemas,” which prepared patients for gastrointestinal procedures. It wasn’t a glamorous job to say the least, but Dr. Anderson didn’t complain. “I was an orderly, really,” he recalls, “but I actually enjoyed the work. The nurses explained to me the importance of what I was doing, which was a great experience to have before becoming a doctor.” After performing a tap water cleansing enema on one man, the young Dr. Anderson remembers being stunned when the patient turned around and thanked him. “He said ‘I don’t want you to think I enjoyed that but I thank you for being cheerful and helpful,’” he recalls. “It made a big impression on me that if you do something well people will appreciate you for it.”
In medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans, internal medicine drew Dr. Anderson in from the start. Always a voracious reader, the cognitive aspects of the discipline appealed to him, and he liked the idea of gaining a history of a patient to figure out a diagnosis. He made the definite decision to pursue internal medicine during a rotation with a cardiologist, whom he describes as gifted. “He was just extremely good at everything that is internal medicine—getting the history, the physical exam, the talking to the patients…and his examination skills were just amazing—he could put his hand on a patient’s chest and tell you what their cardiac cycle was.”
Today, in Chattanooga, TN working as an infectious disease specialist, a vice chief medical officer and quality officer for a health care system, a volunteer at an HIV clinic, and a control oversight consultant for health care-related infectious disease for several area hospitals, Dr. Anderson uses many of the same skills he admired in his mentor. He thrives on the difficulty of the job and loves all of his roles for the interaction he has with patients. “Most people don’t know what an infectious disease specialist is,” he says, “when I tell them they say it sounds like detective work, and it is. I love detective work!”
Farmer at Sea
An infectious disease can be a tough egg to crack. There are many times for example, when a patient goes to the hospital, very ill with a high fever, only to be sent home days later, completely recovered without any diagnosis. It’s the not knowing that can be hardest for families, as Dr. Anderson explains. “Generally speaking, people are more stressed out by uncertainty than they are by bad news.” But most of the time, Dr. Anderson is able to figure it out, as he did five years ago with a patient with a mysterious and persistent case of pneumonia that left the man so weak that he could barely get out of bed. The patient, a man in his late forties, had been to five physicians before going to see Dr. Anderson. After talking to the patient at length about his medical history, lifestyle and home environment, Dr. Anderson arrived at a diagnosis—Q Fever—a name coined in Australia because of its elusiveness. “The Q stands for query, as in a question, because for a long time they couldn’t figure out what it was,” he explained. “When they eventually did, they found a connection between the bacteria and close animal contact. I had learned from my patient that he lived on a farm raising goats.”
Just as his time on the family farm gave him a keen awareness of lifestyle-related illnesses, his time working as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy gave him the confidence to handle crisis situations. Dr. Anderson’s nine year career with the Navy based in San Diego proved to be an outstanding and unique training experience with unusual and severe infections. He also gained management experience, which he draws on today. In addition to his consultant and practice work, Dr. Anderson also works part time as the chief quality officer at a nearby hospital. Together he and the staff work on implementing quality programs and identifying the need for such programs. He enjoys the progress he sees from their efforts. “It’s very rewarding, doing this kind of work, and being an internist allows me to do it,” he says. “For example, one program we implemented was effective in decreasing medical errors. The real value of internal medicine for me is coordinating care. It’s very interesting, the variety of problems I address on a daily basis. My work is never routine. I’ve never known an internist who was bored, myself included.”
Working in the Navy also proved to be a crash course in quick-fire decision making, as it was in one instance during a two-year appointment as Medical Officer aboard the USS Vancouver. A young man had come to Dr. Anderson with a painful swelling underneath his jaw, which Dr. Anderson suspected was a deep head and neck infection. He was anxious about the diagnosis, however. If he made the decision to treat based on his theory, it would mean calling in a transport for the man to be flown to shore—a very disrupting operation. “We were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, days from shore-based help,” he recalls. “My only option for a second opinion was to radio a more experienced doctor on a neighboring ship, which I did.” After discussing the symptoms, the physician told Dr. Anderson that he thought it wasn’t an infection at all, but rather a blocked salivary gland, which had a very simple treatment. “Here I was ready to call the helicopters in for a dramatic emergency trip across the Pacific, and the next thing I know I’m squirting lemon juice into the guy’s mouth. Problem solved—I’m glad I got his input!”
In addition to physician, infectious disease specialist, chief quality officer, and volunteer, Dr. Anderson has taken on even more roles: course director and president. “My wife says if I say yes to one more thing, she’s going to kill me!” he jokes. However, Dr. Anderson chooses his activities carefully, picking only those which interest him the most, like the course director position for a reading retreat for physicians—an annual trip he looks forward to each year. His responsibilities include choosing the reading material for each retreat, something that comes easily to him as an avid reader. He also relishes his time as president of the Chattanooga Arts and Education Council and as the Chair for the Southern Writers Conference every year. The rest of his time he spends attending activities of his five children. And in the spare time he has left after all of that, he likes to sit on his front porch and relax with his wife, a pediatrician turned full-time mom. Like her husband, she is very busy herself. When she’s not with the kids she has her work cut out for her on their 20-acre farm, but these days when something needs fixing, he can handle it just fine.
Check out previous articles as physicians share what motivated them to become physicians as well as why they chose their particular type of practice.
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