My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Victor A. Simms, MD, MPH, FACP
With so much media coverage these days about the neurological damage resulting from multiple concussions suffered by players in the National Football League, it's hard to conceive that football might also be a sport that can save lives.
"There's no denying that playing football is dangerous," admits Dr. Victor Simms, a former high school linebacker whose own football-incurred knee injury dashed his dreams of getting a Division 1 college football scholarship. "But for kids in poor neighborhoods, the streets are even more dangerous. For many, football is a refuge."
Dr. Simms knows of what he speaks. He grew up in a poor community in Ft. Worth, Texas, and began playing Pee Wee football at age 4. In poverty-stricken neighborhoods, where teen pregnancy and kids growing up without fathers is epidemic, drugs and violence are claiming young lives at an alarming rate. "Football," says Dr. Simms, "gets kids off the street and provides them with coaches, role models who teach them about teamwork, responsibility, the value of hard work and the importance of taking direction."
Dr. Simms was fortunate. He had more than football to save him from the perils of the streets. "I am one of 12 children and my family did not have much money," he says, "but I had loving parents who raised us in the church and who stressed the importance of education." "As a young child," says Dr. Simms, "I loved playing ball, but I also loved reading and drawing, and I would spend hours poring over my parents' set of Encyclopedia Britannica."
Beyond the goalposts
Dr. Simms' knee injury may have been a "blessing in disguise." While recovering from surgery and still on crutches, he was invited by a friend's father to accompany him and his son to visit the campus of Texas A & M University. The visit changed his life. After meeting with the Dean of Minority Affairs and a Dean from the Medical College, Dr. Simms had a new game plan.
"It was such a moment of clarity for me," says Dr. Simms, "I realized that at 5'9", I was probably too short to play ball at the level I had dreamed." And to his surprise, it no longer mattered. The Dean of Minority Affairs, after reviewing his academic record, immediately offered him an academic scholarship.
Dr. Simms vowed that he would continue to get good grades and make his way to medical school. And that's exactly what he did. In 1992, he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology from Texas A & M, and in 1996, he received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston where he also completed his residency in internal medicine.
Along the way, he received numerous awards, including A & M's Presidential Achievement Award, the John Becham Award for Outstanding Senior in the College of Science, the H.R. Lewis Scholarship Award, and the Black Graduate Student's Association Award for Top Academic Senior. "I'm a competitive person," says Dr. Simms, "I think that helped me do well in school."
Honoring visions, saving villages
It also helped that he had a clear vision. "I knew I wanted to be a doctor since I was nine years old," says Dr. Simms. It was at that age that he was visiting his sick grandmother in the hospital and found himself fascinated by everything the attending doctor was doing and saying. The doctor, Dr. Adams, noticed the young visitor's interest and invited him to come back to the hospital and spend a day doing rounds with him. Dr. Simms says the day with Dr. Adams is one he will never forget. It convinced him that medicine was his "calling."
Before choosing internal medicine as his specialty, Dr. Simms says he initially considered pediatrics, but after his first patient died, a 7-year-old boy with acute myelogenous leukemia, Dr. Simms had to admit, "I realized it was going to be too hard for me to take care of really sick kids." He also considered becoming a surgeon because he was good with his hands, but in the end he says it was internal medicine that got his attention.
"There are lots of very smart people in internal medicine," says Dr. Simms, and that appealed to him. But he candidly admits, "internal medicine was not easy for me. Academically, it was very challenging." But Dr. Simms enjoys a challenge, and he wanted the exposure that internal medicine would give him to a wide variety of patients and diseases and the larger view of medicine.
After completing his residency, Dr. Simms accepted a Primary Care Fellowship funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and obtained a master's degree in Public Health from the University of Texas School of Public Health. "The master's degree gave me a better understanding of research and how health systems and policy effect the larger population," says Dr. Simms. He compares the need to study public health to the story of the village suffering from cholera-"you can treat one patient at a time, or you can go upstream and treat the water and save the whole village."
A noble profession
Internal medicine has given Dr. Simms the variety he was looking for. As a clinician at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, a large multi-specialty clinic in Houston, he spends about 80% of his time seeing patients-from the17-year-old who needs preventive care to the 100-year-old patient for whom he is managing 15 different medications and working with family members on end-of-life issues. He is also a member of the Kelsey-Seybold Board of Directors and a managing physician at Kelsey's clinic in Pasadena, Texas.
"I never imagined myself as a businessman or politician," jokes Dr. Simms, but at Kelsey-Seybold he finds he enjoys being part of the administrative and policy-making teams that affect the future of the institution. In the future, Dr. Simms says he will likely cut back on some of his clinical time to assume more leadership responsibilities, "But," he says, "I will always see patients. I need to see patients-otherwise, I don't feel connected to medicine."
Despite his busy schedule, Dr. Simms makes time for church and exercise. He especially likes to lift weights, and when he finds a few extra hours, he enjoys playing golf or going to movies, theaters and restaurants in Houston.
Dr. Simms is the first person in his family to attend college-that alone, is a significant achievement-but, he is also a doctor with a Master's degree, a principal investigator for a 2010 NIH research project, and the recipient of numerous academic and professional awards, including the ACP Texas Chapter's "Young Physician Leader of the Year 2012" award. Yet despite his achievements, Dr. Simms remains humble. "My father did not even graduate high school," he says, "but he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. He was a loving man, a man of God. I hope to be half the man he was."
Dr. Simms' says his faith and family keep him grounded, "If I mention an award to my mother, she will say, 'that's nice, Victor, are you hungry? Can I make you something to eat?'" Her not-so-subtle reminder that in her house humility and the opportunity to serve others are what matter most.
Not that Dr. Simms needs any reminding. "It is a great privilege to serve people," he says, and despite the problems that are part of the healthcare system-the paperwork, the reimbursement issues, and the law suits-"Medicine," he insists, "is still a very noble profession." "We see people in pain, people who are at the end of life, and they trust us to help them through the process. That's a great honor."
"What other profession offers you that?" he asks with enthusiasm. And then quietly, "Medicine," says Dr. Simms, "is a great adventure, a great life, a great calling."