SEARCY There was a time, not too many years ago, that Dr. Katherine Durham thought life was just going to be her and her work.
“With a career like this, you can either be a single woman, married to your career and only responsible for yourself, or you are married with a family and an incredible support network,” Durham said.
It wasn’t until she met her now-husband, D.J., in 2009 that she thought she could manage a family and a time-intensive career in cardiology. She told him when they were first introduced by their mothers that the relationship wouldn’t be easy. The two traveled on weekends to visit each other either in Searcy, where D.J. grew up and worked, or in San Antonio, where Durham was completing a fellowship. The couple married a little more than a year after they first met, and six months later, Durham found out she was pregnant.
Durham continued her work straight through her due date, working in a 25-bed cardiology unit in 12-hour shifts.
“Being on my feet all 12 hours while eight-months pregnant was very, very tough,” Durham said.
Durham decided she was going to take care of herself and her baby but still graduate on time. She drank a lot of water, kept her feet up while taking notes and even wore compression pantyhose.
“At 37 years old, I was so excited to finally have the
opportunity to have a child,” Durham said.
In June, Durham and her infant daughter, Abigail, moved back to Searcy to be with D.J. in the town where they both spent their childhoods. After 14 years of medical training, Durham had assumed she’d end up in a bigger town, but when a job opened at White County Medical Center, the plan all came together.
“I think I have it all, and it terrifies me, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Durham said. “I’m so grateful, and it’s all God. I give God all the credit, and he’s opened every door for every opportunity.”
Durham was born and raised in Searcy. Her father worked in real estate, and her mother worked as a secretary. Durham has two other siblings, a brother and a sister.
Durham was always focused on school when she was younger, strong in math and science. Her schoolwork led her to fixate on the idea of medical school during her junior year of high school, and a few personal experiences finished making up her mind. Her grandfather, who had for years picked her up from Bald Knob to come and visit him and Durham’s grandmother on weekends, became very ill with lung cancer.
“I didn’t know he wasn’t doing well because I was so young,” Durham said.
Durham helped her grandmother care for her grandfather as he grew sicker, and that experience has helped her relate to patients even today.
Graduating from Searcy High School in 1993, Durham started college as a premed major at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro on a scholarship. But after one year in school, Durham had to drop out to go to work and save more money for school. For six years, she worked jobs that included being a secretary in medical billing, still taking a few classes when she could.
In 2001, Durham graduated from Harding University with a degree in biology.
“I absolutely loved their program,” Durham said. “It’s a very well-kept secret. The dean at my medical school had a lot of students coming to them from Harding.”
From there, it was off to medical school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, where she was accepted straight away and worked toward her degree from 2002-2006, graduating with honors.
When it came time to select a specialty, internal medicine was her first choice.
“I see medicine as a puzzle,” Durham said. “And I see a lab, an X-ray, a chart all as parts of a story, a picture of a person.”
While one grandfather had inspired her to attend medical school in the first place, it was her other grandfather who inspired her eventual subspecialty of cardiology. Though she hadn’t known him growing up, she’d heard the story of how one day, when he wasn’t feeling well, his wife went to get him Alka Seltzer for his indigestion. He died before she came back.
“It made me aware early that we had a family history of heart disease,” Durham said. “That got me thinking about cardiology.”
Durham worked a three-year residency in cardiology before working on her fellowship — a level above residents for doctors subspecializing — in San Antonio.
Throughout her schooling, training and practice, Durham has dealt with the unique problems that come with being a woman in a male-dominated field.
“In training, my experience was that a lot of the time, especially older men in the South assume that you’re the nurse,” Durham said. “I was annoyed, but then I realized they didn’t have a lot of female doctors in their generation. As I went through my training, that happened less and less.”
Two women who came into her life during her schooling — Dr. Debbie Duke at Harding University and Dr. Sara Tariq at UAMS — also helped to show Durham that it was possible for women to succeed in the field.
Durham said her biggest challenge now as a wife, mother and cardiologist is simply finding the time for everything.
“Cardiology is demanding,” Durham said. “When people get sick, have heart attacks or rhythm issues, the stakes are high. You have to learn to juggle it all.”
Now that Durham is finally out of training and working in Searcy, she said it “takes a village” to help keep her house
organized and her daughter cared for. When Durham is on call over weekends, it’s her husband, D.J., running errands and taking Abigail to church. The couple found a wonderful nanny, Theresa, who helps when they both work, and Durham’s mother cooks for the family often.
“On a typical day, I go in about 7:30 [a.m.] and see my patients, make rounds and determine what to do that day,” Durham said.
She sees a full clinic of patients in the morning, finishing up around noon in time to read over stress tests and EKG results before going back to the hospital to do rounds again.
“In between, I may do a heart cath or other procedures,” Durham said. “Then we’re on call about every fifth night and every fifth weekend.”
Working in the town she was raised in means treating familiar faces, which can pose a difficult situation for a doctor.
“When you’re at UAMS and you have to go out and tell a family when it’s terrible news, it hurts you, but you don’t know them,” Durham said. “Here, you know them, and you know the grief that they have, and you feel that loss for people.”
At the same time, Durham said, knowing her patients on a deeper level also allows her to feel joy spread through the community when someone is doing well.
Through it all, Durham knows that the extraordinary path she walked to get back to Searcy was God’s choice. Each day, she starts with a prayer that her work will help people that day.
“I say, ‘God, please use me to help someone today,’” Durham said. “He puts people in my path, and sometimes he gives me pretty big things, but he always puts people in my path that I’m supposed to meet.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or email@example.com.