Dr. Cam Patterson came to Arkansas from New York to care for a serious patient -- the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock.
Patterson, a cardiologist and hospital administrator, took over as chancellor of the state's biggest hospital and largest public employer in June 2018.
He arrived to a dire prognosis for the 140-year-old institution. UAMS had cut hundreds of jobs in response to a projected deficit of $70 million, the Democrat-Gazette reported. And Arkansas ranked 48th on the United Health Foundation's state-by-state list of which are the healthiest.
But the Alabama-born physician made this particular house call with a strong dose of personal conviction.
"I didn't come here to work in just another Southern state with poor health outcomes," Patterson says. "We're going to change that."
The budget is on the mend, he told the university's board of trustees earlier this year. About half of the 200 employees who had been laid off were hired back. The hospital's minimum wage increased to $14 an hour.
In July, the UAMS Translational Research Institute received a $24 million grant from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The grant "is a really big deal," Patterson says.
Translational research means finding how to put lab results to use in patient care -- "bench to bedside," the saying goes. Patterson adds another goal: "Also, back to the bench," meaning doctors should listen to what patients say in deciding the priorities of medical research.
Doctors and patients agree on the need for better health care in remote parts of the state. The Mississippi Delta region, for example, where the question remains: Why is cancer so prevalent? Patterson calls it "an epidemic of colorectal and prostate cancer among African American men."
"Nobody is coming to answer that question for us," he says. "It's up to us to take up that work. And it's not as simple as finding a drug treatment. Social factors are very real."
Bad diet, smoking, an unwillingness to go to the doctor -- what specific health risks in the southeast corner of Arkansas could be reduced to save lives?
Patterson wants UAMS to become the state's first National Cancer Center-designated hospital. "We need one," he says, and it's a major goal that only 71 hospitals in the nation have met.
The designation is more than an honor. It opens the possibility to acquire millions in lab money, access to cutting-edge research, hundreds more jobs -- a way to convince more of the best doctors that Arkansas is the place to be.
Patient care is what matters, Patterson says, including that no woman should have to cross the state for the exact breast cancer treatment she needs, let alone go out of state. "No woman in Arkansas should be put in that position."
Cheerier greetings than a hospital-room bouquet of balloons came in late July. U.S. News and World Report named UAMS the best hospital in Arkansas, and its ear, nose and throat department among the nation's top 50. Patterson sets the goal ahead to become No. 1 in regional standing.
"Dr. Patterson told me when I offered him the position that his plan was to hit the ground listening," says Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System.
That way, "Cam quickly came to understand that UAMS has [a] critically important role to play in almost every facet of this state's future," Bobbitt says. "He has positioned the institution to support that future, whether it be in continuing to offer a state of the art medical education to the majority of physicians in the state, to its outreach into underserved areas of the state and in its economic development efforts to support the governor's and Legislature's vision."
GET WELL SOON
"We've already done a lot," Patterson says, but a doctor knows that feeling better isn't the same as great health.
He feels better that Arkansas is up to 46th place on the latest state-by-state health exam. The improved score reflects hopeful declines in smoking and obesity, but still -- fourth from the bottom?
"We can do better," Patterson says.
The doctor prescribes himself regular workouts to maintain his lean runner's physique. And doctor's advice from the guy who could work all the time is: Don't work all the time.
"It's critical that I'm not just working continuously," Patterson says. He grew up angling for catfish with a cane pole, and he's "learning to be a fly fisherman," he says, fly rod in hand. "I'm hardly thinking about anything other than where I want the fly to land."
Except that he notes how casting is good for hand-eye coordination.
And hip waders? Doctor-recommended hip waders? Absolutely. It could be said he is not really out to catch a trout but researching the value of clumsy boots as a balance exercise.
He always wanted to be a doctor, his mother, Audrey Patterson of Mobile, Ala., remembers. Other interests, football, soccer, fancy French cooking -- even music, and music remains a big one -- played second fiddle.
She attended the ceremony in June in which Patterson received the Harry P. Ward Chancellor's Distinguished Chair, one of the university's highest honors. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was there to cite Patterson for being "able to build confidence in UAMS."
"Cam always thought medicine would allow him to help people," the chancellor's mom says, "which was really his goal."
Formally speaking, the name is Cam (short for Campbell) Patterson, M.D., MBA. Doctor and business administrator -- not likely, he would have agreed as a young doctor.
"All I wanted," he says, "was to see patients."
Growing up in Mobile, he was impressed by his childhood pal's father, known to the town as "Big Barney" March, a cardiologist.
"I remember Big Barney March," he says, "a quiet giant of a man with a deep moral character and the willingness to care for anybody under any circumstance."
Wanting to become a doctor himself, and with college decisions to make, Patterson went to Dr. March for advice. He found his idol working late over insurance forms.
"He said, 'I can't recommend that you come into the field as it is,'" Patterson says. Even 35 years ago, doctors were finding that medicine had more to do with paperwork than with medicine. "But then, he looked at me and said, 'Knowing you, you're going to do it, anyway,'" and he imparted the advice that stayed with Patterson ever since "The good work that you can do stays the same."
Cardiology is heart medicine. Patterson took to it at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and liked what he learned.
"The heart is an elegant muscle," he says. "It has four chambers, and all it does is pump blood. It was easy for me to understand."
But the heart's mechanism is hardly all there is to know. Patterson's bachelor's degree is in psychology: heart and mind.
To have a once-dying patient "slap you on the back and say, 'Thanks, Doc, for saving my life!' -- that's something you never take for granted," he says. It comes at the cost of some "other time." The doctor brings bad news, and the only way to make it bearable is to say it "with humanity."
He began to take on leadership roles as well -- management, including as executive director of the University of North Carolina McAllister Heart Institute. His Master of Business Administration degree is from the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler School of Business. Prior to UAMS, he was senior vice president and chief operating officer of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Komansky Children's Hospital in New York.
UAMS attracted him as "an opportunity to have an impact."
Money and medicine are like two pills that only work in the right combination. Patterson knows as the recipient of more than $60 million in grants. He was a research fellow at the CardioBiology Laboratory in the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and a clinical fellow in cardiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Fundraising is the cause of the UAMS Gala for Life on Sept. 6, benefiting the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. Patterson and his wife, Dr. Kris Patterson, will be honorary co-chairs for the black-tie event that starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. More information is available at cancer.uams.edu.
The 24th annual event will be the first time the chancellor has served as co-chair, says Laurie Ann Ross, senior director of development. Last year's gala raised $900,000, and this year's event is in support of UAMS' bid for National Cancer Institute recognition.
Patterson's role to highlight that "NCI designation is such a passion of his," Ross says, "such a priority."
Patterson oversees one of the state's most challenging operations. UAMS counts 10,500 employees, including those in clinics of various kinds in nearly every county. It has colleges of medicine, pharmacy, nursing, health professions and public health.
It runs on a budget of $1.6 billion -- a sum to make anybody say "ahhhh," but "right for a place this size," the chancellor says. The money comes mostly from patient care.
Just the sign in the hallway nearest Patterson's office tells something of what the chancellor's job encompasses. This way to cardiac noninvasive surgery and the coffee shop, that way to oral health, pastoral care and clinical pastoral education. Follow the arrows to pulmonary function, radiology and volunteer services. UAMS depends on 1,500 volunteers.
The chancellor has to know something about everything. But just as importantly, Patterson says: People need to know something about the chancellor.
One way to introduce himself is through Twitter, where he posts a stream of thoughts that sometimes relate to hospital affairs, more often to other ideas. Among recent comments:
• "Got back to my roots and enjoyed volunteering at the [UAMS] 12th Street Health and Wellness Center Walk-In Clinic -- it was good working with the students and residents."
• "I had fun handing out treats to our trainees for Residents Wellness Week because ice cream makes everything better."
• "It was 106 years ago today that the great Muddy Waters was born in Jug's Corner, Miss. He was a Rolling Stone for sure."
The note about Muddy Waters, the blues singer-songwriter from Mississippi, is a hint to Patterson's twangiest enthusiasm outside of medicine.
"I have an enormous music collection," he says, "and 20 instruments, mostly string instruments that I play."
He strums guitar and mandolin in a band that had to be named the Hip Waders, along with two social workers and a fellow hospital administrator. Their social-work benefit concert at South on Main restaurant in Little Rock debuted the sound that Patterson describes as "a little bit rock 'n' roll, a little bit country."
Music extends to medicine in some of Patterson's research papers, of which he has published more than 300. "Tiny Dancers: The Integrin-Growth Factor Nexus in Angiogenic Signaling," for example, he sums up as "two proteins interacting with each other," with "Tiny Dancers" slipped in as a nod to singer Elton John.
Who would appreciate the connection? Elton John did -- and signed a copy of the study that, framed, is on the wall in Patterson's office.
The chancellor's social outreach is playful and tuneful but also mindful.
"It's intentional on my part," Patterson says. He has big plans that will happen only if people trust his leadership, and "it's easier for people to trust you if they feel like they know you."
Patterson and his physician wife, Kris, an HIV specialist, were medical residents in Georgia. As he recalls, they met as cute as anyone could in a hospital when she caught him wearing the same scrubs outfit two days in a row. His excuse -- that he had pulled an all-nighter -- was too common for the rumpled scrubs to explain everything.
The Pattersons have three children, Celia, Graham and Anna Alyse. Seventeen-year-old Celia wants to be a marine biologist, and eighth-grader Graham "I think wants to be a NASCAR driver," their dad reports, which would leave him with not much to say as a career adviser. He drives a Jeep.
But 13-year-old Anna already has settled on the career she wants as a pediatric oncologic surgeon. She has mapped out the college work it will take to achieve her goal, Patterson says, and he is 90% sure she will stick to it.
This would mean a time soon to come when he will set aside a pile of paperwork the way he remembers Dr. March did for him. No matter how tired he might feel at the moment, how accomplished or how discouraged, he will have to answer the question of whether it's worth the trouble to be a doctor.
"I am going to tell her," Patterson says, "it's the most rewarding career that you can come up with."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: March 1, 1963, in Mobile, Ala.
• ONE HEALTH TIP I WOULD PRESCRIBE FOR EVERYBODY IS: Know your numbers: your weight, BMI [body mass index], blood pressure. Know whether or not you have diabetes. These things impact your health.
• IF I HADN'T GONE INTO MEDICINE, I WOULD HAVE BEEN: A musician.
• THE GREATEST MUSIC CONCERT I EVER SAW WAS: That's easy -- late summer, 2009, Leonard Cohen in Bucharest, Romania. It was incredible. [Patterson and his wife, Kris, booked the trip on impulse to see the late singer/composer of "Hallelujah" and "Dance Me to the End of Love." The getaway turned into a series of misadventures and led to a back-street combination box office and turtle pond. But it turned out they had front-row seats to the four-hour performance, and Cohen "didn't leave out anything."]
• MY FAVORITE BREAKFAST IS: I love fried fish and grits. If you're going to have a big breakfast, that's perfection.
• DO FISH AND GRITS MAKE HIM THE BANJO PLAYER WHO HAD A BIG BREAKFAST: No, I have trouble with the banjo.
• SOMETHING NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT ME IS: I'm not sure there's anything nobody knows about me. I was on the state championship soccer team in high school, but I guess other people who were on the team know that.
• SOMETHING I HOPE MAKES MY CHILDREN THINK I'M COOL: I have a Jeep Wrangler, and the tire cover has the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings on it. But I don't really believe it makes my kids think I'm cool.
• AS HONORARY CO-CHAIRMAN [with his wife] OF THE UPCOMING UAMS GALA FOR LIFE, I CAN OR CANNOT TIE MY OWN BLACK TIE: You bet I can. I don't believe in clip-ons. And when the event is over, I like to take the tie off so that everybody can see I tied it myself.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Study
“He has positioned the institution to support that future, whether it be in continuing to offer a state of the art medical education to the majority of physicians in the state, to its out reach in to under served areas of the state, and in its economic development efforts to support the governor’s and Legislature’s vision.” —Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System
High Profile on 08/25/2019