By Jessica Pupillo, AAFP News
At just 11 years old, Karen Smith, MD, went on the trip of a lifetime.
Smith’s mother wanted to visit Walt Disney World with her children. In 1972, the family made the trip to Orlando, Fla., and it’s where Smith learned the power of imagination, belief, and creativity. Walt Disney’s famous saying, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” resonated with her.
Smith’s mother died from sarcoidosis not long after the trip, but the memories they created inspired her daughter to pursue a career of medical service.
“It’s amazing what a mother can instill in her children,” Smith said. “Those memories are in us, and those memories are what have allowed me to do what I’ve done … with the grace of God.”
For her efforts, Smith has been named the Academy’s 2017 Family Physician of the Year. And today, 43 years after her first trip to Orlando, Smith has returned to the city to accept this award during Friday’s General Session.
Smith’s adventure in rural family medicine began in 1992. She had just completed her residency and was tapped to set up a practice in the underserved town of Raeford, N.C.
From the start, Smith said, her mindset was that it did not matter who you were—she was going to make sure you received the best possible care. She has stayed true to this philosophy, and the community has grown to embrace her.
“The love the patients have for her is amazing,” said Maurice Brownlee, RN, FNP, who recently trained with Smith. She is the type of doctor who works from sun up to sun down, he said, seeing 40 or more patients each day, and who doesn’t even take a break to eat.
Patients know that Smith will respect them and that they’ll receive care even if they’re not able to pay for it, Brownlee said.
So do others in the community. Smith recalled an evening when an attorney knocked on her clinic door after hours to ask for help. The state wanted to remove an infant from his clients’ care because they thought the mother was unfit to care for her child. Smith suspected that a language barrier was contributing to the family’s challenges and recommended that a home health nurse visit the family to see firsthand how the mother and newborn were bonding.
“That mother and father and baby were never separated,” Smith said. “They continued to receive care in our office. And word spread in the Latino community that we are not people who turn our backs. We would take care of them as people and as a family.
“It was something so simple for me to say, ‘We will take care of this family.’”
For Smith, the power of touch—physical, emotional, spiritual—can’t be overstated.
“I hear so many people say, ‘The doctor didn’t even touch me, didn’t listen to me with the stethoscope or hear my words,” she said. “Maybe we don’t have to touch physically, but can you not connect with them emotionally? If someone is hurt and crying, can’t you shed a tear with them?”
Smith’s impact extends beyond the walls of her Raeford clinic. She teaches at three medical schools, is the Hoke County Health Department medical director, and sits on the AAFP’s Commission on Governmental Advocacy and the Family Medicine for America’s Health Payment Core Team. She’s also served for a long time in the North Carolina AFP, including as chapter president in 2004-05.
Through her work with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health information Technology, Smith has shared her extensive knowledge of electronic health records with doctors nationwide. She’s also traveled to various parts of the world as an advisor and consultant, learning something each time that can be applied to U.S. health care, she said.
“My mother’s favorite ride in Disney World was It’s a Small World,” Smith reflected. “It really is a small world, and the impact just one believing family physician can have is far greater than what the imagination can behold.”