Eye of the Storm Surviving Katrina Was One of Many Career Challenges for this Gastroenterologist

Dr. Mary Norris says she left a gastroenterology practice in Connecti-cut for one in Ocean Springs, Miss. in an effort to “simplify her life.”

Suffice it to say, things didn’t work out quite as she had hoped.

Tired of New England winters, sky-high malpractice rates, and other “restraints,” as she called them, on her personal and professional life, Norris had decided in early 2004 to find someplace warmer (preferably on the ocean), less expensive, and much less stressful.

She found all this, and affordable waterfront property, in Ocean Springs — at least for 15 months. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina changed the picture completely and irretrievably.

As the giant storm, better known for the devastation it caused in New Orleans when levees surrounding that city broke, approached Mississippi, Norris was able to move to higher ground. But nine people from her neighborhood died in the wake of the storm surge, and her home was essentially destroyed.

“I lost everything I owned,” she told The Healthcare News, adding that her homeowner’s insurance did not cover the damage; the very fine print indicated that storm-surge protection was not included in the policy.

It’s taken some time, but Norris has bounced back professionally. After a three-year stint in a remote part of Washington State — a position, and mailing address, she chose mostly for economic reasons — she took a position at Holyoke Medical Center about a year ago.

There, she takes a decidedly patient-focused approach to her work. Elaborating, she says she works to help inform and empower patients, who, she says, are in much more control of their own health than the attending physician.

“I look upon my job as being a facilitator with people,” she explained. “I try to point out to people that while, in theory, the doctor has the power, it’s really the patient that is the team leader when it comes to health care.

“It’s the patient who has the question or has the problem,” she continued, “and it’s our job to get that information to him or her in the least aggravating way possible, the least scary way possible, and to make it easier to get through a problem or live with a problem.”

Winds of Change

Norris has been enduring cold, snowy New England winters for most of her life.

Born in Connecticut, she earned her medical degree at the University of Vermont, where, by the end of her first year, she developed an interest in gastroenterology. She then performed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston.

Norris did a break for her fellowship in gastroenterology (conducted at Long Beach V.A. Hospital/the University of California at Irvine), but has spent most of her career in Connecticut. Specifically, she worked at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford and later Hartford Hospital.

Her comments about leaving the Constitution State to simplify her professional life speak to many of the financial and logistical challenges facing physicians in many specialties.

“You find that, in private practice, there’s increasing stress to maintain an office economically because of the restraints of the insurance payments,” she explained. “The overhead goes up, and the reimbursements go down — never the two come together again. I said to myself, ‘the winters are cold and sometimes long, and I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years, so maybe it’s time to rethink how I’m doing things.’”

She recalls her brother saying, “Mississippi? That’s hurricane country — I wouldn’t move there,” or something to that effect. She countered that that the Ocean Springs area hadn’t seen a really bad storm since Camille in 1973.

As it turned out, the region was apparently overdue for another.

Katrina not only took Norris’ house — she said a book on this portion of her career might be titled Homeless in Mississippi — it also forced her career off the tracks for a while. Seeking an affordable locale, and also a position that satisfied her professional needs, she relocated to St. John’s Medical Center in Longview, Wash.

“It was remote — more remote than I really liked — but if you were a hunter or fisherman, you would have liked it,” she said, adding that the toll of being nearly 3,000 miles away from family was what eventually prompted her to explore new career options.

She found one at Holyoke Medical Center, which, she says, offers her the challenges she enjoys, but also the friendly, patient-focused atmosphere she desired.

Norris said the work of the gastroenterologist has changed over the years. For starters, a heightened focus on colon cancer and prevention of same has prompted her and others in the field to devote more of their time and energy to screenings. Indeed, the colonoscopy exam is perhaps the procedure now most associated with this specialty, she explained.

But technology has also evolved, and for the benefit of the patient, she emphasized, noting that gastroenterologists are now using fiber-optic technology — smaller, easier-to-use video equipment — on the front lines of prevention and treating disorders. Meanwhile the use of conscious sedation has improved dramatically, she continued, improving patient comfort during procedures.

Returning to her thoughts on her role as facilitator, Norris said that, in gastroenterology, as in other specialties, communication with patients and effective education, with regard to everything from diet to a pending surgical procedure, are the keys to an effective doctor-patient relationship and, quite often, good outcomes.

“You can get more specific with people, and, thanks to early detection, you often have the ability to prevent certain diseases such as colon cancer,” she explained. “But there’s still more education to be done because many gastro-intestinal problems are the result of poor choices in people’s diets.

“If a patient comes to me a question, I’m not happy unless he or she leaves what they consider an answer to their question,” she continued. “It may or may not be the exact answer you’re looking for, and it may take a few visits to understand what we’re talking about, but we get the question answered.”

As for how simple her life is now, Norris said the Bay State has many of the same headaches as Connecticut, but, overall, she has less to worry about administratively in her current setting. And that leaves her more time to focus on her patients, which she likes.

“In a community setting,” she explained, “the system de-stresses itself by the fact that you’re allowed to focus more on your primary interest, which is the delivery of care in your specialty, than having to be pushed and prodded in 16 different directions.”

Weather or Not

That still leaves the matter of New England winters, which, given the events of the summer of 2005, are seemingly more palatable.

“We still get a lot of ice and snow and wind,” said Norris, “but that’s better than a hurricane with a 28-foot storm surge.”