Spine surgeon’s life cycles through patient care, administrative duties, retirement
Published on Monday, July 29, 2019
By: Ruth Cummins, email@example.com
As he ramps up time spent riding his bike on rural gravel roads and cultivates a new garden, Dr. Louis Harkey is adjusting to a life outside the walls of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
It’s not the tricky surgery to remove spinal tumors he will most miss, or a spinal procedure he modified to give elderly patients relief and quality of life. It’s not time teaching the Department of Neurosurgery’s residents.
It’s those electronic health records that captured his heart.
“I don’t miss the clinical stuff,” said Harkey, who retired in mid-June after practicing continuously at the Medical Center since 1990. “Most chairs, when they retire, say they are so glad not to have the administrative responsibilities, but if anything, it was the administrative stuff I enjoyed doing – the things in DIS, and the things I was doing to bridge the gap between clinical providers and hospital operations.”
Harkey served as professor and Robert R. Smith Chair of Neurosurgery until shortly before retirement, with the reins being handed to Dr. Chad Washington. During Harkey’s tenure, he helped train dozens of residents, imparting his knowledge and experience as a spinal surgeon and using both the operating room and hospital floors as his classroom.
“All of the neurosurgery faculty right now are either former medical students at UMMC or former residents,” Harkey said. “I mentored all of them in some way or another.”
It was the namesake of the chair Harkey held that brought him to campus following a spinal surgery fellowship in Germany and England. He is a graduate of the Louisiana State University School of Medicine and completed his surgery residency at UMMC.
“Bob Smith was a tremendous mentor,” Harkey said of the late Smith, chair from 1979-94 and one of the premier neurovascular surgeons in the country. “He directed me toward my fellowship, and recruited me back to serve on the faculty here.”
He made UMMC his career home, Harkey said, because “it was the perfect job for me.
“UMMC offered all of the interesting clinical pathology at the time. It was a place where I could practice and do the really unique things I’d learned in my fellowship. I never had a barrier to promotion or development.”
Other mentors included Dr. Andrew Parent, a pediatric neurosurgeon who served as department chair from 1995 until Harkey’s appointment in 2008. Parent continues to serve as professor emeritus following his 2018 retirement, giving lectures in the Department of Anatomy on clinical correlations in areas such as neuroendocrinology.
“Andy was the one who gave me the professional development to go from associate to full professor,” Harkey said. “He encouraged me and gave me opportunities, and he turned over the residency directorship to me.”
“He did an absolutely great job as a surgeon, as a teacher, and presenting nationally,” Parent said. “He recruited some excellent residents, and he wasn’t afraid to select residents who were from other schools, rather than just in the state.”
Early in his tenure at UMMC, Harkey said, he operated two days a week, focusing on the spine and spinal cord. He treated geriatric lumbar stenosis, a condition where the bones in the lower back build up and gradually narrow the canal where nerve roots pass through.
“The thought was that anyone 65 or older was too old for the surgery, but I found I could do a procedure where I applied minimally invasive techniques and kept them no more than overnight,” he said. “It gave them back their mobility.”
The removal of spinal cord tumors was “the most harrowing procedure I ever did. They were rare, but the risk was paralysis,” Harkey said. “I always told these patients that you’re going to wake up after surgery with less function than you have now, but in most cases, a lot of that function recovers. Almost every patient followed that pattern.”
From the very beginning, Harkey said, he was intrigued by the processes surrounding electronic health records. In 2016, he spearheaded the launch of OpenNotes, which allows patients to get quick and secure access to the notes their providers take during outpatient clinic visits.
Harkey “was heavily involved in the implementation and selection of Epic. He was very interested in using technology to improve health care,” said Dr. Robert Hester, professor of physiology and biophysics. For more than a decade, Hester and Harkey have shared their avocation for riding in addition to a professional friendship.
“He’s been a very good resource to talk to about how to move data science forward,” said Hester, who’s serving as interim chair of the Department of Data Science in the School of Population Health.
Harkey’s “main forte, besides surgery and teaching, is administration,” Parent said. “The institution has recognized that and used him in various positions administratively.”
“I sought opportunities where I could use my skills for the institution as a whole. I think I was successful at that,” Harkey said.
Harkey won’t be staying on as a professor emeritus. “I knew I couldn’t fill my time with cycling, so a little over a year ago, I built a vegetable garden,” Harkey said. “I put in an orchard, and I’m adding additional beds and addition fruits and vegetables to the mix.”
And, he’s taken on gravel cycling. “You’d be amazed at the miles of gravel roads there are in Mississippi,” he said. “Most people never drive them. It leads us to some beautiful areas in Mississippi that we wouldn’t ordinarily see. It’s a safer form of riding.”
Harkey and Hester generally have a standing Saturday bike ride. They’re often accompanied by Dr. Bob McGuire, M.Beckett Howorth professor of orthopaedic surgery; Dr. James Wynn, professor of transplant surgery; and local attorney Clifford Ammons.
“I’m covered in terms of if I have an accident,” Hester joked. “We’re all fighting old age.”
McGuire has enjoyed a 30-year friendship with Harkey, both personally and professionally.
“Being able to start a combined orthopedic and neurosurgical spine program was a bit unheard of in this area in 1990,” McGuire said. “We developed this in a very cooperative manner that complemented each other’s talents and provided the best care for the patients.”
Harkey’s wife Alison is a native of Scotland, and the couple took a family trip there immediately after his retirement. “I plan to travel and see my family in Glasgow, Scotland, and New York, Austin (Texas), Bay St. Louis (Mississippi) and Brevard, N.C., but one thing we’ve been batting around is gravel riding in Iceland,” he said.
There wasn’t much of a gap between Harkey’s final surgery and last day at work. “My last operation was a craniotomy the Tuesday before that Friday. I operated until my very last week of practice at UMMC,” he said.
“I’ve had a recurring nightmare where I get a telephone call from the control desk in surgery about a patient I’m supposed to operate on, and I know nothing about it,” Harkey said.
“It hasn’t left me, that’s for sure.”