It happened so fast, he had no time to worry if he would walk again.
Dr. Michael “Mike” McMullan (’91) was mountain biking in Utah when he crashed into a stump, flew over his handlebars and landed between another stump and a boulder – barely avoiding death by either the rock or the hard place, he said.
“So I am very blessed to be alive, just to be walking,” McMullan said, recalling, six years later, one of the defining challenges of his life.
Dismissing a spinal fracture as if it were a hangnail or the hives probably wouldn’t come easy to everyone; but, as anyone who knows him will testify, McMullan draws on a reservoir of religious faith that is as bottomless as his smile.
And, perhaps, he draws on something else, as well: lessons of resilience that come to those who have seen others wage their own private battles for dignity and survival with such grace and courage that even a broken neck, by comparison, is cut down to size.
He has seen these things – as a physician and as a brother.
LOAVES AND PIZZAS
Every Wednesday night for years, in the house on Devander Run in Ridgeland, students from the University of Mississippi Medical Center percolate throughout the rooms.
Greeting the students are the hosts – McMullan, UMMC professor of medicine and division director of cardiology, and Missy McMullan, who, never knowing how many guests will show up for the dinner/Bible study, worries there aren’t enough platters or casseroles or tureens or hillocks of tacos and sandwiches and fresh fruit and vegetables and potato chips and crackers and chicken spaghetti and meatballs and dips and back-up pizzas, or enough bakery-size arrays of desserts, including her mother-in-law’s homemade cookies, on hand to feed them all.
“Missy cooks things that go a long way,” McMullan said. “She has been the real hero of these Bible studies. I can easily teach to five or teach to 50. But cooking for five or 50 is a real challenge,” he said, noting that, unlike Jesus, they haven’t had to depend on a “loaves and fishes”-type miracle so far.
McMullan’s reference to the feeding of the 5,000, from the Gospel of St. John, would not be lost on any of the dozens of students who appear weekly at the McMullans’ (or did until a worldwide plague stepped in earlier this year), where the “price” of admission is an hour or so of a post-prandial devotional in the theater room.
“Sometimes, it’s the only hot meal the students get all week,” said Dr. Lyssa Weatherly (’12), assistant professor of internal medicine, who led the last of the spring Bible studies at the McMullans’, on March 4, before a wave of prickly social distancing punctured the feedbag.
Weatherly, assistant dean for student affairs in the School of Medicine, is among those who thought of McMullan when Dr. Jerry Clark decided to retire at the end of May from his long-held position as chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs.
When Weatherly spoke to McMullan about succeeding Clark, which he has, she also talked to Missy, who will be his partner, more or less, in his new role.
“Mrs. McMullan is such an angel,” Weatherly said. “She has this lovely, innate charisma and strength of character; it’s the comfort of a mama and the warmth of a friend. She calls every student by name and checks on them regularly.
“Dr. McMullan is a light to these students. He has this calming presence that just makes you feel like everything is going to be OK. His wisdom is relatable and unpretentious; he has a quiet strength.
“It’s really amazing the community that the McMullans have fostered in their home. It’s not just medical students; it’s also student nurses, dental students, pharmacists, therapists, and their spouses. It’s a group of people who all have a deep heart for service and hunger for truth.”
In fact, the attendees, including Conner Sears, are more likely to consider the devotionals a reward, not a price.
A rising fourth-year medical student from Columbia in Marion County, Sears has been a Mike-and-Missy acolyte since the latter part of her first year in medical school.
“I was away from home, and it was the hardest time of my life up to that point,” she said. “Their home has been somewhere to go where you could forget about school for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, and be in God’s presence, and have the McMullans there encouraging you.
“Going there every Wednesday, you know you’re going to be loved by Jesus – and by them.”
Faith is part of the students’ daily lives, as it has always been for McMullan, who began his life as one of three children in a Newton County household where reading, writing, arithmetic and religion held sway.
“I grew up in a small-town church,” McMullan said. “My father read the Bible to our family at home every morning before school.”
His grandmother, Mama Cora, helped care for them, he said, and cooked for them and taught him the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want … .”
Certainly, as a motivator, his grandmother did not want. McMullan may have developed a few secular enthusiasms that persist to this day – running, chocolate, Dumbledore, Yoda and Superman – but he never strayed far from the Word, thanks in part to a switch “Mama Cora” kept atop the refrigerator.
“She never used it,” McMullan said. “But you knew it was there.”
His parents, Raymond and Lois McMullan, taught at East Central Community College in Decatur, where his dad was dean of admissions and his mom chaired the math department her last year there. They live in Ridgeland now, just five blocks from their son. They are, he said, “my biggest Christian influence.”
Sherri McMullan Russell, one of his two younger sisters, is married with three children and now lives in Madison. Stacey, his other sister, died more than 40 years ago. She was only 2 ½ years old at the time, and one of the reasons he wanted to learn how to take care of people’s hearts.
‘PURE, UNMITIGATED LOVE’
He could have been a coach and a math teacher instead; in fact, he thought a lot about both early on.
As a dad himself, he would one day coach his own two children: Courtney, who graduated in May from the law school at Virginia’s Washington & Lee University, and Matthew, now a third-year medical student at UMMC.
And he taught them a bit of math, he said. “We would do square roots in the car.”
But his own dad had other plans for him. “He said, ‘No, son; you want to be a doctor and help people.’
“I was never the rebellious one. I said, ‘yes, sir, no, sir.’ But what I do now does fit my personality. I really love the heart, the vascular system; and I’m in the right place: Mississippi leads the country in heart disease. I get to really know my patients. I get instant gratification and long-term satisfaction.”
Not satisfying, though, is the knowledge that his sister had been born too early.
“She was pure, unmitigated love,” McMullan said. “She was always happy. Just a joy to take care of. She was never more than a baby; she never walked or talked. She would always turn blue the rare times she would cry. She was such a sweetheart.”
A Down syndrome baby, Stacey, like many with that condition, was born with heart disease, which struck her down.
More than three decades after her death, McMullan arrived at UMMC as the new director of the congenital heart program, whose present-day advances came too late to extend her life.
Later that same year, on July 25, 2014, McMullan found himself facing what could have been the worst time of his own life. Instead, it became one of his best.
T-SHIRTS AND TATTOOS
“I’m not happy when I’m not able to run,” he said.
Disney World was the site of his favorite race: the Dopey Challenge, a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon on four successive days. It’s his favorite because he ran it – “every step” – with his son Matthew, then a college freshman.
His entire family, 11 members in all, were there, including Courtney who “actually tracked us the entire way so that she could meet and support us along the course.”
McMullan has finished 30 marathons in all, and one ultra-marathon (50K, or 31 miles) in 25 states, as well as in Washington, D.C. He has challenged his heart, lungs and legs from Mount Rushmore to New York, from Boston to Big Sur.
He discovered this ultimate running happiness 13 years ago when he decided to join his then-colleagues at the Jackson Heart Clinic for a 26.2-mile spree in Chicago, even though he had never managed more than a few miles at a time.
“But when I was about half done, it was cancelled because of the dangerously high temperatures that day,” he said. Unfazed – “I decided it was a great way to exercise and see the country,” he said – McMullan signed up the following year for the Blues Marathon in Jackson; he has been seeing America on the run ever since.
This past February 27, he conquered the Blues Marathon again, running a relay with several of his colleagues and one patient: Jauan Lee, who had to complete a marathon road trip from Florida to get there.
Lee insists on seeing McMullan for his check-ups, even though he moved from Mississippi to Pensacola years ago. It’s a four-hour drive and he makes it once a year.
“He’s the best heart doctor I’ve ever had,” Lee said, “and I’ve been seeing them for 26 years.” That is, all 26 years of his life; the reason for that is a story told by a drawing tattooed on his torso: the image of a heart inked on the right side of his chest.
The tattoo represents a condition known as dextrocardia with transposition of the great arteries. It’s a congenital abnormality in which the heart sits on the right side of the chest; the pulmonary artery and aorta have switched places. None of which stopped the former Mississippi Valley State University student from playing football at Itta Bena or running races anywhere against rivals with normal, portside hearts.
“He’s pretty amazing,” McMullan said. “He was just 10 days old when he had his first surgery.”
And, now, at the urging of his heart doctor, the former “blue blood baby” is braving marathons. “Dr. McMullan got me to run my first,” said Lee, a Jacksonville, Florida, native who was studying at Mississippi Valley when another physician sent him to McMullan. “I tried it and liked it.
“Dr. McMullan wants what’s best for me. I trust what he does. But when I came to do the run with him this year, I saw him as a person, rather than as a doctor. His personality is just great to be around.”
The T-shirts he’s prone to wear at these races broadcast McMullan’s personality and priorities. For the St. Louis marathon in 2014, he wore an image of a rider flying headlong off his bike. The caption: “I do all my own stunts.”
Emblazoned across the T-shirt back was one of his favorite verses: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Above it were McMullan’s own words – among them, “God is Good!” – and a screen-printed X-ray of a broken neck.
CHANGED FOR LIFE
A couple of years before Dr. Patrick Lehan’s death, McMullan witnessed “my personal hero” hand over $100 to a UMMC employee he hardly knew so she could buy groceries; she had asked for twenty.
McMullan was a medical student on his cardiology rotation when he first saw in action the knowledgeable, demanding and generous division chief of cardiology – “the smartest doctor I had ever known.” By then, McMullan knew for sure what he would do for a living.
As McMullan said in his eulogy for Lehan in 2002, “He had changed me for life.”
From that point, his journey to his position as director of the UMMC congenital heart program took him to residencies and fellowships at UMMC and Duke University Medical Center, then to a nine-year stint on the UMMC faculty, a role he left in 2007 to work several years at the Jackson Heart Clinic.
In 2014, the Medical Center lured him back.
“I love congenital heart patients,” he said, “and I knew I could either try to compete with UMMC or join it and be part of a program that offered them everything.”
At the Medical Center, he’s taking care of patients who mean the most to him, especially those with developmental delays.
THE BEST NIGHT OF THE WEEK
The dinners started the year before he rejoined the faculty at UMMC. The idea occurred to him at an international missions banquet held at his church, where he met some medical students.
Many of the students accompanied him on medical missions to Haiti.
“Haiti was so rewarding,” said Dr. Catherine Lowe (’15), now a UMMC cardiology fellow. “We diagnosed patients with everything from cardiac abnormalities to the common cold, painted the local school, stocked the pharmacy, played with the children. And we worshipped with the staff nightly.
“Dr. McMullan was one of the mission leaders. He is truly one of the reasons I went into cardiology. If he were to call me up and ask me to do anything, I would not hesitate, because I know it will be well thought-out, have the patient’s best interest at heart and be the right thing to do.”
Lowe was also one of the medical students who started appearing at the McMullans on Wednesday nights.
“The Bible study group showed me how medicine is something we should keep God in; that we should not only help people, but also show our love for them,” Lowe said, “just as God shows love for us.”
For his part, McMullan wanted to spend more time with students outside the classroom without waiting a year or so for the mission trips. “I had always wanted to mentor students and help them to cope with some of the challenges that Missy and I had faced together through medical school, residency and my career over the previous 25 years,” he said.
“So we started meeting at our house once a week, starting with five to 10 students and their spouses – we really wanted to focus on trying to sustain marriages.”
While they’ve never been sure how many will drop in, one thing is constant for him: “Wednesday night, you come home tired in the middle of the week – but then you’re all pumped: These kids here – it’s the best night of the week.”
For many of the students, Missy McMullan became their “Jackson mom,” as Sears describes her. “I just love these kids,” Missy McMullan said. “The only hard part about is they graduate and we lose them. They move on.”
GOSPEL AND GUACAMOLE
While the majority of the students are from the School of Medicine, those from all the health care professions are invited. The largest crowd to date: 72.
“They have kept coming back for the cooking,” Mike McMullan said, “not the teaching.” But, if that were the case, they probably wouldn’t have continued to meet, in a virtual nose-thumbing to COVID-19, through the videoconferencing software, Zoom.
“I’ve had to learn some technology,” McMullan said, “but it’s worked pretty well.”
Apparently, for many of the students, the gospel is at least as big a draw as the guacamole.
“Faith is important to me,” Sears said, “and it’s easy to lose it when you’re going through all those battles in school, especially your first year. It’s important having people to look up to and who help me keep grounded in that faith. It keeps my mind sane.”
Sears and her fellow students weren’t in medical school when McMullan faced probably the biggest battle of his own life, bigger than homesickness and Step 1 exams. They didn’t know him then.
But they know this about him now: “He always looks for the good in everything and always wears a smile,” Weatherly said, “even when life is tough.”
CYCLE OF PRAYER
It’s just as well he didn’t have time to worry about not walking again. With his type of injury, there was a 97 percent chance of that.
He learned this later, sometime after an airlift brought him to the University of Utah Medical Center.
“I was a road cyclist, not mountain biker,” McMullan said. “I was on my first-ever guy trip with a bunch of friends from college. One has a house in Deer Valley, and so they go every year.”
McMullan arrived in Utah around 3 a.m., and was biking on some “challenging trails” just six hours later. He was the first one in the group to take off.
“I turned at a curve to look for everyone behind me,” he said. “BIG mistake.” He somersaulted and landed on his neck. He rode in a fire truck to the local ER before a helicopter took him about 35 miles away to Salt Lake City for surgery.
“I had emergency neck fusion,” he said, “and was back at home in Ridgeland in 48 hours.
Afterward, he was in a neck brace for six weeks; he was back at work in two. On October 19 of that year – 12 weeks later – he was looking at St. Louis’ iconic landmark looming over the Mississippi River as he jogged toward the finish line.
A month later, he did it again, this time in Las Vegas, and again, a month after that, in San Antonio. Three marathons; 78.6 miles in all, after breaking his neck.
“I knew then that everything would be OK,” he said.
For those of little faith and great skepticism, McMullan’s monumental optimism, as broad and shiny as the Gateway Arch, may seem dodgy. Back when he was an undergraduate at the University of Southern Mississippi, a resident assistant asked him, “‘Why are you so fake?’” McMullan recalled.
“He said, ‘Why do you always look happy? What’s the deal?’”
The deal, McMullan said, is “it wasn’t an act. I am blessed.” In the aftermath of his accident, he found out just how blessed.
“Besides my faith, I had my family, friends, and coworkers all supporting me immensely through the healing and recovery process,” he said.
“I had people covering calls and clinical responsibilities, people bringing food and gifts, and so many others checking on me.”
It was “extraordinarily encouraging,” he said, to know that people around the country, even beyond, were praying for him.
McMullan, as he always has, prays, too, even at work. Especially at work. He prays for and with students, residents and, most of all, his patients, many of whom remind him of someone whose heart could not be healed.
Many Down syndrome patients come to his congenital heart disease clinic, he said. “They are just precious.”