Melissa Avery ′92

Hometown: Powell, TN

Major: Biochemistry

Current Residence: Clearwater, Florida

Current Profession: Corporate Medical Director and Interim Sr. Medical Director at WellCare Health Plans, Inc

 

What do you remember most about Rhodes?

The memory that I still hold onto the most is kind of funny – I remember sitting in the Chemistry lab on the first floor of the Chemistry building on Friday nights, watching the weekend passers-by. They were all going out, and there I was sitting in the lab titrating chemicals, trying to get myself into medical school! In fact, I was just on campus, and I visited that same lab, which brought back the best memories. To most, that work would have been torture, but not to me.

I think that Rhodes is where people begin to understand the goals they’re trying to achieve. I learned the ability to work hard there, and to enjoy myself: balance and perseverance. Those skills got me through Rhodes as well as through medical school.

When I interviewed for medical school, I found that they were looking for people who weren’t complete academics – they needed well-rounded people who had a well-tested way to relieve pressure. I grew up in a family that hunted and trained hunting dogs, and that was my release. I went to target practice with family and friends, and was able to train and work with the dogs. It was something that was far-removed from chemistry, far-removed from medicine, and it gave me an out. I think it was a well-advised plan at Rhodes to encourage people to have outside avenues. That has laid a lovely foundation for my entire career.

 

Did you always know that you wanted to go into the medical field?

When I was six, my beloved Bassett Hound had to be put to sleep. This made me fascinated by life and death – especially the potential to preserve life. Then, when I was nine, my grandfather succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease. From then on, I always knew I wanted to be a physician.

I wasn’t allowed to hunt until I was twelve, but when I was younger my father would bring home doves, grouse, deer – everything – to dress at our home in Knoxville. As a six-year-old girl, I handled the organs and looked at the bodies. Deer, for example, are often anatomically analogous to humans. The deer trachea is nearly identical to a human trachea. So from an early age, I was hugely fascinated with anatomy. I was able to grow that fascination at Bearden High School in Knoxville before coming to Rhodes at their Anatomy & Physiology lab.

Later, I did work on dogs and pigs – the pig is also very anatomically similar to a human, particularly in the mouth. I also did research on dogs with hip prostheses. They were chosen because their hind hip joints were similar to those of humans. Even today, my motto is “It always goes back to the anatomy.” A lot of pathology, a lot of disease, will go back to the anatomy.

My oldest brother went to law school in Memphis, and found out about Rhodes there. He told me, “This school is unbelievable. I really think if you go here, and if you get a Chemistry degree here, I think you can get into medical school and become a physician.” And that’s exactly what I did.

 

What do you consider the pinnacle of your career?

On January 27, 2000, I had gone through both Rhodes and medical school, and had just graduated from my residency. I had worked for a hospital system, and lo-and-behold, a for-profit company came and bought them out, and they closed all their outpatient practices. Everyone was scrambling to find a new job. It was a difficult time in my life – but I put some of the skills I learned at Rhodes to work.

When I went to medical school, I didn’t learn anything about how to run a business. Today, the medical school experience is different, but when I was in school, there was no business aspect at all. Because of all the labs I had in undergrad, I didn’t take any business classes at Rhodes either, but being in a sorority (Kappa Delta) gave me a leg up. Having a sorority leadership position teaches you, in many ways, how to run a small business. That experience helps me to this day.

So I started my own practice from the ground up. I purchased a 5500 square foot medical office building with used equipment, and started a new medical practice, which opened on January 27, 2000. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. There are around 400,000 new small businesses per year in America, and many of them fail the first year. When I made it through the first-year milestone, and then past the five-year mark, I couldn’t have been more proud.

Things changed when I injured my right upper extremity in December 2004. It was not safe for me to practice, but I was able to sell my business, retain all the staff and patients, and go into medical management full time. I was able to use my brain, behind a desk, and put my skills to use in a different way. I received a Masters of Medical Management from Tulane, which laid the groundwork for my training and current status as a certified physician executive.

Another thing I learned at Rhodes: when I see a need, I fill it. I invented an optional medical billing product for an accounting company. Most recently, I have a patent pending on a shoulder apparatus that helps to prevent re-injury to an injured shoulder.

Currently, I am up for Fellow of the American College of Physician Executives, which is an honor bestowed upon just over 1100 physicians across the country – and only about fifteen of those are women. If I am accepted, it will be the pinnacle of my career.

 

Do you have any advice for Rhodes students applying to medical school?

Again, one of the biggest things to consider is what makes you a well-balanced person. Figure out what will give you that out, what will let you release some of your stress. In terms of your work, consider what discipline makes you the happiest. Some people want to go into science, but they may not want to be a physician. There’s radiology, pathology, or careers that are more compatible with raising a family, like rheumatology. An interest in medicine can be channeled into many different careers.

Finally, remember that you will not receive more than you can handle in life. I’ve seen it with patients, so I know it’s true. Always put what you value most up front, whether it’s going to school, starting a family, or starting a career.