TOUGH LESSONS OF AN APPALACHIAN UPBRINGING ‘COME IN HANDY WHEN YOU’RE IN THAT OPERATING ROOM TRYING TO PUT SOMEONE TOGETHER’
As one of the crown jewels in the medical school’s history, Jesse Meredith, MD, FHO ’58, might be the textbook model of a diamond in the rough.
Rough in the sense of authentic—undimmed by years and layers of college, wartime, engineering school, medical school, world travel and national renown. Uncontrived, like the ring of a mountain fiddle.
Meredith is a 93-year-old emeritus faculty member whose story moves from a gritty farming childhood to his role as a pioneer of medicine with decades of innovative leadership in health care.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a student who didn’t enjoy rotating with him. He listened to you. He didn’t turn you loose, but he made you participate. And, of course,
Patty Adams, MD ‘74
“Jess was an unequivocally important figure in the progress of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center,” says Timothy Pennell, MD ’60, professor emeritus of surgery, who was chief of professional services and director of the Office of International Health Affairs. “He was in a unique place, in a unique role.”
That role included not only serving as professor of surgery and becoming the first surgeon in America to successfully reattach a severed hand, but he also was the first surgeon to do a kidney transplant at Wake Forest Baptist and performed a number of other firsts at this institution.
He established the hospital’s transplant program and helped developed the organ transplantation model that would become the standard across the United States; started the first tissue bank in North Carolina; founded the school’s Department of Biomedical Engineering; and designed the first intensive care unit in North Carolina, which was also one of the first in the nation.
In 2010, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine named its surgery research center in his honor.
In 2011, the American Medical Association presented Meredith with its Distinguished Service Award for “meritorious service in the science and art of medicine.” Meredith served on what is now known as the North Carolina Commission for Public Health for 40 years. During his 30 years as chairman, more than 2,000 public health regulations were passed, and he never missed a meeting.
Meredith retired in 1993 as professor emeritus of surgery and still serves the Medical Center as a member of an institutional review board.
“I love this place,” Meredith says. “It’s the interaction between people—students, doctors, patients, nurses, everybody—that is its heart and soul.”
“He has a brilliant mind,” says Pennell, “and along with his early experience, that was such a strong combination. Others brought to the faculty an air of aristocracy: Howard Bradshaw, Dick Myers, Louis Schaffner and many more. Then there was Jesse, who never veiled his Appalachian heritage.
“His whole manner, his whole approach, was and is a willingness to do what a situation calls for—with initiative and an abundance of common sense. He brought so much to his work from his father and from his upbringing.”
Working the Land
“Fancy Gap was a primitive place in what they now call Appalachia,” Meredith said in an interview in 2005 for the Dorothy Carpenter Medical Archives’ Oral History Project. “I think the conditions we had would nowadays look to be total abject poverty, but we didn’t know that. We just worked every day.”
For the first 17 years of Meredith’s boyhood in Virginia, his family’s log cabin had no electricity. He worked hard at plowing, planting and blacksmithing. In high school, he carried a pistol on his four-mile walk to the school bus because of local disputes, leaving it at the country store when the bus came and retrieving it at the end of the school day.
“I remember 1932 was a drought that almost starved us to death,” he says.
“We would spend all summer trying to grow stuff to keep ourselves and our livestock alive through the winter. We turned that stony land with a plow about eight to 10 inches wide, pulled by two mules. We would shoot the stumps out of the ground with dynamite. We preserved our apples, cabbage, everything. We had to preserve our own seeds. We did all of that ourselves, and that attitude has been tremendously valuable to me.”
A Towering Influence
Sharing such experiences comes naturally for Meredith, a storyteller whose talk hasn’t lost its lilt. He’s often called a towering influence on the medical school and its students, and some of that is literal. A very tall man with thick white hair, he is professor-articulate but straight to the point in the farmer’s way. The combination has made him a favorite of students and alumni.
Pennell, who has known Meredith first as a teacher, then as a fellow surgeon and a fellow bluegrass band member, says, “Teaching residents to tie square knots, Jess would say, ‘One strand goes toward Kernersville, and the other one goes toward Mocksville.’”
He says part of Meredith’s skill as a teacher came from his core of common sense and can-do attitude.
“A patient came into the ER, having been shot in the heart,” Pennell says. “A resident was struggling to keep the heart beating while he was operating. Then, all of a sudden there appears a gloved hand in a plaid flannel shirtsleeve to take hold of the heart. Jesse said, ‘Now sew it.’”
Patty Adams, MD ’74, was a student of Meredith’s before she was his colleague.
“One of his striking traits was being an early adopter,” says Adams, professor emerita and director of emeritus affairs. “He became the rock of the kidney transplant program here. He wanted to see that we would have this therapy available for our patients even when it was so new.
“Of all the professors I had, Jess was the one most receptive to things that were innovative. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a student who didn’t enjoy rotating with him. He listened to you. He didn’t turn you loose, but he made you participate. And, of course, he’s funny.”
The farming roots shaped it all—the storytelling, the humor, the penchant for doing things not done before.
“Louis Schaffner (longtime professor of surgery) once said I was the innovator in this department. I think that farm beginning is what made me willing to try to do things that other people hadn’t done,” Meredith says, chuckling. “Dick Myers (former chair of the Medical Center’s Department of Surgery) called that ‘high-risk behavior.’”
Family Hardship and Strength
His childhood no doubt also engendered Meredith’s resilience, as well as a deep awareness of the pain of disease and the potential of medicine. He had a sister who died at 18 months of age from rat poisoning.
“She got into it at a friend’s house,” he recounted as part of his Oral History Project interview. A brother about three years younger than Meredith died of a peritonsillar abscess, “which, as I now know, one stroke of the knife could have fixed and not killed him.” His mother, a teacher, never recovered from the babies’ deaths and suffered from what is now called bipolar disorder. His father was a hard taskmaster and stickler for details.
“The harness on his livestock had to be perfect,” Meredith says. “The throat latch goes under the part of the horse that keeps the bridle on. If you buckled that throat latch and didn’t put the end of the leather in the keeper, he’d give you a hard time over it, saying the mule didn’t feel right.
“What he was trying to do was teach you to be a little bit compulsive and do everything correctly. That comes in handy when you’re over there in that operating room trying to put someone together. What if you hadn’t been raised to do things right? Everything has to be perfect.
“As one of my friends says, ‘A surgery is a symphony of minutia.’”
A One-Room School and the World Book Encyclopedia
As for formal education, Meredith says his elementary school years were in a one-room school named Elk Spur, with seven grades in it. “Somebody gave me a set of World Book Encyclopedias, and that’s what I read.”
He says an agricultural teacher, Fred Kirby, had, “more influence over my life than anybody. He made it his business to show those mountain boys that there was something somewhere else. Every summer he would take $10 from each student. I got that $10 by selling rabbits that I trapped in the winter. He would take a school bus and put a tent on the roof and take a trip—we went to Gettysburg, the only time I got out of the county.”
Years into his career, Meredith crossed paths with his one-time English teacher, Cassie Gardner, when she visited the hospital. She was surprised that he recognized her, and Meredith said to her, “How could I forget the woman who taught me Beowulf and The Lady of the Lake?”
At 17, Meredith went to Elon College because “it was the only college I ever knew existed. I didn’t even know you were supposed to let them know you were coming. I caught a ride with an itinerant preacher from Danville, Virginia. I can still remember his name—Reverend Earp.”
The afternoon Meredith was dropped off at Elon turned out to be one of the most memorable days of his life. At the same time, another car was dropping off a pretty young student named Lillian Dyer. She would later become his beloved bride for a marriage of 70 years until her death in 2016.
“There was a point early on when Lil had done all of the work for a PhD and all she had left was to write her dissertation, and she gave that up for me and my career,” Meredith says. “That’s a great sacrifice, isn’t it?”
She taught school before the first of three sons arrived, and after the boys were grown, she founded several small businesses, including what is known as Winston-Salem’s first health-food store. The Merediths’ three sons are Wayne, MD ’78, director of surgical sciences and chair of surgery at Wake Forest Baptist; Dwight, an attorney in Greensboro, N.C.; and Mike, a software executive in Seattle.
‘A Superb Clinician’
After Elon College, the U.S. Army sent Meredith to a year of engineering school at North Carolina State University. A few years after that, he wired his grandmother’s home “when the power came up the mountain in about 1951.”
Meredith studied in medical schools at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Case Western Reserve University, interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York, and completed residencies in general and thoracic surgery and cardiovascular surgery at Wake Forest Baptist before embarking on his surgical career.
Meredith’s son Wayne once described how he had worked on his dad’s trauma team to save the lives of nine teenagers who had ingested lye by accident.
“He was just a superb clinician,” he said of his father. “He was a superb technical surgeon. He did all of this without breaking a sweat. He was never nervous. He was never frustrated, overwhelmed, any of that. He was just trying to keep these kids from suffering, trying to help them as much as he could.”
The younger Meredith’s esteem for his dad grew through the years, and today he says, “He is a fascinating human being. And the most curious, talented, intelligent and generous man.”
‘This Here’s Jess Meredith’
On a sunny afternoon in December 2016, the Bark Point Ramblers bluegrass band, which includes Meredith and Charles Turner, MD ’70, among its members, is playing a set.
When the string bass player introduces the next tune, he makes no mention of important buildings named, medical procedures pioneered, hundreds of great doctors taught and mentored, or the trials of a tough young boy destined to be a great surgeon.
He simply says, “And this here’s Jess Meredith, who first picked up a fiddle 80 years ago playing Saturday night dances in Fancy Gap. Here’s Jesse to sing ‘Long Lonesome Road.’”
There’s never a dull verse in the ongoing ballad of Jesse Meredith. That violin he’s playing, for example, is one he found in Germany in the rubble of a bombed-out Mercedes truck factory in 1945. He had been sent there as a glider trooper, a type of assignment that was later discontinued because it was considered too dangerous.
When a bandmate steps up to do a solo cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Meredith’s eyes glisten.
“It was Lil’s favorite,” he says.
A line from the song sounds like a comment on his and his wife’s journey together: “We sang every song that driver knew.”