Body & Mind

Oncologist Bobby Graham and Psychiatrist Sharon Martin know that compassion is a universal treatment.

Continue Reading

Most people would consider "over my dead body," a threat, but for Dr. Sharon Martin '72 and Dr. Bobby Graham, it's the opening line of a love story.

Happily married for 28 years, Dr. Martin and Dr. Graham met when they shared the same cadaver in an anatomy class at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine.

"Sharon had already worked on a doctorate in anatomy and she knew a lot, so everyone in the class wanted to work on her cadaver," Dr. Graham says. "I thought she was cute, smart, and competitive. I just wanted to work with her."

The two spent months as study partners before romance bloomed and they decided to marry. Bobby Graham went on to specialize in oncology. After serving as a clinic doctor with the Mississippi Department of Health, Sharon Graham returned to school to become a psychiatrist. While they work in very different fields, Dr. Martin and Dr. Graham both consider compassion for their patients a critical part of their medical protocols.

Bobby Graham has been with Jackson Oncology Associates since 1990; he was previously with Jackson Medical Associates. While he's earned an outstanding reputation in the field, Dr. Graham acknowledges that he considered other medical specialties before deciding to work with cancer patients.

"I didn't want to go into oncology because I thought it would be so sad," Dr. Graham recalls. "But in oncology, you have opportunities to help not just the patient, but the entire family during a frightening time. After working with a few patients, I realized oncology was a good field for me. A sad field sometimes, but a good field."

Practicing oncology often means treating patients who will be terminal. Dr. Graham walks a daily line between being professional and becoming callous, being sensitive to a patient's fear and grief and becoming too emotionally involved to perform his job well. He credits his faith with helping him find the right balance.

"I pray every day for four things," Dr. Graham says. "For the competence to do a good job; for confidence, which comes from knowing that God is in control no matter what I do; for the compassion to treat people the way I would want to be treated; and for completion.

"Completion can be the hardest," Dr. Graham continues. "Doctors get attached to their patients and their patients' families. When you get to the end of a patient's treatment, there is a tendency to want to pull back, to not want to go to that patient's room every day. I pray for the completion that allows me to continue to be there for the patient."

While he still feels sorrow when he remembers each of his patients who have died, Dr. Graham has also seen his share of miracles.

"It's so exciting to deliver good news to a patient," Dr. Graham says. "When you go in, the family is all tensed up, holding hands and holding their breath. Those times I can look at them and say, 'Your scan is clear,' are so exciting. I'm grateful for those days."

Dr. Sharon Martin's decision to become a psychiatrist was due in part to the six years she spent practicing with the Mississippi Department of Health. For the majority of that time, Martin worked in the Department of Health office in Port Gibson, Mississippi, where she treated "every patient who walked in the door." She saw a variety of people with a variety of illnesses, but one patient still stands out in her memory.

"This woman came in regularly convinced she had a serious medical condition. She would try to show me the proof of that condition on her clothing," Dr. Martin recalls. "There was never anything there. She didn't have a physical condition. She was psychotic and delusional, and she refused to take the antipsychotic medication that would have helped her.

"Meeting her and other patients like her made me think about practicing psychiatry," Dr. Martin continues. "You'd be surprised by how many people come to the doctor complaining about a physical problem — and maybe they do have physical symptoms — but what's really behind it is a mental problem."

When the couple's sons were three, four, and five years old, Dr. Martin returned to the University of Mississippi School of Medicine to study psychiatry. Upon completing school in 1996 she accepted a position at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, where she has worked ever since.

Patients are admitted to the State Hospital when they have been deemed a danger to themselves or to others, or when they are unable to care for themselves. Dr. Martin is a psychiatrist in the female receiving area, where patients are admitted and undergo their initial physical and mental evaluations.

"Our patients usually come from an outside hospital or from jail following a court commitment. Occasionally they come here from their homes," Dr. Martin says. "They range in age from 18 to 83 years old. Some come from wealthy families, some are homeless. Some are highly educated, some are not. Some patients look perfectly ordinary, other patients may not have bathed in months or even years. All of those patients are together on this one unit."

Dr. Sharon Martin '72 has strong ties to Mississippi College. Dr. Martin's mother earned bachelor's, master's, and specialist's degrees at MC, and her father graduated from the Jackson School of Law, now MC Law. Dr. Martin also serves as a member of the MC board of trustees. Dr. Bobby Graham is an alumnus of Millsaps College, but the couple agreed early on not to bring the Backyard Brawl into their own backyard. Instead, both are generous supporters of Mississippi College. "We donate to things we believe in," Dr. Graham says. "I'm not an alumnus, but like Sharon, I believe in what MC stands for." The couple has made many contributions to the university, including sponsoring the annual spring scholarship banquet. "Both of my parents were teachers, and education is just so important to us," Dr. Martin says. "It's nice to have noted speakers come to MC for the banquet, but knowing that we're helping someone who might not otherwise have a chance to get an education attend MC is the real reason we want to be involved."

Following a physical and psychiatric evaluation, orders are written and the patient's treatment begins. As patients progress in their treatment, they are moved from the receiving unit to less restrictive floors.

Dr. Martin has treated patients whose mental illnesses left them barely able to speak and patients who were so violent and aggressive they could barely be contained. She has witnessed terrible suffering on the part of patients and their families, and has been verbally attacked by the patients she was trying to help.

"If I get screamed at or called an obscene name once a day, I get screamed at or called an obscene name 50 times a day," Dr. Martin says with a wry smile. "When my sons were in medical school, I couldn't even get them to come do a rotation with me. I think they were scared."

The average stay at the Mississippi State Hospital is four weeks. As many as 50 percent of Dr. Martin's patients are readmissions — patients who have been released, but find themselves back under psychiatric hospital care.

"This is one of the differences between treating physical illness and treating mental illness," Dr. Martin says. "Many mental illnesses — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and others — are not curable, but they are treatable. The problem is that the patient works against you. There is a lack of insight because they don't recognize that they are impaired, or the side effects of the medicines are so bad that they refuse to take them.

"It gets very frustrating," Dr. Martin acknowledges. "When I get frustrated, I make a point of pulling back a little, making my contact with that patient a little briefer. I'm still providing the level of care the patient needs, but I'm giving myself some time and space to defuse so I can go back in and give that patient what he or she needs."

Despite the unique challenges that come with treating mental illness, Dr. Martin remains committed to helping not only her patients, but also their families.

"Mental illness devastates the family as well as the patient," Dr. Martin says. "These illnesses can be treated if the patient is compliant, but they can't be cured. It never ends. They go on and on for years with no relief. We're talking about living with a family member who might be violent or acting in such a way that they can never be left alone or taken out in public. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a family member say, 'We just don't know what to do anymore.' In many cases, we are the only place these patients and families have to turn."

Like her husband, Dr. Martin has also experienced success stories — patients who do take their medication or respond to treatment and go on to live healthy, productive, and happy lives.

"We treated one young woman I was really concerned about after she was discharged," Dr. Martin says. "Later she sent a message to me that said she was doing well and to tell her treatment team hello.

"I pray every day for four things. For the competence to do a good job; for confidence, which comes from knowing that God is in control no matter what I do; for the compassion to treat people the way I would want to be treated; and for completion." — Dr. Bobby Graham

"I am not a saint — Bobby will tell you that — but when you actually talk to these people, their stories are compelling," Dr. Martin continues. "You feel like you can help them. Some you can't, but some you can. Some do want help and they don't have anywhere else to get it."

"Actually, she is a saint," Dr. Graham says. "She keeps doing this because she was called to do it."

People who choose to work in fields that see such great joy and such great sorrow risk becoming jaded to any emotion, happy or sad. But Dr. Sharon Martin and Dr. Bobby Graham both say their work has made them more empathetic, more compassionate people.

"Sometimes, we come home and flip a coin to see who had the best day or the toughest day," Dr. Graham says. "But I have an advantage in dealing with the highs and lows. I can always talk to my psychiatrist."