by Michael Litrel, MD, FACOG, FPMRS
I first heard about Dr. James Cross when I was finishing medical school at Emory. Atlanta’s medical community is small, and news travels fast. What would motivate a prominent physician to leave a well-established practice in the city? And further, to start a new practice by himself, in Cherokee County? In the early 1990’s Cherokee County was considered to be the boondocks.
A Shortage of Doctors
Apparently, the only hospital in Cherokee County was closing its doors to pregnant women, due to the lack of a qualified physician. Every obstetrician in Atlanta had seen bad outcomes in patients from North Georgia. Without access to local health care, these patients’ pregnancies sometimes mired in problems and even tragedies – tragedies that were largely preventable. Closing the doors of yet another hospital would only make the situation worse. But signing up as the lone physician delivering babies for an entire region? Being on call every single night is a Herculean effort, even for someone half Dr. Cross’s age. This went beyond altruism. Opinions about his decision, I’m sure, ran the gamut. Some probably thought him a saint. Others would see him as a fool.
Dedicated to Serving the Community
There’s an old black and white photo of a young Dr. Cross and his residency classmates hanging in the administrative offices at Grady Memorial Hospital. Dr. Cross finished his training at Emory several years before I was even born. After his graduation, and a stint where he delivered a couple thousand babies on a Texas Air Force base, he returned to Georgia. He was among the first physicians in Atlanta to provide epidural analgesia for his patients in labor, and for a dozen years he co-directed the training program for residents at Georgia Baptist. In 1970, along with a handful of other obstetricians, he opened the doors to Labor and Delivery at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. Since that time, Northside Hospital has grown to be the largest maternity hospital in the country.
But after twenty years at Northside, Dr. Cross left to start over again. There was a tremendous need in Cherokee County, and he was busy right away.
Healthy Babies and Healthy Moms
Was it all worth it? The statistics speak for themselves. Before Dr. Cross arrived, the Perinatal Morbidity and Mortality Rate in Cherokee County was among the highest in the state. This rate represents the percentage of newborns that suffer from severe illness or die. But a couple of years after Dr. Cross opened Cherokee Women’s, the rate in Cherokee County was among the lowest. And it’s stayed that way.
As I neared the end of my residency training at Emory, I was intrigued by this data from Cherokee County and I wanted to meet Dr. Cross. Graciously, he offered me a job. Unlike a dozen other interviews I had had, our conversation focused not on my compensation, but on what the patients needed. “You know, Dr. Mike,” he told me, “if you work with me, you’ll make a big difference.” At the time, I had been leaning toward taking an admittedly prestigious, full time faculty position at Emory. But in this single encounter with Dr. Cross, I was given an entirely different vision. In my mind’s eye, I could see the stream of young mothers and their babies whose lives had been changed by this single practice. My decision became clear.
My years at Cherokee Women’s have confirmed that long ago vision. Dr Cross became both mentor and friend to me, and working with him proved to be more inspiring and personally rewarding than I could have imagined as a young resident. Cherokee Women’s has indeed made a difference in women’s health in Cherokee County. A state-of the-art Women’s Center has arisen in Canton. The number of deliveries has doubled, and doubled again, now exceeding a thousand a year. And the hospital has since merged with Northside Hospital in Atlanta, becoming Northside Hospital–Cherokee.
Many deserve credit, I know, but without Dr. Cross’ vision, dedication and sacrifice, none of this would have been possible. A pioneer of sorts, he came and stood alone, battling through untold obstacles – including a bout with cancer – to take care of the women of the community. He laid the foundation. Without him, the women of Cherokee County wouldn’t have the outstanding local medical care they rely on today.
A Doctor’s Doctor
Dr. Cross has an expression he uses to bestow his highest praise on another physician. He calls that person a Doctor’s Doctor. It’s an expression I had never heard before. I believe he’s describing a physician completely dedicated to his patients and to the art of medicine, someone worthy of the highest respect and trust from peers and patients. Whatever it means, I do know this: Dr. Cross epitomizes a Doctor’s Doctor. We at Cherokee Women’s Health Specialists continue to be dedicated to providing the kind of professional care and attention for our patients that we would expect for our own mothers, our wives, our daughters. In doing this, it is Dr. Cross’s example we follow, and his footprints in which we step.
This is the legacy of Dr. James Lee Cross.
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