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Dr. Cross: Northside Hospital’s “Original OB/GYN”

founder of cherokee women's health

Cherokee Women’s Health Specialists founder Dr. James Cross has made his mark in obstetrics history in metro Atlanta over the past half century.

Dr. Cross was the first OB/GYN in Georgia to offer epidurals to women in labor. He was among the original 17 obstetricians who opened Atlanta’s Northside Hospital. And in 1993, he came out of retirement to single-handedly provide OB services for metro Atlanta’s Cherokee County, delivering babies in the facility that is now Northside Hospital Cherokee. His presence was credited for cutting in half the perinatal morbidity and mortality rate for the county’s babies, a rate which before his arrival had been among the highest in the state.

As the glamorous new Northside Hospital Cherokee opens its doors, we thought it was a good time to interview the obstetrician whose memories span six decades, and who has delivered over 15,000 babies during his career in medicine.

Introducing Epidurals To Atlanta’s Pregnant Women: From Texas Air Force Base to the South

We met with Dr. Cross on the campus of the new Northside Hospital Cherokee, three weeks before the facility is to open. A utility truck outside the wing of the Women’s Center lifts a window washer high against the plate glass windows, while Dr. Cross — now in his early 90s — enters the soaring main atrium and marvels at the hanging chandelier. He shakes his head and laughs. “More like a hotel, don’t you think?”

He is cheerful and spry, wearing his white doctor’s coat and remarking he is “happy to do anything” to spread the news about the new hospital.

“A hospital makes all the difference in a community.”

Dr. Cross says, with the air of someone who has said it hundreds of times.

Born in a small Colorado mining town in 1931, James Cross (“Jim” to friends and family) graduated from college when he was 19. With a degree in Chemistry and the encouragement of his professors, he was in medical school four days later.

OB-GYN Residency Class at Grady Hospital Dr. James Cross
Dr. Cross with his OB/GYN Residency class at Grady Hospital. He is at the far right of the front row.

After three years training in Emory University’s OB/GYN residency at Grady Memorial Hospital, the young doctor was stationed at the Amarillo Air Force base. There he delivered 2,600 babies in four years. More significantly, he learned the then-innovative practice of administering epidural analgesia. Previously, laboring women were given ether to dull the pain of childbirth, resulting in not only sleepy mothers, but also oxygen-deprived babies, who emerged in a ‘twilight sleep” with impaired breathing and a telltale blue skin color. Dr. Cross comments that mothers given ether often slept for hours, or even days, waking up “only when the hairdresser got there.”

Spinal anesthesia, which was later used in place of ether, had equally undesirable complications such as headache, compromised blood pressure, spinal damage, infection etc.

Upon Dr. Cross’s return to Georgia and a practice at Georgia Baptist Hospital, he immediately introduced the use of epidurals for laboring mothers, becoming, he believes, the first physician to employ the technique in Georgia. He says with a smile, “I’m happy to report that epidurals have been used now for decades all across the country.” He comments that the benefits were much reduced side effects over former pain treatments, a drop in the Caesarean rate down to about 5-6%. Furthermore, administering epidurals was delegated to anesthesiologists, freeing obstetricians to attend to critical matters that might arise during a delivery. Best of all, he says, babies came into the world a healthy pink, crying, alert and wide awake. “It was nice to see those babies finally come out squalling,” he exclaims.

He went on to help establish an epidural training program for more than 30 residents over the next decade at Georgia Baptist Hospital.

Northside Hospital Atlanta: Helping To Open the Country’s Largest Maternity Hospital

In 1967 Dr. Cross joined the staff and building committee at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. Three years later, he watched proudly as Northside Hospital Labor and Delivery opened its doors. “There were 17 of us OB/GYNs when we started,” he relates. “I remember we were shortchanged one delivery room, but it all worked out,” he chuckles. With visible pride, he fondly points out that Northside Hospital Atlanta has today evolved into the largest maternity hospital in the country.

In the interim, Dr. Cross helped found the OB/GYN practice Atlanta Women’s Specialists in 1968, a practice that eventually expanded into four offices, including a residency program with six doctors. Over the next two decades, he states, he strove to make sure that no physician at any of those clinics was overworked, overwhelmed, or otherwise “prevented from providing quality care.”

“It was a growing process – one step at a time. If you give patients quality care and are hardworking, they respect you.”

Dr. Cross on opening his first OB practices

Dr. Cross speaks about his philosophy of care, that he considered every patient “family,” treating each one as such. He says, “you can be honest, but tactful,” to strengthen the resolve of pregnant women to change the way they treat their bodies. He encouraged healthy diets, smoke and drug cessation, careful vigilance of medicinal products, and weight loss. He felt that though women may sometimes be resistant to change, once they begin to take care of themselves — thus ensuring the additional health of their unborn children — they realize and appreciate the positive benefits. By approaching them the same way he would any female in his own family circle, they became receptive to his advice and genuine concern.

Dr. Cross also developed a unique approach, whereby pregnancy was not a sole female issue, but a family one, involving fathers and children in the whole process. A post natal care appointment was not attended only by the woman. The partner was also involved, especially when the couple decided that their family was complete and they no longer wished to have children. It was then that Dr. Cross would explain to them both that modern cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries could transform the woman’s internal and external reproductive organs back to the state they were ‘when she was eighteen’, a revelation that often made folks’ “ears perk up like a German Shepherd’s,” Dr. Cross says, smiling and matter-of-fact. He regularly did “at least two such surgeries daily.”

Raising the Survival Rate for an Entire County’s Newborns

Dr. James Cross, founder of Cherokee Women's Health

Dr. Cross had begun to contemplate retiring from private practice in Atlanta when he learned of a desperate situation developing in Cherokee County. The county’s local hospital, known then as R.T Jones, was about to lose its certification to deliver babies. Although the staff numbered 50 doctors, no obstetricians remained in this small facility on Atlanta’s rural outskirts. Women in the community were forced to travel long distances for prenatal care and deliveries, driving the morbidity and mortality rates among pregnant women to a whopping 9 1/2%.

To Dr. Cross, the community’s situation seemed dire. The correction would be a Herculean task. Dr. Cross believes that at the time, Cherokee’s 9-1/2% morbidity and mortality rate was among the highest in the state.

With “no hesitation,” he responded to the distress call. “When you see that red flag, you come charging.” Thus in 1993, at the age of 62, Dr. Cross ran straight into his next challenge.

He began in solo practice. For two and a half years, he took calls around the clock, bringing prenatal OB care to the county’s women, delivering their newborns safely.

But in 1994, Dr. Cross faced a setback. Treatment for a bowel obstruction led to the discovery of malignant lymphosarcoma. Confronting a debilitating bout with cancer, he completed extensive chemotherapy, then jumped right back into obstetrics. “I had a nurse stand by at the ready with a basin in case I had to get sick,” he relates. Post-treatment side effects continued to plague him, but he doggedly continued to work, refusing to abandon his post in the growing county.

In 1996, Dr. Cross incorporated his practice, Cherokee Women’s Health Specialists, as the clinic grew to serve the OB/GYN needs of the local population. Perinatal morbidity rates had plummeted drastically. But delivering over 90 babies a month had become a staggering effort, and he began to look for help.

Help came. Dr. Michael Litrel had just completed his OB/GYN residency at Emory University, and joined Dr. Cross in 1997 as his first partner in Cherokee County. A few years later, the hospital began negotiations with Northside Atlanta. And in 2007, R.T. Jones Hospital was bought by Northside, officially becoming Northside Hospital Cherokee. Today, that hospital and the numbers it serves, have grown exponentially, bringing about the need for a larger and more technologically advanced facility which will hold its grand opening in May.

Looking Ahead and Honoring the Past

At the time of this interview, Dr. Cross’s wife of 65 years, Becky, was in intensive care following a health crisis. Speaking of her condition off and on throughout the interview, Dr. Cross relates their story in bits and pieces.

In 1952, a young Jim Cross was working as a dog catcher in Canton, when he noticed a beautiful young lady who stepped off the bus at the same stop daily. “I thought to myself, ‘Boy, she is one great looking gal.’” He eventually introduced himself, learning that they did not live too far apart from each other and had several friends in common, including her ex-boyfriend who happened to play on the same baseball team as Jim at the time. The friendship between Rebecca and James evolved until one day he decided to propose. Still in medical school, he told her “I’m starting to run out of money. Why don’t you get a job or two and we can get married?” Dr. Cross relates that Rebecca answered ‘yes’ in a heartbeat. They have been married 65 years.

Dr. Cross expresses deep gratitude for his ’Beck’, narrating how the love, support and patience of his ‘soul mate’ carried them through the lean and busy years. When times got better, she gave him 5 children (none of which he delivered). Together, the Cross family managed to find time to travel all over the globe, forging precious memories that continue to keep them close.

Dr. Cross delivered over 15,000 babies throughout his years as an OB/GYN. Asked about regrets, he relates with wistful melancholy only one story – losing a young mother to an aneurysm. “The child survives today, but we had to take the mother off her life support system a week after the birth.”

Questioned about what technology has contributed most to women’s health, Dr. Cross names ‘computers’ without hesitation. He also credits the fetal monitor and belt for accurately pinpointing any problem during labor, allowing doctors to address those immediately, saving lives and avoiding tragedy.

He applauds the co-operation between medical schools, which now share information with each other to better medicine and save lives. His personal favorites, however, are the many laser and manual surgical instruments that have been introduced over the decades. “I’m like any fellow with a new toy,” he admits. “I just love to try out new ones to see what they can do.”

Time to Retire?

Dr James Cross at Women's Center of new Northside Cherokee Campus
Dr. James Cross at the Women’s Center of the new Northside Hospital Cherokee Campus.

In 2006, at the respectable age of 75, Dr. Cross delivered his last baby and walked away from everything that had been his career for the past five decades.

Dr. Cross stayed retired for three years. “I was never so bored in my entire life.”

When an offer came from Northside Hospital Cherokee, inviting him to join their radiology department in dye studies, Dr. Cross relates that he didn’t walk, but “ran” to get his certification. He is presently called in on an emergency basis 6 to 7 days a month.

He also accepted a position in Marietta specializing in pain management and addiction medicine, where he works every Thursday and Friday, ministering to approximately 75 patients. He has been there for the last 9 years and indicates he has no plans to stop any time soon. In his early 90s, Dr. Cross still exercises for an hour every day and appears just as dedicated to his newest ventures as he was to Obstetrics.

James Cross, MD, was recently given an honorary staff membership position at Northside Hospital Cherokee.

“I’ve been so darn busy, I haven’t had time to think about that.”

Smiling, Dr. Cross quips when asked if looking back, he would do anything differently.

Such is the reply of a man not so much reflecting on his long life, but continuing to live it, instead.