The chance of a lifetime

Tags: balkcom, texas family physician, president's letter

An excerpt from the inaugural speech of TAFP’s new president

By I. L. Balkcom IV, M.D.
TAFP President, 2011-2012

In 1987, as I was graduating from the Columbus medical center’s residency program, I thought I was hot potatoes. We were good. The 12 of us just thought that we were it. I felt like I could do a Caesarean section with a teaspoon. There was no body cavity I couldn’t align. We felt like we could just do it all.

So, armed with that knowledge, I set off in the world. I happened to be going to a meeting at the Capitol one day, and as I checked in at my hotel, I was puffed up pretty good. I signed in: “Dr. I. L. Balkcom, IV, M.D.”

The clerk looked at me and she said, “Oh, you’re a doctor.”

I said, “Yes, ma’am,” still puffed up.

“Well, what kind of doctor are you?”

“I’m a family physician,” sort of indignant.

Guess what she said. “You’re just a G.P.”

Whew. You could hear the air flowing out of me. Man, I was insulted. How dare she call me a G.P.? Didn’t everybody know that family physicians are the physicians? Well, I came to find out that wasn’t the case.

Flash forward to 2005. I had the occasion to be on a little cruise, and while I was on this cruise, I happened to meet a lady who was quite haughty. She just rubbed everybody the wrong way. The ship was small with only about 70 passengers. I came into the room where everyone was gathered, and one of them said, “Hey doc, come over here and sit down.” So I sat down to enjoy some good conversation.

This particular lady looked at me and said, “Well, you’re a doctor, too.”

I said, “Yes, ma’am, I am.”

“Well, I’m a psychiatrist and my friend the pathologist is here, and so is my friend the dermatologist. Just what kind of doctor are you?”

And I’m thinking, I’m not repeating my mistake from last time. I say, “Why, ma’am, I’m an R.D.”

“An R.D.? What’s that?”

“A real doctor.”

Unfortunately I had insulted a rather prominent lady. Some of you will not remember this, but there was a science fiction writer named Isaac Asimov. He had died but his wife had not. I found out right then you had to be careful.

As I assume the office of TAFP president, I want to take a moment to consider our profession, our specialty. We are family physicians, no bones about it. I’ve been through the thing where we were gatekeepers, but that sounded to me like we were protecting the city from the giant marshmallow king, like in Ghostbusters. I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. I want us to be family physicians: recognized, appreciated, and reimbursed.

Come to think of it, do you know what I really want to be? I want to be a shepherd. A shepherd leads his sheep from the front. He protects them, he serves them, and he loves them. We need to do that again. I want to be a shepherd of the people. I want to take care of them from the time they’re born—and even before they’re born—to the time they leave us. That’s what we should strive for, to be good shepherds.

There’s an old song by Meatloaf, “Life Is A Lemon (And I Want My Money Back).” Well, I’m a family physician and I want my steam back. I don’t work for specialists. How many times have you felt that you were the employee of the day as you did the history and physical exam for the cardiologists or neurologists?

We’ve been cordial; we’ve worked closely with everyone. Now it’s time to stand up and get a little bit of our mojo back.

As our president in 2009-2010, Kaparaboyna Ashok Kumar, M.D., started a great thing when he asked us to go to medical schools and tell students what a real doctor is all about. Over the next year, you may get a phone call from me asking for your help in continuing that effort. I cannot do it alone, nor do I intend to. I’m going to ask you if you can donate five minutes for family medicine, and that’s going to be my battle cry. Give five minutes for family medicine. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but please take the message to your colleagues and friends.

I want to close with one little thing that I found. Many of you will remember a great sprinter named Jesse Owens, a black athlete who competed in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Back in those days, what do you think his role was when he wasn’t running? He got to run down the back hall and climb the back stairs rather than take the elevator with the whites. He won four gold medals. He won the 100 meters, 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4-x-100-meter relay. His feat wasn’t matched until Carl Lewis did it at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Jesse Owens won all four of those gold medals only to be told, “Well, you can go ahead and sit in the kitchen in the back.”

This is what Jesse Owens said, a guy who was scorned even though he represented our country well: “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” Here’s another thing he said, which I think is the best short quote I’ve ever heard: “One chance is all you need.”

I want us all to take that one chance and move our specialty forward. Let’s get back to what we do and let’s do it well.


Dr. Balkcom is a physician with the Medical-Surgical Clinic in Sulphur Springs. He was awarded an A.S. degree in Biology by Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia, and was awarded a medical degree by La Autonoma De Guadalajara, Mexico, and Ross University, Portsmouth, West Indies.

Dr. Balkcom is active within the Academy, currently serving as director of the TAFP Red River Chapter. He recently completed a term as chair of the Section on Leadership Development and as chair of the Section on Rural Physicians. He is also a member of the TAFP Commission on Legislative and Public Affairs, the TAFP Political Action Committee Board of Directors, and the TAFP Executive Committee.

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