By Judy Willis
Medicine is the focus of part three of this series. Dr. Myrna Ellen Alexander Nickens, associate professor of medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, is featured. She has chosen noted physician and civil rights icon, Dr. Gilbert Rutledge Mason as her “hero.”
“I was about 7 or 8 when I came down with chicken pox. I was really sick and couldn’t walk,” Dr. Myrna Alexander Nickens says. “Around that time, my parents (Woodrow and Mary Alexander) took me to Dr. Gilbert Mason who was the only physician in Biloxi. He got me up, encouraged me and soon I was walking again. He was the person who inspired me to pursue medicine.”
Mason was anchored by a strong extended family and a committed and loving community who trained him to manhood and nurtured his dream of becoming a doctor. More than a physician, he was a brilliant strategist, a community leader and civil rights activist who led “the Biloxi Wade-in,” a protest that ignited a firestorm of white rioting – the bloodiest in the state’s history.
Mason helped the NAACP join with CORE, SNCC and SCLC to form the Council of Federated Organizations and served as president of the NAACP’s Mississippi chapter for 33 years until his death in 2006. Known as the “civil rights doctor” and the “drum major for freedom,” Mason was a trail blazer who risked life and limb in service to others.
Nickens has made her own distinctive mark as the first interventional cardiologist in Mississippi, a specialty she has practiced for nearly 18 years. Born in Laurel and raised in Biloxi, she is a 1978 graduate of Tougaloo College and received a medical degree from Meharry Medical College in 1982.
Nickens served as a clinical clerkship mentor for residents and students at University of Mississippi Medical Center before joining the faculty as an associate professor of medicine. “It’s important that physicians stay involved in the training of others,” she says.
While Mason inspired her calling, it was her grandmother’s death from congestive heart failure that led her to pursue cardiology. “My grandmother and everyone on the paternal side of my family had heart problems. As a child, I was touched by their suffering,” Nickens says.
Although there were no female physicians around her, Nickens was undaunted. Her parents, church family, and even men working in the field encouraged her. “When I was at Tougaloo, we were always told that we could do whatever we wanted, if we put our minds to it, so as far as I was concerned there wasn’t any problem with my becoming a doctor.”
Nickens’ still sees patients and has a special interest in heart disease among women, valvular heart disease and preventive cardiology for those older than age 15. Although Mississippi’s rate of cardiovascular disease remains the highest in the nation, it has decreased as education and awareness has increased.
“We are more educated than we’ve ever been about health, more so than at any other time. Nevertheless, we’ve still got to make the right choices. A healthier lifestyle is the key,” Nickens says.
She says that a good physician should be compassionate, personable, unselfish, altruistic, investigative and scientific with leadership skills that should be acquired if they don’t occur naturally. “Doctors have to be good listeners and willing to uncover whatever problems our patient may have. Most of us persevere in this profession because we eat, sleep and live what we’re doing. It’s so much more than a job.”
A member of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Nickens welcomes the opportunity to talk to her patients about being a Christian and says that, “doctors should not be afraid to talk about faith or religion.”
Touching hearts and saving lives has been her passion for nearly two decades.
“I joined the University of Mississippi Medical Center because ultimately I wanted be an academic. I want to play my part in educating our future doctors, not just leave it for someone else to do.”