Their cries are soul-piercing. Their bodies writhe uncontrollably. Their addiction to drugs is passed on to them by their mothers. The disease is called neonatal abstinence syndrome, and physician and soon-to-be UT graduate Geogy Thomas is determined to help pregnant women in East Tennessee detox.
Thomas has spent the past year as a graduate student in the Physician Executive MBA program in UT’s Haslam College of Business and will participate in the graduate hooding ceremony today.
“I fell in love with this community fifteen years ago when I moved to Jellico to take care of the underserved,” said Thomas, medical director of Dayspring Family Health Center in Campbell County. “I was not prepared for the amount of drug use and abuse that I encountered. I especially was not prepared for the number of addicted pregnant women.”
Around New Year’s Eve last year, Thomas felt he needed to take the next step and find a more impactful way to give back to his community.
“I sat at my computer, typed in ‘MBA,’ and the first thing that popped up was UT’s PEMBA program,” said Thomas. “With all the changes in health care today, physicians need to be more than just physicians. I wanted to do more to help our struggling patients but didn’t know where to begin. I did the unthinkable and enrolled in the PEMBA program.”
The Physician Executive MBA program is a nationally ranked degree program exclusively for physicians seeking leadership, management, and business skills. The program includes a requirement that each student develop an organizational action project that can be applied directly to their organization.
For the past year, Thomas has been developing an inpatient detox program in Jellico, a community flanked by numerous pill mills.
“Our group has partnered with UT Medical Center’s high-risk obstetricians to help us get these moms off the drugs while they’re pregnant, or at least on a lower dose,” said Thomas.
Thomas says the goal of the detox program is to be a place for pregnant women to get help and not be judged or criminalized.
“We want them to feel safe and equip them to restore their lives and reclaim their futures. We want to give them a second chance at raising a healthy family,” he said. “We want to deliver healthy babies but also be a resource to help them after they give birth, to support them with parenting, contraception, and other essential life skills.”
Last year Tennessee spent $60 million taking care of a thousand NAS babies.
“Geogy is a physician empowered to lead and improve patients’ lives,” said Michael Stahl, director of the Physician Executive MBA program. “His organizational action project deals with a major drug addiction problem among pregnant women within our state. He is helping the moms and their unborn babies, all the while lowering the cost of health care in Tennessee.”
Even BlueCross BlueShield has seen promise in Thomas’ program and recently awarded his practice a $400,000 grant to get started.
“This means a lot to my community and me,” said Thomas. “This has been the toughest year of my life, trying to balance a practice, grad school, and my family. I am eternally grateful for all the help, insight, and coaching that I received through PEMBA. The teaching I was exposed to was exceptional.”
Down the road, Thomas wants to help detox the partners of these women and open a transition house for those who successfully complete the program.
“The PEMBA program gave me the tools I need to turn a dream into a reality and offer a lifesaving option for whole families,” said Thomas. “Of course, a main character in this graduate school journey has been my wife, Jessie. She’s been my greatest advocate and best friend all along.”
Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, firstname.lastname@example.org)