Melissa Scalise, MD
Assistant Professor & Associate Program Director of Internal Medicine
University of Tennessee - Nashville Internal Medicine Program at Ascension Saint Thomas
From the outside looking in, Missy Scalise might not have seemed a likely candidate for medical school while growing up in a trailer park in Norfolk, Neb. Luckily, looks can be deceiving.
"My family didn't have much, but what we lacked in financial resources, my parents more than made up in parental involvement and support," Scalise said. "My mother went to college when I was a young girl, and I grew up with the expectation that I would go to college, too." A high school biology teacher solidified Scalise's love of science as she entered college at Wayne State with a focus on entomology.
"However, my life and my choices changed during my sophomore year when I lost my father to suicide," she said. "Working through that experience caused me to think deeply about what matters most in life to me." With a renewed sense of the importance of positive interactions and determination not to let fear of failure limit her possibilities, Scalise decided to welcome opportunities that came her way.
Saying 'yes' to spending the summer of her junior year in Texas changed her career trajectory. "I participated in the Summer Medical And Research Training (SMART) program at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston," she recalled. "While there, I performed laboratory research on breast cancer, rounded with inpatient teams, and volunteered at the children's hospital." She found interacting with patients on rounds brought her joy and sparked passion. "I realized then that I wanted to be a physician."
Her affinity for searching for diagnoses, treating complex illnesses and developing patient relationships led her to internal medicine. She also loved teaching, having been a tutor throughout her academic career. After graduating first in her med school class from the University of Nebraska, Scalise completed an internal medicine residency at Vanderbilt and served as chief resident for internal medicine in the UT/Ascension Saint Thomas program. With training complete, she accepted a faculty position at Vanderbilt, where she rose to Master Clinical Teacher.
Although she credits many mentors and colleagues for enhancing her practice of medicine, Scalise said John Sergent, MD, rheumatologist at Vanderbilt and former program director of the residency program, has had the greatest impact as a mentor and role model. "During my first month of internship, I had difficulty transitioning into the new role and felt I was not meeting expectations," she said. "Dr. Sergent was kind in his willingness to listen to and support me through that transition. He is the kind of doctor and teacher I want to become."
The offer of Associate Program Director for the UT/Ascension Saint Thomas internal medicine program provided an exciting new challenge. "I jumped at the opportunity to play a significant role in teaching residents, as well as working on administration of the program and developing curriculum," she explained. Scalise added she loves being part of mentoring the profession's future leaders.
COVID-19 has added new challenges both to patient care and teaching. "The new virus has changed every aspect of how we deliver care and how we connect with patients, as well as how we teach residents," she said of adjusting to new norms. Prior to the outbreak, Scalise said "helping patients navigate the complex healthcare system, as well as trying to mitigate health disparities related to social determinants" ranked among the most difficult barriers to optimal care. Now, COVID-19 has amplified those challenges.
One piece of advice she shares with residents is to hang onto the positive emails, notes and tokens of appreciation received. "Then, when you have a hard day, you can look to them for motivation and inspiration. They remind you why you are here."
Outside the hospital, Scalise's reason for being centers around her two young sons - Lucas, nine, and Leo, six. "It is amazing to see their personalities develop over time," she said. "Lucas is very into soccer," she noted, adding he was able to attend the first Nashville SC game before the pandemic shut everything down. "Leo is very into Pokemon," Scalise added with a grin.
"I really like being physically active and being creative, too," she continued of bike rides with the boys and running. Scalise has also written a children's book about connectivity in a world of screens. "It was after my second son was born. I was standing in line and every person was looking at a phone," she explained of the impetus for 'Wadgets in the Land of Loodles,' which explores the power of personal connections.
Making important connections has been a continuous theme for Scalise ... whether it's connecting the dots for a diagnosis, building longitudinal relationships with patients or helping the next generation of physicians find their footing.