“Poor people, old people and people who work all day and come home to find their children sick and have nobody to call on. That's why I decided to become a doctor.”
“FIRST A NURSE, NOW THE HOMETOWN DOCTOR...”
Despite coming from a family of rural physicians, it wasn't until Jean Rawlings Sumner moved to Wrightsville, which had no doctor, that she realized a community without one was in trouble. "My grandfather and father were physicians, and my brothers are doctors. So when I moved to this county with no health care, I decided to become the hometown doctor," she said.
At that point, she had only become a Registered Nurse, graduating with honors from the Medical College of Georgia School of Nursing, become a valued staff member of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dublin, been married and had started a family. So in 1982, leaving three-year old Jeannie and six-year old Joseph at home, off to Mercer University School of Medicine she went, commuting 62 miles a day to eventually earn her M.D. degree in 1986. Not only did she receive that year's Distinguished Graduate Award, her peers also recognized her with the annual Physician's Physician Award. Then it was on to residency in internal medicine at the Medical Center of Central Georgia for the three years prior to her opening her own practice in 1990.
"All this was possible because of the support I received from my family and my community," Sumner says. "People are very kind in a small town."
In supporting Sumner to become a Local Legend, Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA-3) wrote, "Her private practice in internal medicine provides a vital service to the citizens of Johnson and Washington Counties...she recognizes the importance of rural health care. As more practices move closer to large cities, it is increasingly important to have dedicated physicians like Jean in rural areas."
Says Sumner, "When you are a doctor in a small town, you're a doctor first. You are the football doctor because you're at the games. They get you out of church; they stop you at the grocery story; they come to your home. I personally think it is an absolute privilege to be in a small town. I don't think you can have a more demanding job than that of being a small-town doctor. But I really don't think you can have a better one!"
After four years as the two counties' only physician, Sumner worked diligently to attract new health care providers to the area, including winning a federal grant to open a primary care center, staffed partly with Medical College of Georgia faculty and students and offering multiple visits each month by an orthopedist, a general surgeon and an obstetrician.
"This experience solidified Jean's strong advocacy on behalf of rural health issues," says her colleague, Dr. William Baker, who strongly backed her Local Legend nomination. In 1995, she received the James Alley Service Award from the Georgia Rural Health Association and, two years later, was selected for Leadership Georgia for her strong support for quality rural health care across Georgia.
"People first want to know you care about them. Then they'll let you care for them," Jean Sumner says.
Opens practice, becomes only doctor serving four rural counties
Wins federal grant to build primary care center
Mercer University School of Medicine