September 27, 1996

An Affair of the Heart

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Dr. Fred Ownby

An Affair of the Heart

Dr. Fred Ownby and his wife Allie at the recent first annual Fred D. Ownby Lectureship in Cardiology

Dr. Fred Ownby and his wife Allie at the recent first annual Fred D. Ownby Lectureship in Cardiology


It's an overused and often misapplied descriptive term, but it's one that fits Dr. Fred D. Ownby as well as one of his ever-present suits. The Shelbyville cardiologist, it seems, has rarely – if ever – been seen in anything but a perfectly pressed suit. Whether he's on rounds, attending an educational symposium, at a weekend function or even called in to Bedford County General Hospital in the middle of the night for a cardiology consult, his coat is buttoned and his tie is smartly knotted.

"You could call him at two in the morning about a patient you were concerned about and ask him to come lend his expertise and he would say, 'I'd be delighted,' said Dr. Susan W. Johnson, a member of the medical staff at Bedford County General Hospital (BCGH) and a close friend of Ownby's.

"And here he would come in his suit and tie. Never in blue jeans, never in a sweat shirt. He always had a suit on."

This type of attention to detail has served the semi-retired physician well during his long and distinguished career. He has cut a wide swath through the field of cardiology during the last five decades and has played a major role in helping establish Vanderbilt University Medical Center's presence in Bedford County.

Ownby, a member of the clinical faculty in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, was instrumental in facilitating VUMC's first clinic in Shelbyville – in cardiology, naturally – which began two years ago. That effort was so successful that VUMC established the Vanderbilt Clinic at Shelbyville (TVCS) and added part-time clinics in dermatology and orthopaedics. Recently, a full-time cardiologist and dermatologist have been hired in Shelbyville and VUMC's Radiology department has taken over management of radiology services at BCGH.

Ownby is the first to point out that he was far from alone in establishing and strengthening VUMC's relationship with BCGH, but his presence was, nonetheless, crucial, said Dr. Eugene W. Fowinkle, associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

"He has made it possible to establish a working relationship that benefits patients. Because of Dr. Ownby's strong interest in education, a team of health care workers – physicians, nurses, technicians and administrators – has been created in Shelbyville who have developed a remarkable system of both providing superb medical care locally and networking that care with referral hospitals in Nashville.

"Ultimately, it's the patients who come out the winners, and that's the most important thing," Fowinkle said.

Dr. F. Andrew Gaffney, professor of Medicine, said Ownby helped smooth the path between Vanderbilt and Shelbyville.

"He welcomed us and allowed us in there. He's been a big supporter of Vanderbilt in the Shelbyville community, and I don't think we could have built the trust and relationships we have there without him," he said.

Ownby practiced in Nashville for 18 years, then moved to Murfreesboro for a time. In 1974 he and his wife Allie moved to Bell Buckle, near Shelbyville, to be closer to his son John. It was a move he hadn't really planned to make.

"My wife and I were driving through Bell Buckle one day and saw this house up for auction," Ownby said. "We decided to take a look, so we stopped. We walked in and thought that it would make a nice office.

"I called Sue Johnson and asked her if she thought patients would drive to Bell Buckle from Shelbyville to be seen. She said yes, so we bought it and that's where we were for the next 20 years. It's been a wonderful experience."

If there is a recurring theme in Ownby's professional life, a single thread that links past to present, it is education. Early on, he learned the value of education and that it does not come without a price. His father actually sold some of his own possessions to help pay the younger Ownby's way through medical school at Emory University in Atlanta. He received his medical degree in 1947.

This kind of sacrifice leaves a lasting impression, and, in one way or another, Ownby has spent the rest of his life educating others. He established the first cardiac care unit in Nashville, at Baptist Hospital in 1965. Shortly thereafter, under VUMC auspices, he began the nation's first Cardiac Nurse Specialist Training program, which evolved into the Critical Care Nursing Program. This eight-week course provided to nurses in Tennessee and from other states a formal education about the nuances of critical cardiac care at an advanced level.

Ownby was instrumental in persuading the American College of Cardiology to present continuing education programs for physicians and nurses in Nashville. He was also a guiding force in establishing a national organization for Coronary Care Nurses which ultimately evolved into the largest nursing specialty group for nurses today, the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

"Dr. Ownby always expected nurses to think critically about changes in a patient's condition," said Penny Vaughn, director of the Critical Care Nursing Program. "He expected nurses to work as colleagues with physicians in determining patient care. While this is not dramatic in today's world, it was for the late 1960s.

"Nurses in coronary and critical care owe a great deal to Dr. Ownby for believing that we could learn and perform at a high level and for encouraging the implementation of high-level, sophisticated learning opportunities."

Ownby hasn't just spent the last 50 years imparting wisdom. He's also been soaking it up.

"I place a great deal of importance on education," Ownby said. "That's just the way I was brought up and that's the way I learned. It also helps me, because anybody who tries to teach someone else ends up learning a lot along the way."

Ownby has never missed a Scientific Session of the American College of Cardiology, and has always brought the latest cardiology treatments back with him.

His love of learning and education culminated recently with the first annual Fred D. Ownby Lectureship in Cardiology, held earlier this month and sponsored by VUMC's division of Cardiology.

"At these types of lectures you hear the gospel," Ownby said. "You hear about studies and pilot projects that are under way and how to interpret them.

"I usually learn more from these meetings than anything else. I usually tape them and listen to them over and over and I always learn something every time I listen."

Fund-raising efforts for the Fred D. Ownby Lectureship in Cardiology are still under way. For more information, call the VUMC Physician Liaison Office at 936-0305.

Ownby held a clinical faculty appointment in Medicine at Vanderbilt from 1955-1977 and has served on the board of directors of the the Tennessee Heart Association. He is also a past president of the Tennessee Society of Internal Medicine and the Middle Tennessee Heart Association. In 1994 he was awarded an Honorary Membership in the American Association of Critical Care Nurses for his contributions to the care of critically ill patients.

He also recently became the first recipient of the 1996 Gold Heart Award of the Tennessee Affiliate of the American Heart Association for his work in raising funds and organizing a board of directors in Bedford County for that organization.

It's typical of Ownby, however, to downplay his own accomplishments. He doesn't seek the spotlight, avoids it actually, and is quick to deflect praise and attention to those around him.

"He won't blow his own horn, so we have to do it for him," said Johnson. "There are more cardiologists in Shelbyville now then there were before he retired because it really does take that many to fill his shoes."

And the odds are good that his suit is freshly pressed to go along with those shoes. Just like always.