September 18, 2009

VUMC Reporter profile: Intensity, compassion drive Brock’s success

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John Brock III, M.D., right, talks with patient Nathan Dewitt at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. (photo by Joe Howell)

VUMC Reporter profile: Intensity, compassion drive Brock’s success

Elizabeth Brock Wells may have said it best when asked to describe her dad, John Brock III, M.D.

“My dad is not a tall man, but he stands tall. He has a bold, strong look that can be a bit intimidating,” said the newlywed, giggling. “He has a commanding presence, is very matter of fact and knows who he is. And he is a great, great dad.”

Hearing his oldest daughter's words silences Brock, surgeon-in-chief at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. He nods in agreement as he listens. His expression, one of depth and concentration, melts into a broad smile.

John Brock III, M.D., shares a laugh with patient Nathan Dewitt. (photo by Joe Howell)

John Brock III, M.D., shares a laugh with patient Nathan Dewitt. (photo by Joe Howell)

“People probably don't know me very well,” admitted Brock. “I'm pretty tough and I'm very intense, but I am not nearly as intense as I used to be. That's part of the aging process, part of becoming more mature. So I think they don't see a lot of who I am. But it's also a part of the journey.

“Everyone who gets to be my age reflects on what they could've done better,” said Brock, 57. “I am sure I could've done things better; been more patient with people, done a better job in raising my kids or dealing with my family. But today, I can say that I am a better person than I was last year. I'm a better surgeon than I was last year.

“There are many things that I do right now that I couldn't have done well 15 years ago because I didn't have the skill set to do it. For me it's part of the journey of life to see what you can improve on.”

Brock's ability to turn his life experiences into learning opportunities for himself and others is a part of what makes him such a high achiever. As head of the Division of Pediatric Urology as well as surgeon-in-chief at Children's Hospital, Brock knows hard work pays off. His division was recently ranked sixth best in the United States in Urology in an annual listing of America's Best Children's Hospitals in U.S. News & World Report.

Although recognition in a national publication is an incredible honor, Brock doesn't have time to rest on his laurels. He was taught to never settle for good enough.

Brock with his now grown daughters, Elizabeth, left, and Grace on an Easter Sunday.

Brock with his now grown daughters, Elizabeth, left, and Grace on an Easter Sunday.

“I am happy that we are highly ranked,” Brock said. “But we are better than No. 6. I'm not really satisfied with that and perhaps that speaks to who I am. But more importantly, it also speaks to the people I am surrounded by. We all have high expectations.

“What we did yesterday is yesterday.”


Always looking ahead

Brock is the oldest of five children born to John and Sarah Brock in Rossville, Ga., just outside of Chattanooga.

His mother, an elementary teacher, became a stay-at-home mom soon after his arrival. His father, a self-made businessman, started Brock Insurance, which is now operated by Brock's younger brother, Mark.

He grew up in a household that respected the value of hard work and sacrifice.

“My father was a very wise man,” said Brock. “He taught me that if you went to work every day and enjoyed your work and at the end of the day you received a reward for doing a great job, you didn't go there to get a reward. You went there to do a great job.

“That theory carries over in any business,” Brock said. “I try to impart that to residents and medical students. My father told me to find something I really loved to do and no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much time I put into it, if I loved it, it would serve me well.”

Brock beamed when reflecting on his father, who died in 1983.

“Oh my gosh,” he said with a huge grin. “He would be so proud of me.

My mother is still alive and she is just beside herself. They are proud of all of us. It doesn't get by any of us that we are where we are today because our parents gave us this opportunity.

“I have also been blessed by having great siblings — Paul, Becky, Mark and Matt,” Brock said. “The closeness of our family was the only thing that got us through the sudden death of my younger brother Paul this past year.”

Brock has always kept his eye on the prize, according to one of his brothers.

“Growing up, he always had goals,” said Mark Brock. “Being the oldest may be what made him so driven. We are both pretty focused individuals, but he is off the curve,” laughed Mark. “I'm not at his level. John is in a different hemisphere, but it's a good thing, really.

“So many people have benefited from his dedication. He is just focused and always knew where he was going. I learned that from him — focus, discipline and loyalty.”

Brock’s daughter,  Anna, at the family farm. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Brock’s daughter, Anna, at the family farm. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Those three attributes have carried John Brock a long way.

Starting with his years at McCallie High School in Chattanooga, Brock was not only a stellar student and star athlete, but he holds the honor of being the school's last Lieutenant Colonel and Regimental Commander before the institution ended its military program. As a senior, Brock wrestled with the decision of whether to pursue a military career or attend Vanderbilt University with the intentions of going into medicine.

He entered Vanderbilt in 1970 — eyes wide open and determined.

“I was not sure that I wanted to do medicine,” Brock recalled. “But when it became clear that it was what I wanted to do, I spent my first year at Vanderbilt working like a dog.

“I mean I worked really hard and I did really, really, really bad,” he said shaking his head at the memory. “I became focused purely on academics and to my dismay I did very poorly in school. It almost cost me the ability to go to medical school.”

A history major, Brock said he probably would have been content to return home to be a high school teacher and coach. But it's not what he wanted to do. He knew it would be settling.


Finding balance

Brock returned his sophomore year to Vanderbilt with a new plan. He became involved in sports and other extracurricular activities to balance his academic pressures.

Brock gets up close and personal with some of the animals at the family’s farm in Williamson County. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Brock gets up close and personal with some of the animals at the family’s farm in Williamson County. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Longtime friend Rob Barrick, CEO of Smith, Seckman and Reid Inc., weathered freshman year with Brock and the pair has been close ever since.

“The thing about John is this: he has high expectations of himself and everyone around him,” said Barrick. “There is always the sense that the next goal is the important thing. It's not about what he has done or what awards he has gotten. Rather it's about what is next. It's more about the journey.

“I can tell you that John will keep on accomplishing and keep on growing and setting goals. He's just not able to sit still. If he gets to the top of a mountain, he'll find another one to climb. It's just the way he's built.”

Once he graduated from Vanderbilt, Brock entered the Medical College of Georgia at the University of Georgia with absolutely no formal introduction to medicine. Instead, he relied on his own desire, drive and determination.

“I didn't have anyone telling me what it was like to be a doctor or even what kind of doctor I could be,” recalled Brock. “What I am doing today, I had never really heard of. I had no clue, but I knew I was committed and ready to do whatever it took to get into medical school and succeed.”


Medical path

He discovered his place in medicine through Roy Witherington, M.D., the chair of Urology at the time Brock attended medical school. It was the first time Brock was exposed to a mentor.

“Up until then, I was on my own,” said Brock. “[Dr. Witherington] was a role model for a lot of people — the way he practiced medicine, the way he dealt with his patients, just the way he went about his job every day was a major influence on me.”

Although Urology is not a routine rotation at every medical school, Brock said his encounter with Witherington was not happenstance.

“I'm a product of fate and if you don't act on what fate brought to you then it's nothing,” he admitted. “But I would say that part of fate is taking those opportunities and grabbing hold of them. During my whole career, I have been blessed by meeting great people and having those people take an interest in me.”

Anna, center, keeps her parents, Lisa and John, busy and grounded. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Anna, center, keeps her parents, Lisa and John, busy and grounded. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Jay Smith, M.D., chair of the Department of Urology at Vanderbilt, is one of them.

“He has had the biggest impact on my surgical career,” said Brock. “He is probably the only person in the country who would have given me the opportunity to build a successful program with no limitations. Had it not been for Jay's unerring support, I would not be who I am today.”

In 1991 Brock was handed the task of starting a Pediatric Urology program from scratch.

Smith said it was one of the best decisions he ever made.

“John is incredibly talented and capable in all respects,” Smith said. “He is extremely ambitious and driven. For all of his personal capabilities and accomplishments, he is able to absolutely be fair and genuine in dealing with [others]. John will never ask anything of anyone he doesn't ask of himself 10 times over.”

Perhaps that is why after a national search, Dan Beauchamp, M.D., chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences, approached Brock to be the first surgeon-in-chief of Children's Hospital in 2003.

“I will always be indebted to Dan for entrusting the oversight of all pediatric surgical care to me,” said Brock. “This is a role that I never expected to be given, but am proud of the successes recognized under my leadership.”

“You will hear that John is the most demanding of our attendings,” added Smith, “But none of our residents resent it because they realize it is intended for their benefit.”


Demanding the best

Grace Brock Clark, 25, can attest to her father's tough love way of thinking.

“Dad expects the best from everyone,” said Clark, a bank analyst. “At times this can make him come off as being too tough, but I believe a mentor/father is best when he draws you out of your comfort zone and encourages you to excel.

“He demands the best because he wants to bring out the potential that he sees inside those around him. He worked so hard to get where he is today and I could not be more proud of him.”

Ditto, said her sister Elizabeth Brock Wells, a pediatric nurse: “I always respected him for his hard work,” she said. “I was motivated from that. He always pushed us to do the best that we could. He can't do anything half way. He puts his entire energy into it. He wants the best for people, but also wants to be respected and liked.”

Although known for his accomplishments in medicine, there is much more to him, his daughters agreed.

“He's a really good singer,” said Wells, 27. “Like all of a sudden, he'll belt out a song. I remember when we were younger it used to embarrass us. But now, he's really good. It fires him up and it's great to see that.”

“Dad loves to exercise and ride his bike. He enjoys golfing and regularly embarrasses his sons-in-law on the course. He has always loved the beach, but now he is taking on new passions such as cooking and painting, which is so great to see,” added Clark. “He is finding all of these other things he enjoys doing.”

Both girls recalled Saturdays in the Brock household when they would work alongside their dad in the garden, one that once boasted hundreds of hybrid roses. After a hard day of work, the trio would head to the Green Hills Mall, grab a hot dog and settle in on “their” bench, taking in the sights and sounds.

Luckily for Brock, the traditions have not stopped with his oldest two.

Remarried in 1999, Brock and his wife, Lisa, are parents to Anna, 5, who keeps her father busy with soccer, gardening and playing on their 40-acre farm. A new family tradition has been established — a trip to Chicago around Christmas.

The Brock family on vacation. Front row, from left, are daughter Anna, Brock and his wife, Lisa. Back row, from left, are daughter Grace Brock Clark and her husband, Will Clark, Dave Wells and daughter Elizabeth Brock Wells.

The Brock family on vacation. Front row, from left, are daughter Anna, Brock and his wife, Lisa. Back row, from left, are daughter Grace Brock Clark and her husband, Will Clark, Dave Wells and daughter Elizabeth Brock Wells.

“God meant for me to have all girls,” chuckled Brock. “I love my girls and it's a really special relationship between a father and daughter. I have even learned to participate in the shopping extravaganza in Chicago — I carry all of their bags. I'm a lucky, lucky man.”

His family is one of the things he is most proud of and he applauds Lisa for providing unwavering support and confidence so that he can balance it all.

“Absolutely nothing compares to Elizabeth, Grace and Anna,” said Brock of his daughters. “What other legacy could you leave behind? They always take precedence. Sure you spend hours and hours at work, but what it comes down to at the end of the day, what really matters in the end is your family.”

Lisa, who has considered hiding her husband's blackberry on occasion, shares that sentiment.

“He once told me that I make him madder than anyone ever had but I also make him happier than anyone ever had,” she said. “Now I understand it, because it is exactly how I feel about him. He is my best friend.

“We are both very headstrong, but he always wins because he is more determined than I am; and I know when to back off.”


Gaining perspective

It's a delicate balance between work and home, one that her husband continues to struggle with.

“I think the people who are here (at Children's Hospital) have many sleepless nights,” said Brock. “You don't leave that. You don't go home and sleep when you have a baby in this hospital who is as sick as the dickens.

“You worry if they are going to be OK, and I have never figured out how to leave that. Part of me wants to, but some of me doesn't want to because I can't have the same commitment to what I do. It's personal. It's hard to draw that line.

“This sounds trite, but every day I get the opportunity to deal with somebody's most prized possession, their child. To be afforded that opportunity by the good Lord above is really something I try not to ever, ever forget. I think when that is secondary to me, then I probably need to quit.”

But Lisa knows it's not time for that, yet.

“He is the engine of the train,” she said. “One of the things that makes him so successful is that he is driven and has a lot of vision. He is always looking ahead, in every aspect of our lives.”

John Pope, M.D., associate professor of Urology, calls Brock a visionary.

“So many of us think in the present and the immediate future when we lay out our visions,” said Pope. “But he is like no one else I have ever met. He can have the long-term vision and make it happen. It's what makes him a good leader. It's a gift that very few of us have.”

Kevin Churchwell, M.D., CEO of Children's Hospital, applauds Brock's “knack of seeing the big picture and how everything fits.

“From what we do in clinic to the operating room to the floor of the hospital and how the surgeons, residents and nurses fit into that … he has a strong vision about what is important and what we need to be doing,” said Churchwell.

In every aspect of his life, Brock adheres to one simple principle to guide him on his journey:

“There are two kinds of leaders in the world,” said Brock. “There is one type of leader who must surround himself with a 'yes' person so that they are always on top. Or there are the people who are willing to surround themselves with greatness. They pick really talented people at every position. I hope that I will be remembered for that style of leadership because I truly believe it works.”