PRACTICE PROFILE: Dedicated to Serving Underserved Patients with ENT Care

November 2020 – Vol. 39, No. 10

James L. Netterville, MD, has been with the Department of Otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center since 1986. As the Mark C. Smith professor of otolaryngology and director of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery, he promotes education and research in both voice disorders and head and neck oncologic surgery, his specialty. In addition, he is the associate director of the Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences.

During his tenure at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Netterville has mentored and trained nearly 150 residents and 54 head and neck fellows who specialize in head and neck oncology and reconstructive surgery. “One of my greatest rewards,” he said, “is following the lives of these doctors—my ‘academic children’—and seeing the remarkable differences they are making here and around the world. Some are vice presidents, some are chairpersons, many are division directors, but all of them are in the trenches of providing excellent patient care. They all are a true inspiration to me as I watch their lives, rearing their families—‘my academic grandchildren’—and hearing stories of the exemplary care they provide to their patients.”

In November 2011, a large team from Vanderbilt University led by James L. Netterville, MD, traveled to Malindi, Kenya, for a medical mission. An overhead shot captured the dedicated activity of the Tawfiq Hospital operating room.

In 1998 Henry Farrar, MD, the founder of the Nigerian Christian Hospital, contacted Dr. Netterville about helping to treat his severely underserved patients in Nigeria. This led to the founding of More Than Medicine, a medical team of board-certified otolaryngologists, anesthesiologists, pathologists, nurses, operating room techs, and speech pathologists. More Than Medicine, in partnership with the Caris Foundation, has established surgical camps in Africa and Haiti, where they provide medical education to regional ENT surgeons and treat underserved communities with free healthcare.

“During the first trip to Nigeria in 1999, there were only six team members, including only one other surgeon, my resident-mate and lifelong friend, Dr. Walter Cosby,” he recalled. “We performed 100 advanced head and neck surgical procedures with no cautery or suction, operating with camping headlights during the frequent power outages. To evacuate bleeding during the procedure, the surgeon, balancing on one foot, would manually activate a small foot pump by pumping up and down on the pedal to create a weak surgical suction, all the while performing the delicate surgical procedure.”

Today, Dr. Netterville and his brother, J. David Netterville, MD, a Vanderbilt University anesthesiologist, continue to lead surgical outreach teams, which have expanded to 25 medical professionals based primarily in Nashville, Tennessee. In partnership with the regional university head and neck surgery programs, the teams serve rural Nigeria, Kenya, and Haiti.

In 2004 Dr. Netterville received the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service, an award recognizing an Academy member who is widely known for a consistent, stable character distinguished by honesty, zeal for truth, integrity, love and devotion to humanity, and a self-giving spirit. The awardee is an outstanding example and model to emulate for a life dedicated to a nobler, more righteous, and more productive way of life.

In June 2020 the AAO-HNS shared a special message for the 2020 otolaryngology resident graduates. Dr. Netterville contributed his well wishes as an AAO-HNS/F Past President in this special tribute.

After graduating from Lipscomb University, Dr. Netterville attended the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, becoming “extremely inspired by the depth and breadth of otolaryngology.” Later during a fellowship at the University of Iowa, training under senior professors in the specialty, he was inspired to focus on a career in academic medicine. “Early in my career, I was privileged to work with and learn from some of the real giants in the field of otolaryngology, doctors in both clinical and academic medicine. They all had big hearts and wanted to make a difference in the world. It was not about pride and ego for them—it was about doing something new and creative to advance patient care. They opened my eyes to the direction I should follow.”

In 1983 Dr. Netterville attended his first AAO-HNSF Annual Meeting as a third-year resident. “The Academy was the pinnacle of education in the world, and it still is. I was astounded by the amount of educational opportunities I saw; it was like a Niagara Falls of information washing over me, and I just couldn’t absorb it all. That experience made me excited to be part of the Academy, and I sought out every opportunity to be on committees and then take on committee leadership.”

He eventually served for three years on the AAO-HNS/F Board of Directors, where he witnessed the “amazing dedication of non-paid otolaryngologists who were giving up their time to travel back and forth to Washington, DC, to forward the needs and goals of the Academy.” After his time on the Board, Dr. Netterville was elected to and served as President of the Academy from 2012 to 2013. “Being President was one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said.

During his time on the Board and as President, global education was beginning to take greater strides, thanks to support from the Academy. Given his passion for humanitarian service, Dr. Netterville sought to add more global education opportunities at the Annual Meeting and encouraged physicians from around the world to attend, particularly those in low- to middle-resource countries. He also helped to create non-physical methods of engagement, such as targeted podcasts.

In addition to the Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service, Dr. Netterville has received numerous honors throughout his career, including the 2009 AAO-HNS Board of Governors Practitioner Excellence Award, the 2009 Outstanding Alumnus Award from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine; the 2012 Joseph H. Ogura, MD, Lecturer from the Triological Society; the 2013 deRoaldes Fund & Award from the American Laryngological Association; the Candle Award for Teaching and Mentoring from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; and the 2010 5-Star Patient Satisfaction Award for Overall Quality of Doctor Care from Professional Research Consultants. He has been an honored guest and medical consultant in countries around the world, including Australia, Chile, Cyprus, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.

“It has been a privilege to participate in various aspects of our Academy’s leadership, education programs, and education outreach. My involvement in the Academy has opened so many doors of opportunity for me that I could not have accessed on my own. As a direct result of Academy meetings and activities, I have developed many deep relationships that have truly blessed my life. When I retire someday, I would like to take my wife, Mitzie, who has put up with me for 43 years, pack up a camper, and travel around the country to share a cup of coffee with so many dear friends and colleagues whom I have come to know and love. I value the time we are able to spend together, safely, sharing our experiences and respect for each other.”