Fighting the Battle Against Infectious Diseases
An interview with:
Dr. Jeff Mason, MD
Infectious Diseases at St. Thomas West
Grew up in Durham, NC
Went to college and medical school at University of Arkansas
Has a Masters Degree in Microbiology
Residency & Fellowship at Vanderbilt University
Competed in cycling in college
Loves to run and lift weights
Private practice in Memphis for 8 years
Moved to Nashville in January 2018
Avid Star Wars fan!
How did you get started in medicine?
My interest began in childhood. My father was a Pulmonologist and I would make trips to the hospital with him or sometimes he would even have house calls back then. This led to an interest in science as I went through school. So there was a natural progression through my school years towards the scientific side of medicine. I also love people... being around people, helping people, caring for people.
How did you decide to focus on infectious diseases?
During my sophomore year in college at The University of Arkansas, my school ended up winning the National Championship in basketball. So this was in the Spring and you can imagine what happens to a college when there is a victory like this. The entire town was partying all night long, but the school didn't cancel classes. So the next day I showed up to my Microbiology class with one other person. This was a large class of more than 100 students! I came to this class because I enjoyed it that much. At that point I knew that there was something there for me for my future. It was clear to me that I was going to do something with science and microbiology, and maybe that would include medicine. So fast forward- when I got to medical school and others had a general idea of what they wanted to do I was there day one telling people that I wanted to be an infectious disease doctor. I had a laser focus as I went through medical school because it was crystal clear in my mind that I wanted to be in infectious disease. When I looked for a good residency program, my one stipulation was that it had a good infectious disease program. That is what brought me to Vanderbilt for my residency and fellowships.
When does a patient come to see an infectious disease doctor?
Most of what an infectious disease doctor does is focused in the hospital because that where people go when they are really sick. So most of our work is in the inpatient setting within the hospital not in an outpatient setting. There are chronic infections like HIV and hepatitis that occur in the outpatient setting that don't get a person so acutely ill that they need to be hospitalized, but most of what we deal with comes through someone getting admitted to the hospital. So as the patient is examined and something is an unknown we are brought in and act like consultants. So we both consult with doctors to help diagnose infections as well as work in preventative medicine to reduce the number of infections within the hospital. The way we aid in reducing infections is making sure devices, catheters, etc. are taken out of patients or limiting antibiotics in patients so they do not develop a resistance to medications and so forth.
What makes your medical practice unique in our community?
There are very few infectious disease doctors out there. Most doctors move into a variety of other fields so there just are not that many of us out there. With the exception of Vanderbilt there are probably less than 10 practicing infectious disease doctors in the greater Nashville market. There is a huge need and the population is underserved. There just are not enough infectious disease doctors being trained and coming into this field. New diseases pop up and we have to stay up on things that are developing. Things like measles and chicken pox are popping up again because of so many kids not being vaccinated in the last 10 years or so. What I like so much about this field is the fact that there is always something new to learn and discover and deal with. It is never boring. Here at St. Thomas we have a microbiology lab in-house which is rare. Most medical practices out-source their pathology. A very small percentage of my time is spent in the lab. I spend 90% of my time directly in patient care with the other 10% being spent on employee health, committees, and lab work.
Do you have a personal mission statement?
Take care of the patient first! This is my highest priority and how I go about practicing medicine. Everything else falls under that priority.
What are your goals for your patients?
The goals for each patient will differ based on when I am seeing them and what they are dealing with, but it is my goal to give each patient the best care and best quality of life that they can have. We as doctors are really good at maintaining life, but we must really think through the options that give patients the highest quality of life possible.
What is the culture that you infuse into your practice?
We have fun and are not always serious. We try to maximize the enjoyment of everyone on our team. Because we have to deal with very serious matters this is a crucial element to us enjoying life and being enjoyable to be around. I believe that I need to be available and be helpful to other doctors. We strive to work as a team and help everyone we can at the hospital while having a great attitude and having fun.
How do you try and maintain a balanced life outside of work?
My decision to leave private practice and come to St. Thomas was primarily based on a lifestyle change because I didn't have a good work/life balance. The schedule of 12 days on two days off was wearing on me and my family. My kids thought I lived at the hospital and came home to visit them on occasion. We have loved the change since being in Nashville. I spend as much time as I can with my family. We are pretty social and love to go out with friends and have people over to our house.
Running, biking, hiking & working out are things that I do by myself to stay healthy and have a personal outlet to recover. We deal with heavy issues with people on a daily basis, and so it is important to have these sorts of outlets to be able to have a healthy life. I also love to read, and always love watching Star Wars.
Tell us about your family-
I met my wife, Erin, when we were both at the University of Arkansas. We have been married for 19 years and have two kids. My son, Harlan, is 10 and was born in Nashville during our original stint here. My daughter, Meredith, is 8 and was born in Memphis. We moved back to Nashville in the beginning of 2018 and are so glad to be back. Conley is our 18-month-old Goldendoodle. She is a huge part of the family. She was named after Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Who are some of your medical “heroes”?
My dad, Dr. William Mason, was a pulmonologist. He came from a limited background and started his own practice. He worked hard and he influenced me the most toward a medical career.
Dr. Robert Bradsher, an infectious diseases doctor at University of Arkansas who guided me in the right direction
Dr. John Leonard, was at Vanderbilt and he interviewed me. His calm nature and the way he approached patients really taught me a lot.
What motivates you?
Knowing that the illnesses that most people have are things that I can solve and that their conditions are not permanent really motivates me to help people get healed. Infections are curable. They are not something that the patient is stuck with forever like diabetes or high blood pressure. We can take the infection from Point A to Point B and move people toward better health. I love to try to improve people and help them get back to a higher quality of life. That is very motivating.
What methods do you employ to keep improving your knowledge and experience?
Keeping up with the medical literature and new diseases is quite difficult because things can change in my field very quickly. I have made it a practice to be a lifelong learner. I have the passion in my life to study and grow and learn, this makes me good at what I do.
In what ways do you hope to see practicing medicine evolve in the future?
In Infectious diseases our biggest current limitation is rapidly identifying what someone has. From the time a person comes into the emergency room with an acute infection it may take 2-4 days to determine exactly what the person has and what the right path is for them. Just since the days that I was a resident we have moved more quickly in this process, but it is still not fast. So we have been able to start moving faster with technology, but it really needs to move faster.
If you could offer any advice to younger physicians…what would it be?
Do what you love! Do not go into something for any other reason besides being passionate about it. Because if you are practicing medicine and you are doing something that you don't whole heartedly love then you are going to be going to work, not doing something that you love. I have a job, but I love it... so it doesn't really feel like I am going to work. This is what I teach my kids and what I would share with a younger physician.
Getting to Know the Doc
Of all time- Call of the Wild by Jack London
Grayman books and Jack Reacher books
I love sci-fi but Star Wars is my all time favorite... all 9 of them. It has changed the cinema industry. I have seen every single one of them in the theater starting at the age of 4. It has spanned many generations and my kids are just as in to it as I was when I was a kid. I also love other action/adventure movies like John Wick.
What amazing adventures have you been on?
While in college I spent some time at bike mechanic school in Colorado Springs. My happy place is riding down a mountain on a bike. I rode down Pikes Peak on a bike. There is so much to do locally here. I love to explore new trails around here.
What hobbies would you like to get into if you had the time?
I would love to take up golf, but I know it requires a lot of time to get good at it. I would love to rebuild an old car. Anything where I am working with my hands, or making furniture. In a perfect world I would love to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Favorite Vacation Destination?
Rosemary beach on 30A
Favorite Restaurants in Nashville?
Bourbon Steak (at the top of JW Marriott)
Burger Up (on 12 South)
Local Taco in Brentwood
Among your friends, what are you best known for?
Diverse music interests, loves to help people, loves the outdoors (hiking, biking), loves to exercise, Star Wars nerd.