Tampa surgeon offers compassion, hope on front lines of suffering

Third in a series.

Doctor to doctor: Retired OB/GYN Dr. Bruce Shephard of Tampa interviews Dr. Sylvia Campbell, a general surgeon in private practice and medical director of the Judeo Christian Clinic in Tampa, about the local COVID-19 situation.

Dr. Shephard: Dr. Campbell, you were the first female general surgeon to practice in Hillsborough County. And your remarkable career has extended well beyond a medical practice to involve both local and international charities, a career that can only be described as missionary work. Years ago, as a medical student, what was your vision of your future medical practice?

Dr. Campbell:  Initially I thought of internal medicine. But once I did surgery, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I thought, well, if I were stranded on a desert island somewhere out in the middle of nowhere and somebody had appendicitis, as an internist, I couldn’t really help them. But as a surgeon, I could probably figure some way to treat them medically and still take out their appendix.

Dr. Shephard: Was there a spiritual component in you that evolved or was it there from the start?

Dr. Campbell: I think I’ve always been a spiritual person. I always felt like there was so much more than we understand or have the ability to understand. I used to ask God to use me and this was the way he used me, perhaps. I think it would be very difficult to practice medicine without being a spiritual person and having faith in something greater than we are. Especially when we interact with patients the way we do, the situations we are in. One nice thing about our staying at home now [during COVID-19] is this greater awareness that we’re all the same around the world, interrelated, interconnected. We’re all the same inside.
Dr. Shephard: Moving up to the present, I’m interested in hearing about your medical practice amidst the COVID crisis. Solo private practice is a very different model from the one most physicians experience today practicing in large groups or as employees of hospitals.

Dr. Campbell: A solo practice has its challenges -- not only physically but also financially as well as getting coverage. Now, most of my colleagues are employees, so I pretty much just take calls for myself. The good thing is that I can take care of my patients in the way I think is best for them. I don’t have to follow all the rules that, for other physicians, can even determine such things as their patient’s length of stay in the hospital. As far as COVID, it’s been extremely stressful for everyone in the medical community. I will say that I think we can be very thankful we haven’t had a bigger surge here so far. We’re not as badly off as other places in the country. I have a son and daughter-in-law in New York City and when you read about those stories, it breaks your heart. It reminds me of when I was in Haiti 3-4 days after the earthquake [in 2010]. It’s the same kind of thing.
Dr. Shephard: How have the hospitals where you work reacted to the COVID crisis?

Dr. Campbell: I work within the BayCare Hospital System. They’ve done an excellent job. And they’re taking good care of their employees, outsourcing some to different jobs they might not usually do. They’ve kept supplies adequate and been very encouraging to the hospital staff.

Dr. Shephard: Since you specialize in surgery, especially breast cancer surgery, are you able to get your patients’ surgeries scheduled in a timely fashion?

Dr. Campbell: I have the privilege of working with a lot of patients diagnosed with breast cancer right now and they get scheduled without delay, but the overall surgery volume is down. It’s nice, in a way, because you have a little more time to spend with people.

Dr. Shephard: In addition to your surgical practice, for many years you have been the Medical Director of the Judeo Christian Clinic, Tampa’s largest free clinic. It has grown substantially since your affiliation back in 1980 and provides health care and dental services to 30,000 people yearly. How is the clinic doing during this pandemic?

Dr. Campbell: It’s a wonderful place. We like to call it the “people of Tampa Bay caring for people of Tampa Bay.” It’s totally non-government supported, with services provided by volunteer physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and many others. With COVID, we’ve had to change everything except the pharmacy, which stays open. We are seeing people with urgent health issues who need followup or need medication refills, but like most of the rest of the healthcare system, we’re not doing any preventive care. We do have a special call-in line for people who think they have COVID symptoms and, if needed, we refer them to a local facility for evaluation.

Dr. Shephard: I know you and Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church are also very involved with another charitable organization, Beth-El Mission in Wimauma, which provides food and dental assistance to Hispanic farmworkers and their families in south Hillsborough County. How is this effort being impacted by the COVID crisis?

Dr. Campbell: Yes. I’m very involved in that with my church. At this point, the dental clinic is closed, much like dental clinics everywhere, but we’re getting lots of food donations and monetary donations to be able to purchase food that is so badly needed.

Dr. Shephard: You’re also involved in an endeavor known as “Kindness Matters,” a group of local citizens who gather monthly at your home to form a walking caravan of carts to feed homeless people in South Tampa and in Downtown Tampa. How has COVID impacted that effort?

Dr. Campbell: Kindness Matters started because I’m on a breast cancer walking team, and during our training walks, we noticed homeless people, some sleeping on park benches. They were quite “invisible” to other people who would walk or bike by them. We felt horrible that this was happening. Then I had a patient who was homeless who had a very large breast cancer. We kind of adopted her after her surgery, and with help from the team, including a nurse and a social worker, were able to get her off the streets and get her access to healthcare. So, it started with handing out food during some walks and, eventually, became a regular monthly thing where we might bring coffee, sandwiches, fruit, other food, T-shirts, glasses, bug spray, any number of things. We’ve gotten to know these people and they’ve become our friends.

Dr. Shephard: And now with this pandemic?

Dr. Campbell: With COVID, we are doing a mini Kindness Matters -- four of us last time -- but without the coffee. The homeless need help more than ever because churches aren’t serving as much food as they were before, like breakfasts, because it’s not safe right now. The homeless are affected in other ways, too. They don’t have bathrooms because the parks are closed. More structures are closed so they are more exposed to the elements. They certainly don’t have masks or the ability to get tested. Or sometimes, even accurate information. Actually, last Saturday some asked us, “Is this real?”, “Is this a hoax?”.
Dr. Shephard: Turning back to the medical community, how are we doing in Hillsborough County in dealing with COVID?

Dr. Campbell: From what I’ve seen, the four major hospital systems are working together pretty well. I don’t think that they’re considering it a competition. I think they’re considering this as something endemic. And from what I’ve seen among the physicians that I work with as well as from people who don’t work at the hospitals where I work, everybody is really pulling together to control this because we’ve seen what happens in other places where they didn’t.

Dr. Shephard: So central Florida has adjusted quickly?

Dr. Campbell: We had the luxury of having that knowledge, of seeing what happened in New York and in Washington and in California. So, we were able to take it very, very seriously realizing how important it was to do the things we needed to do to try to control it.
Dr. Shephard: How have physicians adjusted to changes in their practices?

Dr. Campbell: I can’t think of anyone in the medical profession that I’ve interacted with who has not taken it seriously. And everybody in my specialty realizes, “OK, I’m not going to do elective surgery.” There has not been any griping. Everybody’s doing the right thing. And it’s been very good to see everyone come together whether Democrat or Republican or whatever your history is.
Dr. Shephard: And what do you think of Governor DeSantis’ “Open Florida” initiative?

Dr. Campbell: In this case, I think that unfortunately, we’re not following the scientific recommendations but rather economic ones. And to put economics ahead of people’s lives is a mistake. I think that opening the state too soon could hurt us a lot. I’m very grateful that this community is probably not going to do that.

Dr. Shephard: Dr. Campbell, how is your own family doing during the pandemic?

Dr. Campbell: My daughter in Gainesville probably had COVID. They didn’t test for it but she had all the symptoms -- an infiltrate on her chest Xray, she was short of breath, febrile. So, she self-isolated in her home. She wouldn’t allow her husband or her two kids to come near her. It was two weeks before she became asymptomatic and could go back to being a mom. She still gets very tired and it’s been almost a month now. My son and daughter-in-law live in a fifth-floor walk-up in New York City in Brooklyn, and with two dogs they have to walk twice a day. I didn’t know they didn’t even have masks initially. When I finally found out, I sent them some.

Dr. Shephard: That must have stressed you out!

Dr. Campbell: I’ve been worried sick about them. We tried to get them to come to Tampa and self-quarantine but they didn’t want to because they didn’t want to risk exposing anybody down here. My other daughter teaches at St. Mary’s Episcopal Day School in Tampa, working with the art and music departments. She has felt COVID’s impact quite a bit and does her work online, which is a challenge for both her and her students. And her husband works at Publix, one of those warriors out there helping people get food.

Dr. Shephard: Our community has pretty much shut down to this point. People are social distancing. What do you see as the next phase of the pandemic in Hillsborough County?

Dr. Campbell: It depends on if we open up too soon. I think our mayor will not let us do that. Hopefully, the curve is leveling. But we’re still going to see it. People are still going to get this virus. It’s not going to go away. The whole point is to reduce the numbers so that hospitals won’t be overwhelmed and will be able to take care of people who get it. Treatments are getting better, but we have much to learn. And until a vaccine becomes available, we’re still going to have this problem. We’re probably going to have a resurgence in the fall especially with having both the flu and COVID-19.

Dr. Shephard: And long term?

Dr. Campbell: I don’t think we’ll have a vaccine for at least a year or more. And maybe not an effective treatment. People just need to be aware that it’s going to be there. Are we going to be wearing masks for a long time? Possibly. Are we never going to shake hands again? I don’t know. I think there’s going to be a new normal. My hope is that by stepping back and breathing, that we’ll be able to see what really matters and gain a new perspective on what we’ve just learned, so we can emerge a little kinder, see things a little differently, and figure out what’s really important and what’s not.

Dr. Shephard: Do you have a sense that our country could come together more as a people? Or is that naively optimistic?

Dr. Campbell: I believe in 51% good and 49% bad in humanity. I think it’s a possibility. If people are given the opportunity to come together, they will. People want to do the right thing. They want to do what’s good. I’ve seen over the years that they do. I think that the political climate right now is unfortunately very toxic. And in that climate, it’s hard for that little seed to grow. But I think if you water it, you fertilize it, give it the nourishment that it needs, we could come together. Because this is something that nobody did and it could happen again. I think that the country could come together as it did after 9/11 and become a unified force for good.

Dr. Shephard: What advice would you give to a young person today considering a career in medicine?

Dr. Campbell: I think that medicine is a calling, it gives you the opportunity to interact with people in ways that a lot of people never do in their entire life, and it’s an honor and privilege to be able to be in that position. I’ve worked in Haiti and in Uganda and medicine gives you the ability to reach other worlds and be a symbol of unity in ways that you might not be able to do in other fields. I think if people go into medicine because they feel called to do that, and they really want to change the world and help make it a better place, it’s a wonderful, wonderful profession.

Dr. Shephard: I’m sure many of our readers, myself included, have seen so much negative media coverage of this pandemic that, at times, it feels overwhelming, even depressing. Any closing thoughts you would like to share along these lines?

Dr. Campbell: You know, with any time of darkness, there also comes a time to see the light more clearly. I think as a human race we’ve been on the brink. And I feel we got pulled back from the brink by this virus and it’s given us the opportunity to perhaps re-evaluate what we’re doing as a species around the world and to each other and perhaps change it a little bit. I don’t believe this virus happened for a reason, but I do believe we can make reason out of all the tragedy and sadness and suffering and try to end up on the other side of it in a better place.

Dr. Shephard: Thank you, Dr. Campbell, for sharing your experiences, your wisdom, and your compassionate voice.

Dr. Sylvia Campbell of Tampa is a general surgeon specializing in breast cancer surgery and practicing in the BayCare Health System. She is also the President of the Board of Directors of the Judeo Christian Clinic in Tampa. Dr. Bruce Shephard of Tampa is a retired Obstetrician-Gynecologist and Affiliate Associate Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, USF, Morsani College of Medicine.

83 Degrees Media's series on local physicians working in the time of COVID-19:
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Dr. Bruce Shephard.

Dr. Bruce D. Shephard, a retired Obstetrician-Gynecologist and Affiliate Associate Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, USF Morsani College of Medicine, is best known locally for delivering more than 7,350 babies. He now occasionally teaches and always practices good health, dabbles in writing, and raises monarch butterflies. He and his wife, Coleen, live in Tampa.