2010 Laureates

Jerry L. Miller, M.D.

Jerry Miller, the founder and president of Holston Medical Group, is a doctor today because he always wanted to be. He's an entrepreneur today because he has always been.

The foundations for both of those aspects of Miller's professional persona were laid when he was a child growing up in the little town of Swords Creek, Virginia. His father, Bert Miller, was a coal miner, working in the mine run by his father, B. Estil Miller. Jerry's mother, Gladys Hazel Hess Miller, was a schoolteacher.

"One of my first recollections is of our very small house. It had no indoor plumbing," Miller remembers. "One day I rode my tricycle off a steep hill. I remember having skinned my lower extremities, and my mother said, "I don't know if he needs a doctor or not, but to find a doctor, it's going to be 20 miles away." That statement planted a seed in young Jerry's mind: This place needed more doctors. A second event sharpened his focus. "My introduction to my sister was when I heard my mother scream," he says. "Jannie was born at home by midwife." From that point, Miller knew he wanted to deliver babies. He was all of eight years old.

His career choice was not difficult to make, considering the option of entering the family business. "Many times the only pink places I saw on my dad were his mouth and eyes," Jerry remembers. So when Jerry's paternal grandfather led the young boy into a coal mine one day, Jerry didn't make it more than 100 feet in before bolting back to daylight. "I could never do this," he said.

Miller's maternal grandfather, George Washington Hess, nurtured the young boy's dreams and education. He encouraged Jerry to read and to observe the world around him. It was about this time that Jerry's entrepreneurial spirit would take hold.

"At age 14, I went to my dad, and I said, ‘You see that Texaco station that's not doing any good? I want to manage that station.' My father went to the owner who lived 40 miles away, signed a contract and I managed it until I went away to college." When Jerry took over, the station was selling around 3,000 gallons per month. "In six months, it was doing 36,000 gallons," Miller beams. "I saw these coal trucks going back and forth and I concluded that if I went to the trucking companies with an offer to do their greasing and their tires, then they would buy all their gas from me. The business did well. It helped send me to college." He also drove a school bus during his high school years on remote roads of Swords Creek.

Buoyed by the support of influential teacher Mary Sue Fuller and a local doctor, Jerry continued his progress toward college and medical school. He received a scholarship to attend theUniversity of Richmond.

In 1959, while Jerry was in Richmond, his father was involved in a serious accident and needed blood. While giving blood, Jerry happened to notice the lab technician, a very attractive young lady. As they were finishing, she told him to lay still for a bit because people sometimes faint if they get up too quickly. "I said, ‘Oh yeah?' and got up anyway because I wanted to impress her. I fainted and fell under her skirt. She had to resuscitate me. A week later we had a date."

Emma Lee Chase dated Jerry at a distance until Miller's last year at Richmond, when she moved there, taking a job as a laboratory technician. He had an early admission to the medical college, intending to be an ob/gynecologist. "One day I said, "I want you to marry me." Miller remembers. To his shock and disappointment, she said no. Heartbroken, Miller pledged to himself to become a better man. "I started acting and dressing much better, doing everything better. I asked again and she accepted. We went to a church near Richmond and got married." That marriage happened 50 years ago.

Things were going well. Once they decided to start a family, Emma Lee gave birth to three boys in four years, Michael, Greg and Todd. Later and into their practice in Nickelsville, two wonderful daughters, Summer Adair and Kelly Elizabeth were born and greatly enriched the family.

Miller became the youngest doctor in Virginia in 1965, graduating at the top of his class. "Upon graduation, I had organized a group of 14 doctors. I took these guys to Mercy Hospital inSpringfield, Ohio and said, 'we want to be your 14 interns and they accepted us".

Miller then decided he should go into the military. In 1966 he took Emma Lee and the boys to Lebanon, where his parents had moved and got his orders to report to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. "Emmy went to Lebanon Hospital and got a job as a lab technician. I got a call from Congressman Wampler," Miller remembers. "He and a Colonel Harding made arrangements for me to practice in rural Virginia because they had to have doctors at the National Guard Armories."

The first time the Miller family went into Nickelsville, where he would be practicing, they drove right through it without noticing. "We missed the whole town," he says. Emma Lee went to work for Jerry as a lab technician. They were soon seeing 100 patients a day. "I saw that it was unsustainable. I had delivered four babies before Emmy said, ‘It's OB or me.' One of those babies came on Christmas and another on New Year's. So I gave up OB. We did a comprehensive practice."

While at a continuing education event, Miller met Dr. Robert Geer. "He was just getting out of the military so I invited him to come into practice with me," Miller says. "Within an hour and a half, we shook hands and he joined me in Nickelsville as our first additional doctor."

Soon after that Miller decided to move to Kingsport and start a practice. "I couldn't recruit up there because reimbursement in rural Virginia was about a third of what it was in Richmond orCharlottesville and many other barriers prohibited recruitment."

"I decided at that time that I wanted to start Holston Medical Group," Miller says. "I went to John Dodson, administrator of Holston Valley Hospital. I told him I was going to open a specialty group. I went to Princeton, New Jersey, met Robert Wood Johnston Foundation people, and got a grant of $630,000 to start Holston Medical Group in 1977. I knew I couldn't recruit one physician, so I recruited seven at one time. We became the region's first multi-specialty physicians group."

Miller says the ideals that guided him in his career as a physician have helped him as the leader of the region's largest group of physicians as well. "I've done well as a doctor because I still remember my introduction to my sister. I wanted a better life for my family and I wanted to create a better environment for people. I have the following absolute for myself. Number one, this is the most noble of professions. Number two, it's a privilege to be a doctor. Number three, with that privilege and that nobility comes great responsibility. 24/7 you must be the best doctor you can be. That's the way we've built HMG."

That the HMG of today is thriving is a testament not only to Miller, but also to the people who work there. "I believe in communication," Miller says. "I think I have the respect of 890 people because I put myself in each of their positions. Today we have active records on about 278,000 patients. I think we're the preferred group and I'm very proud of it."

Under Miller's leadership, HMG has set milestones for patient care in the region. In 1985, HMG became the region's first non-ER provider of after-hours care. In 1996 HMG developed the first clinical research department within a physicians group. In 1999, HMG opened the region's first freestanding diagnostic imaging facility.

Having become the region's first fully integrated user of electronic medical records in 1995, HMG took the concept one step farther in 2006, when it launched OnePartner, which then created the ATAC, the first commercial tier III certified data storage facility in America. Perhaps the most visible sign of HMG's ongoing success is the new HMG Medical Plaza in Kingsport, a six-story environmentally friendly facility designed with an eye to the future.

As for his own future, Miller is in no way slowing down. He has plans both inside and outside of HMG. He's the proud grandfather of 11 grandchildren. The family enjoys sporting events, Christmas celebrations and any other opportunity for the family to be together. "I'll be 70 years old July 11. I don't take any medicine. I'm the most fortunate guy." Miller is also taking an interest in the creation of King College's proposed new medical school in Southwest Virginia.

Beyond that, Miller says that as a physician, he came to terms with the idea of mortality long ago. "I'm faith-based," he says simply. "I have faith in God."

"I heard someone say once, ‘I want to be as good a person as my Labrador retriever thinks I am.' I also like Mark Twain's quote: ‘Do the right thing, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.' I hope those thoughts have guided me."

For Jerry Miller, physician, entrepreneur, husband, father and grandfather, living the example shouldn't be hard. He's had almost 70 years of, if you'll pardon the pun, practice.