When What You Can't Watch as a Youngster, Becomes Your Focus
By LAWRENCE BUSER
Dr. Jeffrey Gillis finds Gastroenterology turns out to be the right thing
Jeffrey Gillis, DO, practices in the same hospital where he and his twin sister Rachel were born.
Jackson-Madison County General Hospital also is where his interest in medicine was piqued 20 years later in a summer medical observership while a student at Freed-Hardeman University.
"As pre-med students, we rotated every day in a different specialty or discipline, watching and learning and getting a feel for how medicine and healthcare worked," Gillis recalled. "I saw a cardiac bypass surgery, cardiac catheterization, geriatrics, and pediatrics, just to name a few. It was great exposure.
"At the end of the observership, I was often asked what specialty I liked best, and I said I liked them all except GI. It hated it. I only spent about a half day watching a guy do colonoscopies - who I now work with by the way - and I didn't like it. But here I am. It turned out to be the right thing for me."
Gillis is a physician with West Tennessee Gastroenterology specializing in gastrointestinal wellness and nutrition, autoimmune digestive disorders, therapeutic endoscopy and, of course, colonoscopies.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp cutback of colonoscopies and other elective procedures, primarily because of the initial shortage of personal protective equipment for those on the front line. He said that as the PPE became less of an issue, their elective-procedure practice has returned to normal.
"Routine screening colonoscopies are recommended starting at age 45 to 50 for most people - talk to your PCP about what age is appropriate - and the whole experience for patients has gotten better over the years," said Gillis. "In the past, most sedation was administered by the gastroenterologist and was a lighter sleep. Now, sedation is mainly administered by anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists and tends to allow for a bit of a deeper sleep and an overall better experience for patients.
"The colon preps are better, too. In the past, most people had to drink a full gallon of salty liquid which often caused nausea and bloating. Now, several small-volume preps are available that still have an unpleasant taste but are more tolerable due to the smaller volumes."
Like one of his partners, Gillis is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or DO. They have the same medical school training as an MD, take the same boards, prescribe medicine and perform surgical procedures.
The main difference is a DO also learns more hands-on manipulative medicine that includes moving a patient's muscles and joints with stretching, gentle pressure and resistance.
Gillis earned his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Va., and completed his residency in internal medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. He then did fellowship training in gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.
He has been practicing in Jackson for two years.
"One of the biggest changes we're seeing is in the cause of cirrhosis of the liver," Dr. Gillis says. "When you hear cirrhosis of the liver, especially in an older person, most people think they must have been an alcoholic. That is a common cause of cirrhosis, but hepatitis B and alcohol combined are really nasty, and hepatitis C has become the most common cause for a person to need a liver transplant."
He said a rise in obesity is affecting all areas of healthcare, including the liver.
"Along with that rise there's been an exponential rise in what we call non-alcoholic fatty liver disease which is associated with obesity, number one, and the metabolic syndrome in general which includes obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, those kinds of things," he said. "We're expecting non-alcoholic fatty liver disease to become the most common reason for liver transplantation. That's kind of what's expected with the obesity epidemic."
Also, on the rise, Gillis adds, are cases of inflammatory bowel disease, which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
"The jury is out on why there's an increase," he says. "Both of those are autoimmune diseases which attack the gut. Autoimmune diseases across the board are increasing, but I don't have a good answer for why. There are a lot of different theories."
Until the observership program he did as a college student, Gillis hadn't really considered medicine as a career. The only family member in medicine was his great-grandfather, who passed away before he was born.
In fact, Dr. Gillis almost had an aversion to the healthcare field.
"The first moment I decided I didn't want to become a doctor was when my dad was sick," he remembered. "I was 18 and my dad had esophageal cancer and died at 51. His cancer was diagnosed by a gastroenterologist like myself. You might think that inspired me, but it really didn't, at least not in a direct way.
"The thing I remember was going to the hospital to see him and thinking 'Who wants to spend every day of their lives in this place full of sick and suffering people?' Also, there was the weight of the responsibility of taking care of people and having people's lives at stake. But then I did the observership and saw what was required, and I felt very strongly that I could do a good job of it and do it well."
He is currently helping a student in the same program with medical school applications, noting that "the cycle continues."
When not seeing patients, Gillis likes snowboarding, mountain biking, swimming, hiking and camping with his wife, Suzanne, and their three children, ages 7, 5 and 2. (Two boys and a red-headed girl in the middle.)
His wife, who helped support him through medical school as a portrait and wedding photographer, is focused on raising the children. She also has a blog offering encouragement and support to mothers, especially those with small children. It's title: A Joyful Roar.