Nemours Children’s Hospital
ORLANDO - In 1983, Jolanda White Denham may have been the only 8-year-old girl in Atlanta who had never heard of Michael Jackson. “Julie,” as she is known to family and friends, remembers the transition to living in the U.S. being “pretty seamless,” but “I obviously was not well-versed in pop culture.”
It is easy to forgive overlooking the King of Pop phenomenon when you learn that the self-described “science nerd” had already been honing her skills as a physician with her Fisher-Price Medical Kit since she was 4.
After Denham settled into her new home, she attacked boredom by reading the entire set of World Book encyclopedias cover-to-cover. “I think it was the 1985 edition,” said Denham, an “introverted book worm” who excelled at math and science. “I realize now how blessed I was that I had the aptitude and opportunity to pursue the only career path I’ve ever wanted,” she said.
And Denham’s pursuit of that career, as well as goals in her personal life, have been focused. She was only 16 when she attended her first class at the University of Georgia in Athens. After earning her undergraduate degree in biochemistry, Denham applied to 10 medical schools. One of the last was the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. “I was thinking mostly about schools in the south. I applied to Penn on a whim” because she had an older cousin who went to medical school there, she said. “I almost didn’t go to the interview,” Denham recalled, “but once I got there I adored it!” However, she said it wasn’t until her first day of classes that she found out the University of Pennsylvania was an Ivy League School. “I was shocked because I thought all Ivy League schools only had one name! That’s how serendipitous it was. I had more fun there than I did in my undergrad days. I worked hard and played hard. I still have lifelong friends from those days,” she said.
Denham returned to Atlanta for residency at Emory University School of Medicine. It had taken her a while to settle on pediatrics. I knew in med school that I was not into men’s health. I thought I wanted to do OB/GYN, and then went to my first delivery. Too messy, too chaotic and too much waiting followed by emergencies – not for me. Then I did my pediatric rotation and fell in love,” said Denham.
But within 24-48 hours of shadowing a physician in a pediatrics practice, “I realized I had to sub-specialize. I did not care how Johnny was doing in school. I thought ‘Why am I talking to you about this in a pediatric clinic?’ I liked the babies and children, but once they got to high school age, I was not interested,” she laughed.
“So, I thought more about what I was going to sub-specialize in,” she said. “I thought about cardiology, but it has always confused me. Pulmonology? There was too much spitting, hacking and coughing. Urology? I didn’t like pee and the kidneys confuse me almost as badly as the heart,” she said. “But gastroenterology? That clicked. It made sense to me. What goes in, goes out. And I really liked the patient population. It was a wonderful fit. I could see babies (treat them) and send them on their way. I could see children with chronic diseases and take care of them until they graduated; things that don’t go away, like ulcerative colitis, cystic fibrosis, Krone’s disease. I could get my short-term gratification and my long-term chronic care and get to know these families,” she said. “I realized that I really liked procedures and wanted to have a procedure- oriented subspecialty.” Denham said she also knew “I wanted to have a family, so I wanted a career that was more predictable (in terms of demands on her time).”
After completing her residency and a three-year fellowship in pediatric gastroenterology at Emory, Denham spent a year in private practice in Birmingham, Ala., before moving to Columbus, Ohio in 2006 and working at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. But all the while Denham had Florida in her sights. In fact, she had prepared for it by obtaining her Florida licensure to practice medicine in 2005.
“I have always had Florida on my radar. I have had family in Miami for 30 or 40 years and my family visited here when I was a child. I love the warm weather,” she said. “I always thought that if an opportunity arose in Florida I would jump at it, and such an opportunity arose in 2013, so here I am.”
That is when Denham joined Nemours Children’s Health System in Orlando, where she is part of a pediatric gastroenterology team of physicians and nurse practitioners that treats 30-50 patients a day. Denham divides her time between Nemours locations in Orlando, Lake Mary and Melbourne.
In addition to patients and procedures, Denham has poured herself into process improvement initiatives at Nemours. “I’m director of clinical operations for the department and work closely with the nursing staff to see how we can make things run more smoothly and efficiently,” she said. “My hope is that we can take what we learn and roll it out to other departments, making it a very well-oiled machine providing excellent care at the lowest cost to families as efficiently as possible, with good quality of life for the providers, too.”
That’s an ambitious agenda, but Denham is optimistic. “I don’t think that is utopia. I truly think we can get there if you take the time to see where you are, measure your wastes, address your wastes and apply tried-and-true techniques to maximize efficiencies. If Boeing and Toyota can do it, healthcare can,” she said.
But no matter how busy she is at work, Denham stays focused on her home, where her husband Melvin is the lynchpin in her support system. The couple met 22 years ago in a dorm elevator when they were at the University of Georgia. They have two daughters now, ages 4 and 2. “We’ve been together for the whole journey. He knew what he was getting into because he knew I was going to be a doctor,” said Denham. “You do your best to separate home and work, and to have lines in the sand so that if there is conflict, you know where your priorities are.”
Where one works also matters, Denham said. “It is important to work where people are flexible. It’s all about planning. I look at my schedule 4-5 months ahead … all my personal events, and get them on the calendar well in advance.” Denham said she makes it a point to get home by about 5:30 p.m. every day to “feed, bathe and be mommy” to her little girls.
Someday, Denham hopes, she will find time to play more golf. “My husband is good and I want to get better,” she said. And now that they are living in the south again, Denham said they also want to attend a few Georgia football games. They’ve already taught their youngest to cheer “Go Dawgs … sic ‘em!”