Growing up on a peach farm in northeastern Arkansas, Sheila Lindley, M.D., learned strong values that stayed with her as she went to school in a number of different settings and pursued a career few women enter. At the University of Mississippi Medical School (UMC) she holds the academic positions of assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and associate professor of surgery, specializing in micro vascular and hand surgery.
“My parents were the major influence on my life,” she said. “They were strong, hard-working people who believed in God and took me to church. They gave me a good background and taught me perseverance. My faith keeps me going on a day-to-day basis.”
As the youngest child by eight years, her two older siblings were pretty much out of the picture during Lindley’s formative years. From the farm in Wynne, Ark., she went to Hendrix College in Conway where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry. The next degree was a doctor of medicine from the University of Arkansas for the Medical Sciences. She completed a general surgery residence at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and a plastic surgery residence at the University of Utah.
With more goals to accomplish, Lindley migrated to Europe where she served as senior registrar (the highest ranking resident) in pediatric plastic surgery in London, and finished a fellowship in hand and upper extremity surgery in Bern, Switzerland. Returning to the U.S., she spent one year as a hand and microsurgery fellow with Kleinert, Kutz & Associates in Louisville, Ky.
“I was drawn to medicine by a strong school system and a biology teacher,” she said. “I took chemistry as a senior and became passionate about it. I found I really loved the sciences.”
With her background on the family farm, Lindley considered becoming a veterinarian, then switched to humans and thought about being a heart surgeon, followed by thoughts of pediatrics.
“I did a lot of specialties and ended up in hand surgery,” she said. “It’s very functional, meticulous and dynamic. The age, injury and occupation of the patient make the difference.”
With the majority of plastic surgeons drawn to the rapidly-growing cosmetic practice, Lindley chooses to focus in a different direction. She did some facial plastic surgery in London and a bit of breast reconstruction in private practice in this country.
“Surgeons focus on one or the other, and 95% choose cosmetic surgery. In the back of my mind with cosmetic surgery, I thought this person is not sick — everything is functioning well,” she said. “Cosmetic surgeons have to look at patients from a different perspective.”
Although hand surgery is less rewarding from a financial standpoint, Lindley finds it immensely rewarding for other reasons. “Taking someone’s hand that’s lost function and restoring it is a wonderful thing,” she said. “It may involve their livelihood. Maybe they have nerve damage and have lost feeling. I really enjoy doing nerve restoration.”
The major challenge is usually there’s not just one answer for the problem, particularly if the injury is an old one. “The most difficult thing is finding a solution if the patient is in pain,” she said. “I can help if I can find an anatomical problem.”
The academic setting of a teaching hospital suits Lindley. It’s what she always wanted to do, and she finds not having to focus on the overhead of a private practice to be a blessing. She can’t say enough good things about her UMC department associates, Alan Freeland, Jim Hughes, Robert McGuire and Bill McClusky.
“They are an excellent group of people to work with,” she said. “Being with the residents and teaching them is stimulating, too.”
In addition to her teaching duties, Lindley is involved with private patients with her work at two clinics.
She thinks more women are not practicing in her specialty because it’s difficult to raise a family and go through the long, intense training required, plus the fact that other specialties make more money. That makes it hard to recruit for the specialty at UMC.
Lindley has children, and her life as a single parent is very full. Seven-year-old twin daughters, Michaela Catherine and Lindley Grace, are the center of her non-working hours, along with church activities and reading. She is also close to three step children and one of them lives with her. Her dad, Dick Lindley, passed away and mom, Juanita, spends a lot of time with her.
“I’m not sure I would encourage the girls to go into medicine, but I will encourage them to do the best they can in some service-oriented career,” she said. “I’ve always thought I would love to run a children’s charity, and maybe I will when I retire. I feel like we need to give back, and helping children is the best way to do that. Other goals include being a better parent and writing a children’s book.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.