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From segregation to inspiration, James Griffin, M.D., is making history at Parkland and UTSW

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James D. Griffin, M.D., Distinguished Teaching Professor and Vice Chair of Anesthesiology and Pain Management, has been at UT Southwestern since he started medical school in 1982. He recently was elected President of the medical staff at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

To call the connection James D. Griffin, M.D., has with UT Southwestern and Parkland Memorial Hospital lifelong is no exaggeration. Dr. Griffin was born at Parkland in 1958, when the labor and delivery ward was still segregated. More than six decades later, his colleagues at that hospital elected him President of the medical staff – the first Black physician to earn the honor.

In between those milestones, Dr. Griffin has carved out a remarkable career in medicine and mentorship, breaking barriers along the way.

Dr. James Griffin cuts cake at graduation celebration in 1986
Dr. Griffin celebrates his graduation from UT Southwestern Medical School in 1986 during a family dinner at The Stoneleigh hotel. (Photo credit: James D. Griffin)

He received his medical degree from UT Southwestern, where he also completed his resident training in anesthesiology and became the medical school’s first Black graduate to join the UTSW faculty. He is a Distinguished Teaching Professor, Vice Chair of Anesthesiology and Pain Management at UT Southwestern, and a fellow/member of the Southwestern Academy of Teachers. He also was the 2021 recipient of UTSW’s Leaders in Clinical Excellence Institutional Service Award.

In words and actions, Dr. Griffin embodies the mission of academic medicine.

“To educate, discover, and heal is a very powerful goal and dimension of UT Southwestern,” Dr. Griffin said. “I feel it today as well I did in August 1982, when I stepped through these doors as a medical student.”

Growing up in the shadows of UT Southwestern in Oak Cliff, he had long wanted to be a physician – a dream he later learned that he shared with his father, who would end up inspiring others as an educator, coach, principal, and pastor. Dr. Griffin’s mother attended graduate school with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and became a librarian in the Dallas Independent School District.

“Service is in my genes,” Dr. Griffin said. “Teaching is in our blood, which is probably one reason I stayed on the faculty at UT Southwestern. Teaching in medicine is a never-ending quest to construct bridges over chasms of the unknown or misunderstood.”

black male doctor stands next to a patient on a gurney with other medical staff surrounding
Dr. Griffin, then a medical student at UTSW, examines a critically injured patient in the Burn Intensive Care Unit at Parkland Memorial Hospital. (Photo credit: James D. Griffin)

Charles Whitten, M.D., Chair of Anesthesiology and Pain Management, has known Dr. Griffin since 1985 and appointed him Vice Chair in 2018. He praises his colleague’s gift for connecting with students.

“He goes out of his way to make sure they leave every interaction with him with a pearl of wisdom or nugget of knowledge or a clinical interaction,” Dr. Whitten said.

“That’s a sign of a great clinical teacher.”

As a mentor and a role model, Dr. Griffin shares with his students the exhilaration and pure joy he felt during his formative years in medical school at UTSW.

“We were allowed to spend time in the emergency room, where we saw all the activity, from heart attacks to car wrecks to shootings to assaults, and were immersed into real clinical emergency medicine,” he said. “Sometimes those patients were taken to the OR, and I’d follow them. The intensity, dedication, and focus it takes to be a surgeon, and everyone else that is involved, was really exciting to me.”

medical student on left practices installing breathing tube on OR patient as older black doctor supervises
Dr. Griffin teaches an advanced video laryngoscopy airway technique to a student in the operating room at Zale Lipshy University Hospital in the early 2000s. (Photo credit: James D. Griffin)

Dr. Griffin was accepted into the highly competitive UTSW residency program for anesthesiology. After completing it, he assumed he’d go into private practice. But pride and a desire to pay it forward kept him at UTSW and Parkland.

“There are great people, great educators, and great doctors here,” Dr. Griffin said. “I felt if I could pass along a little bit of what I had received to the next generation of physicians, why not stick around?”

Luis Llamas, M.D., is one of many who are glad he did.

“When I was a senior medical student at UT Southwestern, Dr. Griffin taught me proper anesthetic technique,” said Dr. Llamas, now an Associate Professor of Anesthesiology and Pain Management at UTSW. “He was then and continues to represent the gold standard of professionalism in concert with positivity when interacting with colleagues, students, and especially our patients and their loved ones. I make best efforts to comport myself like him on a daily basis.”

smiling young Asian female doctor stands next to older black doctor in scrubs
Dr. Griffin with Kimberly Kho, M.D., Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UT Southwestern and President of the medical staff at William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital. (Photo credit: James D. Griffin)

Above all, Dr. Griffin believes that being an effective and compassionate clinician boils down to listening to the story of each patient and trying to show them kindness and understanding – regardless of where they’re from, what they look like, or the size of their bank account.

“It’s about remembering you’re not treating just a disease,” he said. “You’re treating a person who has a disease.

“We have a big gap in treatment outcomes of patients who come from under-resourced communities, because of limited access to health care,” said Dr. Griffin, who has spent decades treating patients at UT Southwestern and Parkland Health, Dallas County’s public hospital system. “I believe that when we provide adequate resources, good nutrition, adequate housing, and education, the community thrives, so we have an obligation to make sure we foster a balanced society for all.”

In his new role as President and chief administrative officer of the medical staff at Parkland, Dr. Griffin will continue to try to balance the scales and broaden access to high-quality health care.

“We can change this little part of our earth, like Archimedes, who said, ‘Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world,’” Dr. Griffin said. “I’m standing on a different side of the street, but can I make a difference? Am I leveraging my knowledge? Am I leveraging my humanity? Am I leveraging my gifts to help someone else?”

In a word: absolutely.

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