Endocrinologist creating one-stop shop for patients
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”
Joseph Campbell, scholar.
Dreams do come true.
For Beverly Williams-Cleaves, the fulfillment of her dream transpired last spring with the establishment of the Comprehensive Diabetes and Metabolic Center of Excellence, a ‘one-stop shop’ for patients with diabetes and other endocrine disorders. The facility at 2829 Lamar is staffed by a certified diabetes educator, a dentist who conducts oral exams, scheduled podiatrist visits, a full gym with fitness offerings, a trainer, a demonstration kitchen, support group, a diabetes specialty store and, in 2012, onsite eye screenings.
“Opening the Center after many years of planning has truly been the most defining accomplishment of my career,” Williams-Cleaves said.
Because of the potential encumbrances associated with diabetes, patients receiving the lifelong care and follow-up needed, the rationale for the center was to bring everything under one roof to increase patient accessibility to essential services and to increase patient compliance.
“I’m excited about being in the community and making a difference there,” she said.
Life began in Mason, Tenn., for Williams-Cleaves, the youngest of three girls. It’s a little town in a rural area on Highway 70, about 40 miles northeast of Memphis. Known by Memphians for Bozo’s famous barbeque, Mason was mostly farmland when she was a child. Though her father did not finish high school, he vowed that his children would have the educational opportunities he did not have. He and his wife of 50 years supported their children’s desires to continue on to college. Their love and support produced two physicians and a doctorate in education.
The family left Mason to move to Memphis when Williams-Cleaves was five years old. She attended schools in North Memphis and still works and worships in the community. As a young girl, Williams-Cleaves was a self-described “mother figure” to her girl friends in school, and remembers their soliciting her advice. She liked counseling them with their problems, so much so that she entertained the notion of becoming a psychiatrist.
“I didn’t have answers for my problems, but I always had answers for theirs,” she recalled.
Later at Howard University on scholarship, she was encouraged to sign up for a double major in psychology and pre-med.
A love affair with medicine
“I came back to UT with the intent of becoming a psychiatrist but, as I was exposed to all the various disciplines of medicine, I just fell in love with medicine,” she recalled.
Following medical school, she was accepted for an internship and residency at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. It was during an endocrinology lecture that she described having “an epiphany” about her specialty choice.
“I always loved physiology - the systems and hormonal relationships - and the enzymatic relationships were so fascinating! I decided to do endocrinology,” she affirmed.
She began a fellowship at Mass General, but changed course after one year. The west coast beckoned and she practiced in San Francisco for several years, but adhered to her long-term plan to return to Memphis. Williams-Cleaves and her older sister, a pediatrician, had discussed practicing together, but her future took an unexpected turn when another opportunity unfolded. Gene Stollerman, MD, legendary giant in internal medicine, textbook author, streptococcal disease expert and one of her mentors, had visions of her teaching.
She returned to UT, completed her fellowship, became an assistant professor and “practiced internal medicine/endocrinology but in a broader way.” She admits to having a difficult time practicing focal or “tunnel vision medicine.”
A match was made that would pave the way to a distinguished teaching career for Williams-Cleaves at UTHSC, practicing at the MED and its outpatient clinics, as well as UTMG, and now private practice at the Comprehensive and Diabetes Metabolic Center of Excellence.
As the predominant piece of her endocrinology practice, diabetes involves staying close to internal medicine, which suits her. “Diabetes is such an overwhelming piece of endocrinology. By nature it is epidemic and it requires my focus. It’s hard to manage a diabetic without focusing on everything – the hypertension, the high cholesterol, the eyes, the heart – so it lends itself to my problem of not being able to practice focal medicine,” she said with a laugh.
As one of the founders of Healthy Memphis Common Table (HMCT) along with James Bailey, MD, and others, Williams-Cleaves works tirelessly to improve community healthcare and delivery.
The perfect fit
“It was a natural fit. An opportunity came along to focus on a community issue that could pull all the forces together…we chose obesity and diabetes. The goal was to make a healthy Memphis and bring everyone to the table with our concerns and hope for potential solutions,” she said.
She salutes Reneé Frazier, executive director of HMCT, for moving the organization further toward its goal of having a positive impact on improving community healthcare.
One of HMCT’s colossal successes was to secure the execution arm of a $2 million “Diabetes for Life” grant with Memphis Healthy Churches (grantee recipient) from the Merck Company Foundation. Memphis is one of five sites chosen to reduce disparities in diabetes.
The five-year goal is to engage 600 participants in the program which provides diabetes education, nutritional counseling education, fitness training and a case manager for each patient. Early intervention is key in educating and preparing patients for self-management, essential for good outcomes.
“To me, it was almost too good to be true,” she said. “And we have some of the very best people to provide these services – it’s such a win - win.”
Williams-Cleaves is co-principal investigator on the project and 400 patients have been enrolled thus far with three years remaining. Major goals are: to enhance the education and compliance of patients in terms of education, nutrition and fitness; to determine how to obtain physician engagement, facilitate the education of patients and to manage resources; and to facilitate a systems change as practices are engaged and share ‘best practices’ with the community.
She bemoans the sedentary lifestyle the youth embrace with no regular exercise and a fondness for smart devices.
“The kids of yesterday were active… I’ve seen 11 year olds with type 2 diabetes. You worry that 10-15 years from the onset that they might be on dialysis,” she said.
Faith and family are paramount. She and her husband of 24 years, Calvin Cleaves, a retired healthcare administrator, have a blended family of two daughters and one son, two grandchildren and one on the way.
Her rules for life? “If you really plan to take care of patients, you have to love people. There’s nothing like paying attention and listening with your eyes, ears and heart. Recognize it is not about you. Many times you have to go above and outside yourself to address what people need. Vigilance – don’t assume everything has been discovered. Integrity is extremely important. And above all, be true to yourself.”