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Physician Spotlight: Dr. John Fleming

Patricia Gannon - September 2007

When John Fleming decided to become a physician, there were a few obstacles in his way. Like that C in chemistry his freshman year in college. He needed a B but his professor told him no way, forget it, you'll never make it into medical school.

Fleming not only made it in, he made it out and a few years later, hung out his shingle in Minden, La. That was 25 years ago and since then, his practice has flourished, he's opened several private businesses and even written a book, which probably should have been titled Some Advice Just Ain't Worth Listening To.

"I made a decision," said Fleming, "Nothing would stand in my way and I'd prove him wrong."

Maybe it was the deep Southern stubbornness that comes from being born in Meridian, a town situated near the state line between Mississippi and Alabama, or the grandmother who worked as a nurse and told him stories as a child.

"I was already fascinated with how the body worked and how it goes wrong," said Fleming. "It fit in with my scientific mindset, and I knew from about 11 that I wanted to be a physician."

Fleming attended the University of Mississippi and was admitted to their medical school in Jackson after his junior year. Medicine wasn't the only thing that lured him. An Air Force ROTC officer took an interest and tried to tempt him into becoming a fighter pilot. "I'd have loved it, but would have always ached for my first choice," he said. "As it turned out, my 20/20 vision went to 20/30 the next year, so it was just as well."

But the military got him anyway when sudden family difficulties made it necessary to recruit the funding to finish medical school.

"I accepted one of the first scholarships back in 1972," said Fleming. "I was knocking on the recruiter's door the next day."

He completed medical school and his residency with the Navy at Camp Pendleton Navy Hospital, married his "first and last love" Cindy and traveled to the Far East before docking at last in Charleston, S.C.

The journey to family practice was less circuitous. "Every time I went through a rotation, I wanted to do that particular thing—surgery, pediatrics—so I went for all of them," he admitted.

Immediately following the service, Fleming moved to Louisiana. "It was time to decide: a career in the Navy or private practice. I knew I wanted to be just a few hours from family, so I told the headhunter I wanted to go to a small town, some place close to the city for culture. He didn't even let me finish," said Fleming. "'You want Minden,'" he told me.

"He was right. I fell in love with it."

That was in 1982. Fleming built his office building the following year and partnered up with Dr. Michael Pistorius the year after that. His career evolved to include president of the Minden Medical Center medical staff, hospital board member, president of the Webster Parish Louisiana State Medical Society and implementing the first "paperless" computerized medical record system in Louisiana. Not to mention most of the Subways in the Shreveport area are a direct result of his franchise interests.

He is currently Louisiana's Family Physician of the Year and has written a book. Not bad for someone who says his biggest obstacle was just getting into medical school.

"It's been one of those things, whenever I thought of writing or publishing, I didn't think I had anything to say, but got to a point where I did," he said. "I always intuited there was a connection between the age of drinking and addiction, and recent studies have confirmed it. I thought someone should write a book. Maybe I should."

Fleming's book, Preventing Addiction: What Parents Must Know to Immunize Their Kids against Drug and Alcohol Addiction is based on that premise and supported by recent scientific data.

"The dirty secret about addiction is, it's incurable," he pointed out. "The remission rate is 4 percent, not a good prognosis. The younger a person is when they take their first drink, the more likely their addiction. Before age 15, it's fivefold. At age 12, the addiction rate is 16 percent, and at 18, it drops to 4 percent. This is critical information for parents and educators. If we could prevent addiction, we wouldn't have to worry about a lifetime of pain."

It's that long-term connection and concern for his patients, often spanning several generations, that draws Fleming to family practice, not because he's a jack of all trades. "You see everything," he said. "It's like a surprise package you open 20 times a day. You never know what's going to be there."

When he's not seeing his 10 patients per day, Fleming pursues martial arts and has a third degree black belt in karate, a sport he's been in and out of since high school.

"It gets your heart pumping, most of my classmates are my age, accountants and such," he said. He also prefers classical music, some of which he makes himself. "I love to play the piano, although I never touched one until I was 43 except to move it. I can't say I'm very good, but I've been taking lessons ever since."

Fleming reads only non-fiction and is currently tackling Trace Your Roots with DNA; a book he admits is not for everyone. "It's pretty technical. I've been researching my ancestry for past three years, and beyond 1850, it's hard because of poor records. DNA puts us light years ahead."

Fleming plans to write some more books, possibly about preventing obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And while his current book nets him several interviews a week, his overwhelming interest remains the family-- his own and everyone else's.

Unless you've met him, it's hard to believe that Fleming isn't too good to be true, but the guy really does want to make the world a better place in which to live.

Don't tell him he can't do it.