“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself,” the acclaimed playwright, George Bernard Shaw once said.
If that adage is true, then John Powell, this year’s recipient of the Health Care Heroes Lifetime Achievement award, has most certainly created a masterpiece of self-portrait and one that has changed the lives of countless patients and fellow professionals for the better.
Now retired and living at Wrightsville Beach, Powell was raised in Sampson County where his father practiced dentistry. His mother, an educator, was named North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year in 1983. He was encouraged by them to pursue medicine as a career.
Powell took his parents’ advice, and after completing his studies at Davidson College, enrolled at UNC’s School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. Graduating in 1968, he embarked on a journey that took him from delivering thousands of babies to pioneering work in the field of gynecologic oncology and finally, to developing and overseeing New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Zimmer Cancer Center, now known nationally as a center of excellence.
“He’s a very quiet-spoken guy, and you would never know what a big deal he is just by talking with him,” said Jim Price, a retired OB/GYN who several times turned to Powell for expert guidance on difficult cases.
“His skill in the operating room is just consummate,” Price said.
Following training in the Army’s senior medical student program at Chapel Hill, Powell served in the Army Medical Corps for eight years, rising to the rank of major and delivering more than 5,000 babies. “And that cured me of wanting to get up in the middle of the night,” Powell said, chuckling.
Wrapping up his tour of duty in West Germany, Powell accepted a gynecologic oncology fellowship at Emory University, setting the stage for years of private practice and hospital affiliations in Georgia before moving on to professorships at Tufts University School of Medicine and the University of Massachusetts.
All the while, his stature grew as a result of pioneering research into the use of laser surgery and the invention of two surgical instruments: a laser speculum manufactured in 1977 and a hysterectomy clamp introduced in 1984.
As one of the first physicians to publish articles about the use of lasers in gynecology, Powell found himself training thousands of physicians on their safe and appropriate use, lecturing on the subject in 26 states and a dozen foreign countries.
At the same time, he assumed a prominent role in the introduction of robotics to medicine, including at NHRMC.
Within the specialty of OB/GYN, “there are certain places where robotics are better than hand-eye coordination alone,” his colleague Price explained. “You have different types of pelvic prolapse procedures, and all that can be done better with robotics.”
Nearly three decades after delivering his first baby, ushering in the laser era and becoming a go-to expert in that field, Powell was approached about returning to the Port City to play a leading role in designing and launching the Zimmer Cancer Center.
When Zimmer opened in 2000 it had six exam rooms for medical oncology, surgical oncology and gynecologic oncology along with 12 chairs for infusion chemotherapy on one end of the building. On the other end there were four exam rooms for radiation oncology and a CAT scanner.
An 18-month renovation and expansion project was completed in 2017. Currently, there are three gynecologic oncologists on staff at Zimmer, and the number of chairs for infusion chemotherapy has risen to 50, Powell said.
During his time based at Zimmer, Powell served as a teaching professor affiliated with UNC Chapel Hill in addition to driving the growth of the facility. He was one of two gynecologic oncology surgeons who performed more than 600 surgeries a year, according to a January 2007 article published by NHRMC.
Patients with malignancies or complicated benign conditions requiring surgery have come to Zimmer from as far away as Morehead City, New Bern, Lumberton and North Myrtle Beach.
“We made a huge change in what happens to patients in Eastern North Carolina,” Powell said.
Powell retired from his practice at Zimmer in 2009. He is currently on the executive board of the New Hanover-Pender County Medical Society and is the coordinator of its retired physicians section.
During 40 years of full-time professional activity, Powell produced a prolific body of written material of considerable help to his colleagues. He is the author of 222 published articles in peer-reviewed medical journals and 14 book chapters. He also participated in 21 research projects.
“His extraordinary expertise, as well as the entirety of his career, are nothing short of astounding,” Price said. “Being a physician is far, far more than what John Powell chose to do to make a living. It is what he chose to do with his life.”
Powell gives his wife, Caroline, much of the credit for his success, “probably because my wife was taking responsibility for raising our kids and looking after our 10 apartments and houses we lived in all over the world, and looking after me while I was busy taking care of patients, delivering, operating and writing. So she gets the credit.”
While Powell is now retired, he is nonetheless willing to share his opinions.
During most of the current pandemic, some health experts appeared hesitant to recommend that pregnant women be inoculated against the virus that causes COVID-19.
In an Aug. 11 statement on the subject, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy “outweigh any known or potential risks.”
Currently, there is no evidence that any vaccines cause fertility problems or that pregnant or recently pregnant individuals are more likely to become severely ill with COVID, the CDC said.
Powell concurs with the CDC’s position, adding that his entire family is vaccinated against the virus and that he personally feels a lot safer. “It’s the best way,” he said, “to protect family and friends and people who aren’t friends, even.”