People of the U: Patrick O’Brien

Published on Monday, January 6, 2020

By: Gary Pettus, [email protected]

Former high school English teacher Patrick O’Brien left the classroom six years ago; but his classroom keeps coming back to him.

Now a senior administrator in the School of Medicine’s Office of Graduate Medical Education, O’Brien can name more than a dozen current students or employees at the University of Mississippi Medical Center who made it through his advanced English courses before setting out on their present-day callings.

Nurses, technicians, medical students, analysts and more: As students at Florence High School in Rankin County, some called him “O.B.”, but the initials stood for more than a last name – they also meant “advisor,” “supporter,” and, not least of all, the teacher who could make the Salem witch trials or a 19th century tale of revenge come alive.

In this photo taken when she was a junior at Florence High School, India Byrd displays a poster for an English class project.

In this photo taken when she was a junior at Florence High School, India Byrd Hemphill displays a poster for an English class project.

“He made English classes fun; and you could be yourself in his class,” said India Byrd Hemphill, a fourth-year medical student. ”He was always someone you could count on, even when you were no longer in his class. I think he was everyone’s favorite.”

Today, “everyone’s favorite” says reuniting with many of his former students at the Medical Center, especially in the School of Medicine where he works, is a satisfying, “full circle” sensation.

“It’s a source of pride for me,” O’Brien said. Also a source of pride: His teaching days. But they also became a source of frustration.

It was the “good schools” in his hometown of Ocean Springs that beguiled him in the first place. “In my high school and on the Gulf Coast in general, they really value education,” he said. “I believe that really encouraged me to be a teacher.”

A 2000 graduate of Ocean Springs High School, O’Brien earned a bachelor’s degree in English/Language Arts Teacher Education at Mississippi State University, where he stayed another year to enlighten the students of Starkville High School.

Patrick O'Brien, center, front row, celebrates Homecoming at Florence High School with his students in 2013.
O’Brien, center, front row, celebrates Homecoming at Florence High School with his students in 2013.

After a job in Florence beckoned, O’Brien became an Eagle for about the next eight years.

“I was very happy in the Rankin County School District,” said O’Brien, who was a two-time winner of the Mississippi Economic Council’s STAR Teacher award.

“Florence High School is a great place to work. The town is a quiet pocket in Mississippi, a tight-knit community. I was embraced there.”

He had planned to pour about 30 years of his life into teaching, but much had changed in education by the time he graduated from MSU. “I had paid for training that was no longer valid,” he said. “I had to teach to the test. I did not like the fact that a student’s performance, or lack thereof, was associated with the teacher’s performance.

“There was no autonomy. And one of the reasons I wanted to go into teaching was to be able to put my own spin on things.”

In this photo taken several years ago, Lexi Griffith roams the corridors of Florence High School as an 11th grader in Mardi Gras mode.

In this photo taken several years ago, Lexi Griffith roams the corridors of Florence High School as an 11th grader in Mardi Gras mode.

As much as he could, O’Brien did put his own spin on literature, and students like Lexi Griffith enjoyed the ride.

“O.B. would pick these books or plays and assign us roles from them; one was “The Crucible,” which is very intense,” said Griffith, a fourth-year medical student.

“I believe for “The Count of Monte Cristo” he had us pick a scene and act it out while it was recorded on camera. He was also known for decorating his classroom,” Griffith said. “I thought Halloween was the best: black neon paint, strobe lights; it was like a maze in there.

“He took us on field trips, too; for Halloween, we visited a haunted mansion, The Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana. And, after we had already studied “The Help,” the movie opened and he took the class to see it. That was fantastic.

“We did so many things in O.B.’s class. He’s good at showing how literature can impact you, not just your writing skills, but also you as a person.”

Such moments with his students amounted to a balm for O’Brien’s “burnout.” “I grew very close to them,” he said.

He also decided to “suck it up,” he said, “because I thought all I could do was teach, that I wasn’t prepared for a job doing anything else. That’s a very common misconception.

“Having been a teacher has paid off exceptionally well for me,” he said. “I realized if you can handle a classroom of high school students successfully, you can do anything. What works for one student may not work for the other. A classroom is a diverse ecosystem, and managing one – once you have that down, the rest is easy.”

Speaking of diverse ecosystems, the Medical Center has, among its 10,000-plus employees, a friend of O’Brien’s in talent acquisitions, Sara Yates, now the human resources director at Methodist Rehabilitation Center. “While I was still teaching, she explained to me one day the multifaceted environment that is UMMC,” O’Brien said. “It is a city unto itself.”

Helping that city run are people in positions that support education, jobs where the skill set of a teacher could be plugged in, Yates told him. O’Brien decided to search for an outlet.

His first interview at UMMC didn’t take, but about six months later, a job opened up in the Department of Emergency Medicine; beginning in January 2014, O’Brien filled it as residency coordinator for nearly six years. Just recently, he found his place in GME as administrator of all 69 residency and fellowship programs, overseeing compliance, accreditation and more.

After a day of meetings with program administrators or performing the favorite part of his job – “looking at systems procedures”— O’Brien spends his off-time working for Stewpot Community Services: He serves meals at the soup kitchen and serves on the board of directors. Or he’s at home reading a book, often Southern fiction.

Or, as a booster of his neighborhood, the Fondren community in Jackson, he is visiting some of his favorite spots there, photographing, in situ, his pet dachshund, a local Instagram celebrity in his own right.

“I named him Ready after I got him, because he was, and so was I,” O’Brien said. Ready for Ready, it seems, and ready for his current career.

At UMMC, Patrick O'Brien has discovered several of his former high school students working or studying here, including Lexi Griffith, left, and India Byrd Hemphill, right.

At UMMC, O’Brien has discovered several of his former high school students working or studying here, including Griffith, left, and Bryd Hemphill, right.

“I was surprised he had stopped teaching, because he was so amazing at it,” said Hemphill, who was in O’Brien’s classes with Griffith. “But I know working here has been an exciting next step for him. He’s still in education, even though it’s medical education. When I heard, I knew he would be great at it.”

Griffith was also surprised to find him at UMMC. “It was the weirdest experience,” she said. “I was on my emergency medicine rotation, and he walked in. I said, ‘O.B., what are you doing here?’”

Because she hadn’t realized until then that O’Brien was at UMMC, the moment was a bit “embarrassing,” she said. “But it was also very nice.”

For former Florence High classmates Griffith and Hemphill, as well as first-year medical student Joshua Smith, things have also come full circle here at UMMC – in the guise of O’Brien.

“I even go to him for advice now, about things I’m writing, or just to see a familiar face at the Medical Center,” Griffith said.

For her part, Hemphill stayed in touch with O’Brien during her undergraduate days at Mississippi State. “Even in college, when I had a question, whether it was English-related or not, he would help me,” she said.

“He has done that now that I’m in medical school.”

This past August, the former India Byrd, now India Byrd Hemphill, expressed her gratitude with a special invitation: Among the guests at her wedding was her English teacher from Florence High.

“I’ve always admired him,” Hemphill said. “He’s been someone to look up to, once as a teacher and now as a friend.”