Health Connection

Backed by a life of experience, Dr. Brenda Thames bridges the gap between health care providers and educators

Since she was a little girl growing up on a farm in rural Mississippi, Dr. Brenda Thames possessed a healthy respect for education and hard work. “In my parents’ eyes, if you combined those two, then the sky’s the limit.”

Currently serving as Prisma Health’s vice president of academic and faculty affairs, as well as the dean for institutional culture and inclusivity at USC School of Medicine, Dr. Thames spends her days connecting students with outside-the-classroom, real-life, empathy-inducing medical experience.

Photograph by Will Crooks

This classroom-to-real-world connectivity has Mississippi-deep roots. “From a young age, I was clear that I was college-bound. Much of this is due to my high school home-ec teacher. She went beyond the subject, taught us how you carried yourself, how to behave in certain situations . . . I guess you’d call it etiquette. It’s served me well over the years.”

Thames entered Mississippi State University on an education track, but soon discovered that while education made the most sense to her, the school’s cooperative extension sparked her interest. Provided by a state’s designated land-grant universities, cooperative extensions help people throughout the state use research-based knowledge to improve their lives.

Soon after graduating, she married and moved to South Carolina for her husband’s job. He told her, “Brenda, there’s a school right up the road you might want to check out.” That school was Clemson University, and what began as a part-time job with their cooperative extension program flourished into a 31-year career. Thames left Clemson as an associate dean with a doctorate degree.

More than a decade ago, Dr. Jerry Youkey, the dean of USC School of Medicine, recruited Dr. Thames to connect the health care system to universities by serving as a translator between higher education and health care. Today, her work enriches countless schools and communities. Dr. Youkey praises Brenda’s dedication. “She’s connected us to many community agencies and individuals,” he says. “Creating these connections expands opportunities for students in the health professional field to train in our system with our health care providers.”

Why is this so important? Our nation faces a growing deficit of doctors, nurses, and health care workers, and for South Carolina, this shortage is likely to reach critical levels within the next 10 years. Dr. Youkey explains, “This problem can only be addressed by partnering the educators and health care providers to increase the number of health care professionals in training and the efficiency of the education process.”

“Prisma Health is committed to advancing the health and well-being of those we serve. Dr. Thames exemplifies our vision through her remarkable leadership, wisdom, and commitment to our community and academic partners. She has been a driving force behind our workforce development efforts, which are instrumental in helping us meet patient needs both now and in the future.”

—Angelo Sinopoli, MD, executive vice president and chief clinical officer, Prisma Health

 

Enter the MedEx Academy, a one-of-a-kind program developed to spark interest in health care careers among young people. Developed by Dr. Thames, it’s a facet of her career she considers her “sweet spot,” and a personal joy. Thames admits she even wakes up thinking about working with Prisma Health’s academic partners. “We have a real willingness and true commitment to USC, Clemson, Greenville Tech, and so many others. I’m continually asking, ‘How do we look at what our workforce truly needs?’ If we’re going to keep people healthy and out of the hospitals, we have to think about more than doctors. Our focus must shift to well-being and preventative health. What about diabetes counselors, nutritionists?”

“Dr. Thames’s approach toward building consensus on key initiatives is what I admire most about her,” says Carlos Phillips, president of the Greenville Chamber. “She will never be the loudest or most talkative person at the table, but her words always have the most impact and enhance the conversation. Her quiet strength is refreshing, valued, and respected.”

Maybe it’s her parents’ influence. Maybe it’s that home-ec teacher. “I try to learn and connect and listen as much as I can,” Brenda says. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I didn’t make up that quote, but I live my life by it.”