By Allison Howard
This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of the Tarrant County Physician.
“IN MANY WAYS, MEDICINE IS A FORM OF MINISTRY,” SAYS DR. STUART PICKELL.
HIS PERSPECTIVE ISN’T SURPRISING. When you get to know Dr. Pickell, one thing quickly becomes clear – if he is interested in a project or an organization, it is because it involves serving the community. It is his desire to help others that threads his varied passions together – including his careers as both a Presbyterian minister and a physician.
“When I was five, I told my family I was going to be a minister, a doctor, and a fireman,” says Dr. Pickell. “And I did all three.”
While his stint as a fireman was limited to volunteering during high school, the experience impacted his future. During that time, Dr. Pickell became an EMT and worked for both firefighting and ambulance services. This early introduction to medicine helped to cement an interest in patient care that would continue to influence him in the years ahead.
Still, Dr. Pickell did not take a direct route to healthcare. When he attended the College of William and Mary, he was undecided between medicine and ministry. Instead of picking a degree that would only fit one or the other career path, he decided to study history and use his elective courses to take prerequisites for both seminary and medical school.
“I was in Williamsburg going to William and Mary, which is in a town where it’s always 1773,” explains Dr. Pickell. “So I was living there, with a lot of primary sources around me, and it made researching and the study of history more interesting, and it came to life more. And I knew that for ministry or medicine, it didn’t really matter what I majored in.”
Dr. Pickell was still unsure of his future path when he graduated, so he worked at a community hospital and church for two years before he decided to pursue a career in ministry, following in his father’s footsteps.
He received his Master of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary, and shortly after graduating, began working as the associate minister for youth and families at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth.
While he was enthusiastic about the job itself, leaving the East Coast to move to Texas was not originally appealing to Dr. Pickell. His interactions with some colorful Texans he met at Princeton did not leave a favorable impression. This, combined with sports rivalries imprinted since childhood, made the move less than ideal . . . so much so that it inspired some literary liberties.
“I actually rewrote the story of Jonah in the Bible; recasting it with Jonah as me and Nineveh as Fort Worth,” he says, laughing. “It was sort of therapeutic for me.”
Looking back, though, Dr. Pickell has no regrets about making the move. Texas was his future and is a place he now is grateful to call home.
“It was the second-best decision I’ve ever made – after marrying my wife,” he says.
Dr. Pickell enjoyed serving in the Church, but he still carried the desire to heal bodies alongside souls.
“I’d sit in my office, and I’d look out the window and think, ‘I don’t know if my calling to ministry is actually inside the church,’” he remembers. “‘I think maybe my ministry should be a ministry of presence, of being in the community.’”
He was hesitant, though. At that time, Dr. Pickell was still paying off student loans from his seminary and college degrees, and, perhaps more importantly, he was raised to believe that one was supposed to pick one career and stick with it.
It was the late Gordon VanAmburgh, a beloved counselor and First Presbyterian church member, who asked Dr. Pickell an important question that set him on a new trajectory.
“It was just two words, but in many ways, they changed my life,” Dr. Pickell says. “I said to him, ‘You know, I just don’t know that it’s feasible to have two careers.’ And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Why not?’”
Dr. Pickell didn’t have an answer to that, and it led to decisions that would completely reshape his life. He applied to medical school and was accepted to
UT Southwestern, where he pursued his medical education.
Though Dr. Pickell was grateful that his prerequisites were completed, it was challenging to jump into his classes after taking an extensive break from the hard sciences.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to stay,” he says. “I liked the idea of being a doctor, but the first year was pretty rough for me. They were talking in biochemistry about discoveries five years earlier as if they were ancient history. It had been 10 years since I had taken biochemistry, so I was like, ‘I am totally lost here.’”
Though it was challenging, Dr. Rob- ert Sloane applauds him for taking the plunge to practice medicine.
“Knowing the time commitment required, it took courage on his part to train in medicine in addition to ministry,” says Dr. Sloane, who wrote a letter recommending Dr. Pickell’s acceptance into UT Southwestern. “[H]e is always caring and compassionate in his endeavors. He is committed to his work and careful in its
performance.” During his time at UT Southwestern, Dr. Pickell met his wife, Emily, while serving as an interim pastor for two small churches in and around Clifton, Texas, during a summer break. They married in the middle of his third year. Dr. Pickell completed medical school followed by a residency in internal medicine and pediatrics (Med-Peds) at the University of Mississippi Medical
Center. After completing his residency, Dr. Pickell joined an all-Med-Peds practice in Nashville but decided to return to Texas a year later. He has worked as a Med-Peds physician in Fort Worth ever since. Currently, he is a member of Texas Health Physicians Group.
For over 20 years, Dr. Pickell has thrived in building long-term relationships with patients and guiding them through complex ailments.
“Medicine is an applied science,” he says. “I like to apply principles to people to help them, whether it’s spiritually or physically, emotionally – whatever.”
Though his patients have remained at the center of his career, Dr. Pickell has maintained active participation in professional groups and committees throughout his work as a physician – including a great deal of work in ethics.
He has served on several ethics committees, including the Tarrant County Academy of Medicine’s (TCAM) Ethics Consortium, which he has chaired
for many years. And in 2016, Dr. Stuart Flynn, dean of the Anne Burnett School of Medicine at TCU, appointed Dr. Pickell to lead in the development of the medical school’s ethics curriculum.
While Dr. Pickell continues to lead the ethics curriculum, he has also expanded the reach of TCAM’s Ethics Consortium through the development of Healthcare in a Civil Society, an annual forum that has typically featured content experts from the Tarrant County community. Dr. Kendra Belfi, Dr. Pickell’s predecessor in chairing the TCAM Ethics Consortium, is grateful for his contributions to ethics in medicine.
“Dr. Pickell is a deep thinker and an articulate leader, who brings professionalism to everything he works on,” she says. “When I was about to retire and needed to find someone willing to take over chairmanship of the Consortium, I asked him to consider it – and he did. He has now been chair of the Consortium for longer than I was and has taken us to new heights.”
Throughout his years of practice, Dr. Pickell has concluded that successful leaders inspire others more through ac- actions than words.
“The biggest part of being a leader is leading by example; being willing to do what you’re asking other people to do,” says Dr. Pickell.
He speaks from experience. In addition to his work in ethics, Dr. Pickell is Project Access Tarrant County’s medical director, has served on over a dozen TCMS and TMA committees, and has worked in executive leadership positions in organizations as diverse as a health in- formation exchange company, a pioneer ACO, and an innovative primary care practice model.
“Leadership is now more about building effective teams, which is why articulating the vision is so important,” he says. “It’s not just that you have a vision and expect everyone to follow you like the Pied Piper. You must communicate it to the team, sell it to them, invite them to own it.”
Sharing a vision is key as a doctor, and it is something that Dr. Pickell believes is fostered by organized medicine. He likes to compare the relationship that physicians have with TMA and TCMS to those he shares with his own patients, many of whom he has treated for decades.
“You develop relationships and leverage them to get things done,” says Dr. Pickell. “And I think that TMA and the county medical societies are in some ways like that. They are relational, and they provide an organizational force or impetus that amplifies the message we are trying to communicate individually within our practices, broadcasting it to a larger audience than any of us can reach individually.”
As he both leads and provides support on varied projects, Dr. Pickell does it with the vision of supporting the future of medicine. In addition to his work on the ethics curriculum at the Burnett School of Medicine, Dr. Pickell has served as a preceptor to advance medical students’ hands-on education since 2002 and as an associate professor for the Department of
Internal Medicine at the Burnett School of Medicine since its inception.
Dr. Pickell’s passion for education is no surprise to those who know him; he has long desired to foster young minds in his work for both the body and the spirit. And it is a passion that extends beyond the students under his direction to the patients he cares for.
“Perhaps the most succinct statement
I could make is that I have entrusted my three children to him twice,” says Dr. Steve Brotherton, a friend, and patient of Dr. Pickell’s. “First as the youth pastor at our church, then again as their personal physician, just as I have entrusted my own health.”
“You know, I’ve always been a generalist,” says Dr. Pickell. “I like to do a lot of different things. Some people will focus on one thing and really excel at that one thing. I’ve never been wired like that.”
In many areas – ministry to medicine, education to private practice, ethics theory to hands-on application – Dr. Pickell has spent his career striking a balance between a mixed set of interests. But this extends beyond work and professional organizations.
“Husband, father, healer of bodies and souls – most know these plain facts about Stuart Pickell,” says his longtime friend Robert Johnson, who Dr. Pickell met during his time at seminary. “But there
is so much more to him: musician, actor, closeted NASCAR fan . . . and good and generous friend. For the nearly forty years I have been friends with Stuart, I have found him to be a man of great intellect, compassion, humor, and faith.”
He enjoys playing the guitar and piano, as well as writing music and essays when
he has the chance. In one particularly rewarding venture, one of the songs he wrote for a youth event in the 90s was recorded by a friend and got air time on a Denver radio station.
Dr. Pickell grins. “Yeah, that was a pretty neat experience.”
But his favorite pastime is being with his wife and their two sons, Jonathan and Will. If the family is able to spend time
at their weekend house in Clifton, even better.
“I love going down to Clifton and just being in the country,” says Dr. Pickell. “People in small towns have a strong sense of place, of community. They are grounded. I didn’t experience that growing up; maybe that’s why I like it.”
As he begins his term as TCMS president, Dr. Pickell is looking forward to using the “President’s Paragraph” to share his top concerns about medicine, such as the need to increase GME slots and funding for Project Access.
More than anything, he wants to start conversations since they are the first
step toward making tangible changes. He wants the message from TCMS to be very clear so those we interact with, such as hospital leaders and local politicians, understand the medical society’s purpose and the perspective of physicians throughout Tarrant County.
“It’s important to stay centered on why you’re doing what you’re doing,” he says. “When it comes to a ‘mission,’ I think the ‘why’ is really important. For me, this goes back to my faith. I do what I do because I believe that a loving God – who loves everyone else as much as me – has called me to serve in this way.”
We are excited to have Dr. Pickell lead us as we move forward with TCMS’s mission of advocating for the physicians and patients of Tarrant County.