Dr. Claude Brunson (center) has spent the last three decades working at UMMC in Jackson.
Dr. Claude Brunson (center) has spent the last three decades working at UMMC in Jackson.
Picking the University of Mississippi Medical Center for his residency, Dr. Claude Brunson says, is “the best mistake I ever avoided making.” After finishing medical school in 1987 at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Brunson got a residency offer from Emory University in Atlanta. “UAB was my backup,” he said.

“But I also wrote to UMMC, and was offered an interview,” Brunson said. “I’d pretty much accepted Emory, and I almost canceled the interview, but I had the time off and I thought I’d come. I wasn’t quite sure about the medical school, so I thought I’d come over and look at it.”

Brunson met with Dr. David Bruce, then the new chair of the Department of Anesthesia. “He spoke with me as if I was just a normal person. I hadn’t gotten that type treatment at the other places,” Brunson said. “I met with Dr. Patricia Norman, a professor of obstetrical anesthesiology. She made an indelible impression. She sat me down, talked to me, and asked me about my family.”

He completed a one-year internship at Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, came back to UMMC for residency in 1988, and never left. The Medical Center’s former professor and chairman of Anesthesiology, Brunson serves today as senior adviser to Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and School of Medicine Dean Dr. LouAnn Woodward.

On April 1, he’ll have a career change that won’t take him far. Brunson will transition into a new role after more than 30 years at the Medical Center when he becomes executive director of the Mississippi State Medical Association, an organization of nearly 5,000 physicians and medical students he formerly served as president.

Brunson is finishing his tenure as president of the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, which primarily regulates and disciplines the state’s physicians.  As board president, Brunson addressed the nation’s opioid crisis by leading an overhaul of regulations to physician prescribing of opioid drugs in Mississippi.

The Mississippi State Medical Association represents physicians in the state and advocates for policies and laws that make the practice of medicine the best for physicians and their responsibility for taking care of patients.

Even though his duties in the community are vast, Brunson’s heart remains in anesthesiology. Every Tuesday you’ll find him in a UMMC operating room, trading his business suit for scrubs and protective gear as he delivers anesthesia to his patient.

His time at the Medical Center has taken him from residency to serving as chief of the medical staff to his current role. Since 2010, he has nurtured key relationships with constituencies beyond the campus to advance UMMC’s missions.

As a young man and native of Auburn, Ala., Brunson served for four years as a Navy Fleet Marine Force hospital corpsman and field medicine technician before earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama.

He gravitated to anesthesiology because of his love for acute care medicine. “I started out in internal medicine, but I knew all along that I wanted to be in anesthesia,” Brunson said. “I like the kind of medicine where you are actually providing care to patients with drugs that are pretty powerful – good, quality care that is significant and meaningful for patients and families.

“I’ve got the mindset to do it,” he said. “It can be high intensity at times. When things are not going smoothly, you use all of your skills to save the patient’s life. Anesthesia turned out to be the perfect specialty for me.”

Brunson’s path to becoming head of anesthesiology began with his appointment as chief of staff. The job wasn’t easy.

“We were having problems with how surgical services were running. I did a review of the problems and gave a report back, and said that we really needed a physician who could stand toe to toe with the surgical chair,” he remembered. “I recommended that we have a physician administrator over surgical services.”

“We were operating like crazy at night. The ORs were full during the day, but they weren’t being used efficiently,” remembered Dr. Robert McGuire, professor of orthopaedic surgery and former chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation.

Because there were too many surgeries at night, McGuire said, he suggested to Brunson that an OR be designated as a trauma room. “It shut down having to do trauma surgery in the middle of the night and led to better and more efficient patient care in the OR,” said McGuire, who like Brunson is a U.S. Navy veteran and UAB alum.

“It changed the culture of the way we managed trauma. That’s the kind of person Claude is.”

“We redesigned and developed a new surgical services environment,” Brunson said. “We looked around the country to find best practices. We even renamed it to reassure surgeons that we were going to make things better for them.”

That’s how the Medical Center began Perioperative Services, “and it’s been that ever since,” Brunson said.

Just a few months later, the anesthesia chair’s position became vacant, and then-Vice Chancellor Dr. Wallace Conerly named Brunson interim chair. After a national search, Brunson was named the permanent chair in 2002.

Those he has mentored along the way include Dr. George Russell, professor and chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation, who joined the Medical Center faculty 18 years ago.

“Claude sort of adopted me and showed me the ropes at UMMC when I was younger and a bit more irascible,” Russell said. “He was very calming and sometimes very fatherly in correcting my immature behaviors.

“He exposed me to the intricacies of the University, and when I became chair, he was very supportive of my candidacy,” Russell said. “Claude pulled back the curtain to show me how things really get done on campus.”

Brunson has been honored many times in his career, most recently with the 2018 Healthcare Visionary Award from Mississippi Blood Services. Brunson has led the Medical Center’s blood drive planning committee and championed blood donation, including bringing MBS to campus to conduct drives.

Brunson’s other honors include tributes from the Department of Anesthesiology, which in 2017 held the first annual Dr. Claude D. Brunson Teaching Day that highlights graduating senior residents and the research projects they worked on throughout the year. In 2018, he was recognized by the Mississippi Medical and Surgical Association as the first recipient of its Distinguished Physician Award.

“He was the first black president of the state’s medical society, and after that president of Medical Licensure. That was pretty groundbreaking,” McGuire said. “He’s very consistent in his personality. He knows how to handle people.”

Brunson has “a very unique perspective as an active physician. He is an experienced administrator who can understand the challenges that each separate party faces,” Russell said. In his new role, Brunson “will be well-versed in the opinions and positions of the various stakeholders.”

A Madison resident, Brunson is the proud father of three daughters: Christin, a healthcare attorney at the Mississippi Department of Health; Chelsea, a critical care nurse at the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson; and Claudia, a second-year student at the Mississippi College School of Law.

Although he’s grateful for the chance to serve Mississippi’s physicians in his new post, Brunson said, he’s struggling a bit with the thought of being away from the Medical Center. “I’m having to get used to the idea that I might not be in the OR as frequently as I am now,” he said.

“My whole identity as a physician has been practicing medicine and taking care of patients. I’m figuring out how I can maintain a clinical practice at a small level.”

His years at UMMC, Brunson said, “gave me the opportunity to advance and excel in academic medicine, more so than I could have done in the same period of time anywhere else.

“I don’t think there is anything in my career that I would have done differently.”