When Phillip Periman was a ninth-grade student at Stephen F. Austin Junior High back in the 1950s, his social studies teacher, R.W. Johnson, had the class write a paper on what they saw themselves doing with their lives. Periman wrote that he wanted to be a medical missionary.
“Mr. Johnson said to me later that he would have been surprised if I had not written something like that, something of a service profession,” Periman said. “There was something in my personality, something early in my life even at 14 years old, that pointed me in the direction of doing something for other people.”
Dr. Phillip Periman, 78, was never a medical missionary, not in the sense of working in a foreign land. But if a missionary is helping the less fortunate, blazing new trails, teaching, healing and leading, then yes, what he wrote back in 1954 became every bit true.
Friday ended the last week of Periman’s remarkable 55-year career, the last 40 spent in his hometown. Many say he could have been a medical star on a grander stage, but Periman, after an unexpected invitation to come home, replanted roots here in his late 30s and never left.
“Phil Periman, from the day he arrived in Amarillo, set the standard of care in oncology and hematology,” said gastrologist Dr. Tom Johnson. “More importantly, it wouldn’t have mattered where he was; he would have set that same standard of care.”
“Had it been at M.D. Anderson, Mayo Clinic or Sloan Kettering, it would have been the same,” Johnson said. “But he chose Amarillo because it was home and many people, none more than his patients, are the better for it.”
Shortly after Periman returned home at the end of 1975, he has been on a list of firsts: among the first faculty at the then-new Texas Tech Health Sciences Center; the driving force behind the creation of the Harrington Cancer Center and its first president and medical director; and on the ground floor when Texas Oncology opened here in 2005.
Periman, a 1957 Amarillo High graduate, had always been on the fast track to big things. Climbing Mount Fuji in Japan at 20 should have been a hint.
He graduated from Yale, where he majored not in medicine, but in history. But he would get his medical degree at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he also met his wife, Judy, who had her own career as a pediatric nurse.
He was a research associate at the National Cancer Institute in New York, a research fellow at Oxford, and later was a professor at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., when the invitation came from a former medical school classmate to come home and open a practice. Oh, and there was this new medical school in Amarillo too.
‘A fire in my gut’
“Like many I knew, I was very ambitious,” Periman said. “I wanted to do the best research, write the most famous paper and be the chairman of the department, most of which came true.
“But I knew at one point in my career they were going to have a medical school in my hometown. I wanted it to be as good as possible, and that was a big motivating force to come back to Amarillo.”
Periman initially was named associate professor of medicine and associate chairman of the department of internal medicine. It wasn’t long after he returned that he and a few others recognized a gaping hole in the local medical community — lack of quality cancer care.
Thus began a tireless four-year effort led by Periman, who was a tour de force in filling that void. With an initial gift from Sybil Harrington, Periman led a group in establishing the Harrington Cancer Center, for more than 35 years a beacon for cancer care in the Texas Panhandle. For his lead, Periman, only 41 at the time, was the 1979 Amarillo Globe-News Man of the Year.
“I always had big plans. You always hear, ‘Make no small plans,’” said Periman, Harrington’s first president and medical director in 1981. “But what drove me too — and I get a little emotional even now — but I love this area and these people. And I just thought, ‘Gosh, these people deserve the same high-quality cancer care as people from Houston or wherever.’ We’re kind of in the middle of nowhere, and we have to take care of ourselves. I just had a fire in my gut to make it happen.”
Periman was with Harrington until he resigned in 1992. He continued to teach and practice and then joined Texas Oncology — Amarillo Center shortly after it opened in 2005.
“He’s one of the smartest individuals I’ve ever known,” said Charlotte Rhodes, who was hired by Periman in 1985 as Harrington’s director of development.
“When I was diagnosed with Stage 3 lymphoma in 2004, he saved my life. No doubt about it, no doubt about it. He said he would do everything in his power to save my life, and he did.”
The human touch
But at the heart of Periman’s career is teaching, and within that heart is admiration and respect for the patient. He drove that point home again and again in his 40 years of teaching, where three times he was named Tech’s teacher of the year.
“It’s not the disease the patient has, but the patient who has the disease that’s important,” he said. “You have to care for the patient and you have to know who the patient is in order to care for them. You need to have that human connection to the patient.”
That was ingrained in his third-year medical students over and over, especially on his internal medicine “Periman rotations” that gave aspiring doctors knots in their stomachs.
“Do I remember Dr. Permian? Are you kidding? Students were terrified of him, but in a good way,” said Dr. Brian Eades, former OB-GYN in Amarillo and now director of Women’s Healthcare in Delta, Colo. “His biggest deal was you have to talk to the patient. He taught you it was important to listen to the patient and get all the details.
“To this day, when I’m teaching a student or nurse practitioner, I’ll tell them you’re not talking to the patient. You’re not getting their story. I’m sure generations and generations of his students are carrying that on. He’s in the top 1 percent of all the professors I ever had.”
Periman said he’s only bragged about one thing in his professional life — the creation of a hybrid cell that produced a monoclonal antibody, which does sound impressive. But for the hundreds and hundreds whose paths crossed in his 55-year career, he’s remembered more as a local medical pioneer and for the human touch.
Said Johnson: “It didn’t matter if you were the CEO of a corporation or you were the man who slept in the dumpster behind the corporation, if you were his patient, you were treated the same by Phil Periman.”
Periman is a bit of a Renaissance man whose interests are keen in art, photography and writing. After a retirement reception Friday night, he and Judy leave for Paris today where they’ve rented an apartment for a three-month stay, not returning until early April.
“It’s best I get out of Dodge,” he said, “and we love France. We’re ‘Franceophiles.’”
Periman practiced until he was nearly 80 because he still felt rewarded, still was on top of his game, and was stimulated by many medical breakthroughs. But many little things told him it was time as he saw the last of his patients over the previous week.
“You see as many patients as you can and try not to cry too much,” he said. “Some made me cry, and I made some cry, and sometimes we just cried together.”
Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.
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