By MARILYN TINNIN
Sissy and Danny Jackson
The Delta Doc and His Soulmate
“It’s really a blessing when a guy can wake up every single day and do something he really loves and at the same time know he is doing exactly what God put him here to do,” says recently retired physician Danny Jackson. In 1971, as a young doctor, fresh out of medical school, he signed on for a four-year stint in the rural Mississippi Delta, intending to satisfy a commitment that would pay his school loans. It did not take long for him to realize nothing in his medical training had prepared him for the total culture shock.
On his first day there he saw 56 patients, an unheard of number. In medical school, he had been told to expect to see five or six. As days turned into weeks and then to years, he sometimes had a hard time emotionally and mentally just wrapping his mind around the reality. He used to count the number of 13-year-old girls whose babies he delivered, but he finally quit because he was delivering so many from girls that were only 12 years old. He, a family practitioner, was forced to take on the role of cardiologist, endocrinologist, gynecologist, and a few other specialties. The unemployment rate is about 25% there, and it is just a hard, hard, life for many.
In the beginning, it felt like a strange place to a boy from West Tennessee; it was its own nation in a way with its own traditions and even its own language to some extent. He doubted it would ever feel like home. Now 36 years later, it holds a huge chunk of his big heart. He simply did not expect to develop such a deep affection for the place or its people.
The world of farming, especially cotton farming, was undergoing transformation when he arrived. The unskilled labor force, once critical to the success of the industry, was rapidly increasing in numbers, but the jobs for such a population were just as rapidly disappearing. It was impossible to ignore the level of poverty he saw every day, and his compassion and often his advocacy on behalf of his patients became an essential part of the way he practiced medicine. By God’s design, Dr. Danny Jackson found himself with a rather unique ministry calling.
While Danny was becoming Rolling Fork’s own Marcus Welby, M.D., Sissy Cain Cummins, his wife and soulmate of 27 years, was a young wife, mother, and schoolteacher facing her own daunting challenges a few miles away in Greenville.
Diagnosed with primary liver cancer at age 26 and lymphatic cancer one year later, Sissy had been given a terminal diagnosis. Her five-year-old son was in kindergarten, her marriage was on the verge of collapse, and her health insurance was less than sufficient for the astronomical bills rolling in. As she puts it, “I was in a big depression. The doctors sent me home to die, but I kept living.” To see her hit a tennis ball today, you would think she could not possibly have been sick a day in her life.
Although there is no medical explanation for her healing, Sissy believes the love and prayers that came her way via her church family at First Baptist Church of Greenville had a lot to do with a recovery that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Experiencing “the hands and feet of Jesus” became a flesh and blood factor in her mind and spirit. She had never experienced such selfless giving as friends and co-workers made certain that she had meals, transportation, child care, and unlimited support day in and day out for more than a year. The mailman arrived daily with a handful of cards usually holding anonymous messages of encouragement and generous amounts of cash.
Sissy promised God that if He chose to spare her life, she would forever try to give back to others in the way those precious Greenville friends had given to her at a time when she had nothing to give in return. That is a promise she has kept well.
The Danny and Sissy Team
A few years later, Sissy was teaching at Riverside School in Avon, an unincorporated community in Washington County, not too far from Rolling Fork. One of her co-workers, who was also a patient of Danny’s, put on her matchmaking hat and decided these two would just be perfect for each other. Sissy was not interested at all in another relationship, or so she thought. Between cancer and a divorce, she had had enough stress and hurt to last for the rest of her life.
The friend persisted—and persisted more. Finally persuading Sissy to come to a crawfish boil at the Rolling Fork Country Club, she managed to introduce her doctor to her friend. And the rest is history.
Danny had a past also. He was only 17 years old when he married his 16-year-old high school sweetheart. Two children, 23 years, and several moves later, they had just grown apart. There was no bitter and angry end to their marriage, but he wasn’t exactly shopping for another relationship either.
Sissy was drawn to Danny’s sense of humor at first. He always made her laugh, but she discovered a second trait that was almost more attractive than the first. He had a very tender heart and went to heroic measures to take care of his patients, many who lived in dire poverty. At the same time, there was a level of humility she admired. He did not seem to see in himself the extraordinary level of generosity and kindness that came so naturally to him.
Danny’s attraction to Sissy was much the same. He noticed that her default was always set on putting others before herself. He marveled at her steadfast faith in God, especially in light of all that she had been through in the recent past.
Their easy friendship quickly turned into something much greater. They married in 1990, and Sissy gave up school teaching for working at Danny’s clinic. Her devotion to the colorful and disparate individuals who frequented the doctor’s office on a daily basis ran as deep as her husband’s.
Sissy tells the story of one elderly patient she met in her first month at the clinic. Sissy was paying the bills and ran across an electric bill for one Mrs. Jessie Mae Johnson (not her real name). Thinking the electric company must have sent it by mistake to the clinic, she asked Danny what he wanted her to do with it.
She learned that Mrs. Johnson was an elderly diabetic patient of his who had been in great jeopardy because she would not take the insulin he prescribed. One day, he had finally told her that he was not going to be her doctor any longer because she would not follow his instructions. Finally came the true confession. Not only did Mrs. Jessie Mae lack the requisite refrigerator in which to store the insulin, but neither did she have electricity or the means to pay for it. Danny took care of that need until the day Mrs. Johnson went on to glory.
Mrs. Jessie Mae Johnson was not an unusual case. Sissy has a lengthy repertoire of such stories. “I would be at my desk, and he would walk by and say something like, ‘This kid has leukemia, and they don’t have any Christmas.’ He’d hook me up with the mom and then we’d organize Christmas and show up with presents and food.”
Providing Christmas for the underserved in their neighborhood became one of their annual traditions. Aside from the fact that Danny and Sissy are both “givers” by nature, they wanted their children to experience the same joy they shared in giving to those who did not live with the abundance of things they took for granted. The children may have left the nest, but the tradition continued all the years Danny practiced in Rolling Fork, and it is highly unlikely that they will discontinue just because of Danny’s retirement.
Danny also made the acquaintance of a local ministry called Mississippi Christian Family Services (MCFS), a 501(c)(3) whose program provides services for mentally challenged men and women in the Delta area. MCFS operates a residential group home, and over the years Danny has cared for many a resident. Every Christmas Eve for the last 26 years, Sissy and Danny have thrown a “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus” party for them. The Director provides a list of needs and wants, and Sissy shops and plans as though she is expecting royalty to attend. There are lovely gifts, food, singing, decorations, and a sense of family. It has become one of the most meaningful events of the entire Christmas season for them.
Field of Advocacy
The extreme poverty wasn’t the only aspect of healthcare in the Delta for which medical school had offered no training. Although the U.S. Government has created a plethora of assistance programs in the last 50 years, those who truly need them often lack the knowledge or the skills to navigate a complex system. Even a requirement like going to a specific office to fill out a form can present an almost insurmountable problem for some because they lack any means of transportation. And literacy is often an issue as well.
Other obstacles sometimes involved the government’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to policies and procedures. Danny had one patient who had a severe physical disability that kept him from being able to operate a traditional wheelchair because of spasticity. However, he was not mentally impaired, and with the use of a motorized wheelchair, he would be able to live independently and even hold a job. Medicaid’s protocols, however, allowed for only a traditional wheelchair, which was totally useless for this young man. No amount of documentation on Danny’s part would budge the bureaucracy’s rules. Danny knew he needed it, so he bought him one with his own money, and it changed the young man’s life.
Another time Danny was trying to help one of his patients get approval to receive disability subsidies. She was a lady who had lost her arm in a farm accident. The Social Security Division charged with determining if she qualified for disability required that she go to a special counselor to see if there was any job she could still perform. Her application was rejected because the counselor believed she would be a perfect tollbooth operator. They failed to take into account that there were no toll booths in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
In between seeing around 14,000 patients a year, Danny spent untold hours advocating for patients like these who were not trying to game the system. He readily admits there are many who do try to cheat, but the ones who suffer are usually the ones like the once hard-working forgotten men and women he tended to for 36 years. Most of them had gone to work on someone else’s farm when they were very young. They had so little education, and a changing world had passed them by. But there is no denying the patients who came to the Jackson Rural Health Clinic taught Danny life lessons he could never have learned anywhere else. He loved those folks and they loved him back—every single day.
The Lighter Side
Getting prescriptions filled in Rolling Fork was not always easy for his patients either. In an effort to help them, Danny decided to open a pharmacy right across the street from the clinic.
Sissy immediately took on the assignment of enticing a pharmacist to Rolling Fork that could have proved to be a rather difficult task, except that her son’s fiancée just happened to be a pharmacist. God had obviously gone before as He frequently does.
The downtown space Danny had purchased was much larger than needed for a pharmacy alone. Sissy, who had no experience in retail but a very good head for business, thought it would be fun to carry some merchandise that was not readily available around Rolling Fork and the other similar communities dotting the countryside along Highway 61. Danny gave her free rein, and as Sissy said, “The only criterion was if I liked it, we would carry it.”
Village Pharmacy and Gifts was the name, but it could just as easily have been Rolling Fork Department Store. China, crystal, jeans, shoes, garden tools, and home décor—you name it, Sissy stocked it. Her customer base came from far and wide. There were still a number of Delta farm families who lived on their land and appreciated not having to drive to Vicksburg or Greenville to shop for certain things.
Sissy, who had always had a flair for fashion and interior design, now had her very own venue for showcasing those talents. Life was just about perfect.
Loss and Grief
In June 2001, Danny and Sissy were attending the annual Mississippi Osteopathic Medical Association’s convention in Destin. Their daughter-in-law of 14 months was with them, and she and Sissy intended to enjoy a relaxing week at the beach while Danny attended meetings. Sissy’s son Brad stayed behind in the Delta. He was an agricultural pilot in the middle of his busy season.
They had not been there very long when a call came that Brad, who was Sissy’s only child, had been killed in a mid-air collision. He was only 25 years old. It was a completely crushing blow.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, Sissy, Danny, and Casey, Brad’s wife, worked through their grief together. Casey continued to be the drug store pharmacist and even lived with Danny and Sissy for an entire year. Danny admits he had to deal with anger asking God again and again, “How much is enough, God?” Sissy had suffered so much in the earlier years with two terminal cancer diagnoses, a husband who deserted her, and financial hardships that all of those circumstances wrought.
Ultimately, it was seeing how she again handled this heartbreak with a sweetness and dependence on God that spoke volumes to him about how deep her faith in God runs.
Sixteen years have passed since Brad’s tragic death. The sense of loss never disappears completely, but the Jacksons have found that the experience of losing a child has only caused their hearts to grow more sensitive toward others who find their lives upended by tragedy. They have become quite intentional about reaching out to demonstrate “the hands and feet of Christ” to hurting people. They seem to have developed a “sixth sense” that leads them to those in need.
Danny and Sissy are active at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland. Last spring when Baton Rouge suffered catastrophic floods, Sissy became a one-woman fundraising machine for an elderly lady whom she has never met. Mrs. Anonymous was a “friend of a tennis friend.” The 81-year-old lost her home, her car, and everything she had. The friend asked Sissy if she could possibly help that family. True to her nature, she gave it 100% and managed to help that lady get a new trailer and a new vehicle that will meet her needs for years to come.
Although Danny has now been retired for about three months, he is already talking about working at his old practice in Rolling Fork at least once or twice a month and donating the salary to a cause dear to his heart. He is also interested in possibly volunteering at one of the free clinics supported by different Jackson area ministries.
One thing is certain. You won’t find Danny or Sissy taking it too easy. They are worker bees in the Body of Christ. Their hearts and hands are His. When Jesus said, “If you love me, feed my sheep,” these two took those words seriously. And so many lives are better for it.