James Nemitz in his office at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.
James Nemitz in his office at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. (West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine)

‘The biggest leap of faith in my life’: How James Nemitz draws on personal experience to prepare future physicians

Nemitz, a 1980 School of Medicine graduate, leads the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, the top-ranked school in the nation for placing physicians in rural practices.

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As an undergraduate at Randolph-Macon College, just north of Richmond, James Nemitz, Ph.D., made two discoveries that would set the course for his life. He realized a passion for teaching and anatomy, and he met his future wife, Patty McClung.

Two weeks after Nemitz graduated in spring 1976, they were married. That fall, Nemitz enrolled in the anatomy doctoral program in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine while his wife studied in the School of Dentistry. Nemitz then went on to a postdoc position in the surgery department at Yale University.

That’s when Patty was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Patty’s father had already encouraged the couple to move to her hometown of Lewisburg, West Virginia. Her diagnosis accelerated that decision.

“I took the biggest leap of faith in my life,” Nemitz said. “I walked away from my career, out of love for my wife, not knowing what the future would hold. I listened to my father-in-law when he said, ‘This will be the best place to take care of Patty. This will be a great place to raise your daughter. And eventually, you’ll fall in love with the place.’”

After moving to Lewisburg, Nemitz initially worked for his father-in-law, who was a beloved family medicine physician. The work — as well as his wife’s treatment — offered a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of practicing medicine in a rural, remote area.

Lewisburg — a town of nearly 4,000 people — is also home to the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. Nemitz expressed interest if a teaching position ever became available; two years later, the president called with an offer of a nine-month, temporary contract with no guarantee of renewal.

Again, Nemitz turned to his father-in-law for advice: “He said, ‘If you don’t take, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’

“It was my destiny,” Nemitz said. “I ended up getting the best job I’ve ever had, working in the best place I’ve ever lived.”

In the 35 years that followed, Nemitz became the course director for anatomy, the director of the Office of Rural Recruitment and Retention, the associate dean for preclinical education, and the vice president for administration and external relations. In July 2018, following a national search, Nemitz was named the school’s seventh president.

The school was founded nearly 50 years ago to address the need for physicians in rural West Virginia. Today, it’s the top-ranked school in the nation for placing physicians in rural practices. Nemitz said the school’s success is largely due to its location in a small town, where many of the students’ mentors are primary care physicians, pediatricians, OB-GYNs and family practice doctors.

The school also offers the lowest tuition in West Virginia in an effort to limit debt that might be difficult to pay off through a primary care practice.

Encouraging physicians to practice in rural areas often means early exposure to the challenges — such as isolation, fewer resources and limited access to specialists — so that they’re comfortable navigating barriers to care.

Nemitz often draws on his own experiences when speaking to students. He tells the story of caring for his wife until her death, using it as a case study of the challenges of accessing complicated medical care in remote regions.

“I think it’s important, even as president of the school, to stay connected to students,” he said. “The way you do that is you share your knowledge and try to inspire them.”

This story originally was published by the School of Medicine under the headline “Anatomy alumnus draws on personal experience to prepare future rural physicians.”