Dr. Alan Jones, center, and Dr. Peter Arnold, in white coat, speak to news media about plans for the new Mississippi Burn Center on UMMC's Jackson campus. Credit: UMMC

The University of Mississippi Medical Center and Mississippi Baptist Medical Center are vying to run a burn center in Mississippi — and both are seeking lawmakers’ help to establish them.

Dr. Derek Culnan, the former medical director of the now-closed JMS Burn and Reconstruction Center at Merit Health Central in Jackson, said Merit gave him 30 days’ notice that the hospital would shut down the center because of financial strains brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and recruitment challenges. Culnan continued caring for existing patients and started talking to hospitals about how to open a new center — and fast.

“This is a state that has a need for this service, and I wasn’t going to quit on the people just because it was hard,” Culnan said. 

The burn center at Merit Health Central — which was the only accredited center in the state — saw around 600 to 800 patients a month, according to employees who worked there.

Culnan, who completed a fellowship in burn surgery where he worked with adults and children at the University of Texas, struck a deal with Baptist in Jackson and got privileges at the hospital. When he was admitted to the staff, he began taking care of patients immediately, he said.

Dr. Derek Culnan, the former medical director of the now-closed JMS Burn and Reconstruction Center at Merit Health Central in Jackson, is trying to establish a burn center at Mississippi Baptist Medical Center in Jackson. Credit: Courtesy of Derek Culnan

“We’re not working at the scale we were working on at Merit quite yet, but I’m operating on somebody essentially every day,” he said. 

Culnan, who says he is one of about 250 specially trained burn surgeons in the United States, also performed complex hand surgeries at the former center, which was the only hand replantation center in the state. Replantation is the surgical reattachment of a finger or hand. 

Culnan’s operation has the backing of House Speaker Philip Gunn, who penned a bill that would award $12 million in one-time money to establish a burn center at Baptist. 

Gunn said he was approached by Baptist and believes Mississippi needs a burn center, regardless of who runs it. 

“It will all be worked out. There are a lot of different ways to go about that,” he said. 

Officials with Baptist said to move forward with a burn center, they must acquire specialized equipment and additional intensive care capacity. Culnan is currently operating in standard operating rooms. 

“As a result, we have reached out to our elected officials and shared that we are willing and capable of operating this service if we were successful in receiving one-time financial support for some of these costs,” said Bobbie Ware, chief executive officer of Mississippi Baptist Medical Center. 

The hospital has not yet submitted its application for accreditation to the state Department of Health, a spokesperson said.

But at the same time, UMMC, the state’s only academic medical center, has been in pursuit of a burn center — despite a history of walking away from the opportunity.

After the burn center in Greenville closed in 2005, state lawmakers in 2006 approached then-vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center Dr. Dan Jones about establishing a burn center at UMMC. Jones told Mississippi Today he asked lawmakers for a yearly commitment to help UMMC run the program, but lawmakers only offered one-time money.  

UMMC walked away, citing financial constraints, but lawmakers nevertheless passed a bill in 2007, sans funding, authorizing the university to create the Mississippi Burn Center. 

In September of last year, University of Mississippi Medical Center officials were mum about whether they planned to pursue opening a burn center following the closure of the center at Merit Health Central. They did say, however, they would increase their capabilities for care of such patients, but offered no specifics.

But UMMC officials have been quietly — and now more overtly — pursuing state funds to establish the burn center. Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the medical school, spoke in front of an appropriations subcommittee at the beginning of the session, and a bill by Sen. John Polk brings forward the code section from 2007 that authorized UMMC to create the Mississippi Burn Center. Lawmakers could use Polk’s bill to appropriate money and make other amendments to the law.

Polk told Mississippi Today he’s made no decision on which hospital he supports establishing a burn center.

“The (burn center) legislation was last looked at in 2007 best I can tell. This is a whole new Legislature,” said Polk. “All kinds of things have changed. We need to bring legislation forward to study it to see if we need to make some changes.” 

It’s unclear how much UMMC is asking lawmakers for and if the money would be recurring. UMMC doesn’t have any outside funding for the center at the time, Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, said at a press conference Friday. 

He referenced the Mississippi Burn Care Fund, which runs anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million each year, and the hope UMMC will have access to that once it receives accreditation from the Health Department, which manages the fund. 

UMMC announced it would be establishing its own burn center one day after submitting its application for accreditation to the Health Department. Dr. Peter Arnold, a plastic surgeon, has been named as the medical director. 

UMMC officials say Arnold’s past experience treating burn patients qualifies him for the position, which regulations say must be filled by a physician who has completed a burn fellowship or who has spent two of the previous five years treating burn patients.

Emergency Medicine resident Dr. Andrew Garza, left, pharmacist Stephanie Tesseneer, background, and respiratory therapist Charles Patton stock supplies in a trauma room in the Adult Emergency Department at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Credit: UMMC

“Dr. Arnold … has had extensive training and experience in caring for patients with acute burns and complex wounds in his nearly 20-year career,” said Jones. “He is assisted at the Mississippi Burn Center by five other highly qualified, expertly trained plastic surgeons, all of whom have significant experience treating pediatric and adult acutely burned patients.” 

Jones also told media at a press conference Friday that the hospital has “the necessary infrastructure in place” but will need to make additional hires, including around 30 nurses trained specifically in burn care. 

“That won’t be immediately. Over time, it will grow,” said Jones. 

He also said they will not have to add additional beds to accommodate running a burn center. Currently, burn patients are being treated on a regular unit in the hospital.

Jones said the university has treated about 75 burn patients through the emergency room in the past four months.

“But as the volume grows, we’ve identified a dedicated space that’s actually ready to go. So after this approval (by the Health Department) has taken place, we’ll begin to operationalize,” he said. 

Editor’s note: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today’s community health editor since January 2022, worked as a writer/editor for UMMC’s Office of Communications from November 2018 through August 2020, writing press releases and features about the medical center’s schools of dentistry and nursing. 

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.