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Degenhart named Physician of the Year, receives Order of the Palmetto

Both ‘shock’ to local anesthesiologist who leads fight against childhood obesity

Posted: June 3, 2014 4:37 p.m.
Updated: June 4, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Dr. Vincent Degenhart said “it was a shock” to receive both the S.C. Medical Association (SCMA) 2014 Physician of the Year Award and the Order of the Palmetto at the same time a month ago. Degenhart was recognized for his work combating childhood obesity. He formed and chairs the S.C. Childhood Obesity Task Force.

“Literally, I had no idea,” Degenhart, an anesthesiologist with KershawHealth said in an email. “My wife Denice, daughter, Chandler, and I were at the SCMA annual meeting last month in Greenville. My wife had secretly arranged for both of my parents to attend along with our son, Joseph, and and one of my sisters, Janet. It was all supposed to be a big secret, and it was. Then I knew something was up.”

Degenhart said that just before the president’s reception and awards banquet began, he saw his 91-year-old mother in the lobby of the hotel where the convention was taking place. First, the chairman of SCMA board presented him with the S.C. Physician of the Year award.

“Well, that was huge, but then Rep.Todd Atwater came to the podium and read a letter from the governor awarding me the Order of the Palmetto. I really couldn't believe it,” Degenhart said.

According to a SCMA press release, the S.C. Physician of the Year award goes to the physician who has demonstrated outstanding community service and advocacy to their community throughout the past year. Similarly, the Order of the Palmetto -- conferred by Atwater on Gov. Nikki Haley’s behalf -- is the state’s highest civilian honor, awarded to a South Carolina citizen who has demonstrated outstanding service to the state.

Degenhart received both awards “for his tireless efforts to promote the need to eliminate childhood obesity in South Carolina,” the SCMA stated.

One of eight siblings, Degenhart said his parents instilled several things in all their children.

“Love of God, love of fellow man and the importance of education,” he said. “As a young boy, I wanted to be an astronaut, and attended the U.S. Air Force Academy with that goal.”

Two years into his academy training, he realized that high performance jets were not going to be his career. He decided to transfer to the University of South Carolina (USC) and pursue a career in medicine. He and his brother, Bill, graduated from the Medical University of South Caroina in 1977.

“We were only the second set of brothers to do that. Bill went on to specialize in ophthalmology and I opted for anesthesiology,” Degenhart said, adding that as a “lifetime Gamecock,” he wanted to return to Columbia and practiced there for 26 years.

His former practice began covering KershawHealth about 12 years ago.

“However, when the group decided they no longer could cover, three of us opted to stay in Camden: Dr. Ben Blackmon, Dr. Ed Froelich and myself,” he said. “And I could not ask for two better partners. They have enabled and encouraged me to work with the SCMA, its board of trustees and the task force.”

Degenhart said what really brought him to Camden was the medical community, KershawHealth staff and the city of Camden itself.

“We are really dedicated to (the) hospital. We feel we can make a difference. There are a number of excellent physicians in this community as well as a wonderful hospital staff. Our anesthesia department is excellent, as well as our whole operating room and peri-operative staff,” Degenart said.

He added that KershawHealth administration has been supportive of the department as well.

“I am also a golf nut -- not a very good golfer, but dearly love (the) Camden Country Club … and get out there when I can,” he said.

About three years ago, Degenhart attended an SCMA Board of Trustees meeting, upon which he served for eight years. It was the board’s annual weekend retreat and the former director of the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Robbie Kerr, appeared as a guest speaker.

“He talked about the challenges facing and of financing healthcare in South Carolina. However, he talked at length about what he saw as South Carolina’s and, indeed, our nation’s greatest health crisis. That is, obesity,” he said.

Degenhart said Kerr presented trustees with an animated National Institutes of Health website graphically showing them the dramatic increase in obesity nationally during the past 30 years.

“Unfortunately, South Carolina ranks eighth in the country in obesity, which is a ‘Top 10’ we don’t really want to be in,” he said. “As I rode back from Myrtle Beach with my wife, I could not get the dramatic pictures out of my head.”

Degenhart said an animated Centers for Disease Control map on SurroundFitness.com shows how things changed between 1985 to 2010.

“In 1985, no states had over 10 percent obesity, to 2010 when, basically, all states have over 20 percent and most are over 30 percent. In fact, over 60 percent of all Americans are obese and overweight,” he said.

Arriving back in Columbia following that SCMA meeting, Degenhart called Kerr and asked what he thought the organization could do to make a difference.

“We talked about childhood obesity and that if we were to do something, that was where we should concentrate our efforts,” Degenhart said. “At the next board of trustees meeting, I proposed that the SCMA form a task force on childhood obesity.”

Kerr suggested he call two key people: Dr. Janice Key, chair of adolescent medicine at MUSC and head of the school’s Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness; and Amy Splittgerber, executive director of Eat Smart, Move More SC.

“With their help, we had our first meeting in January of 2012. The SCMA, its board and staff have been very supportive of the task force and have invested a great deal of time, research and expertise to help making it a success,” he said.

Since then, Degenhart said, the task force has included “many of the brightest minds” in South Carolina healthcare, childhood obesity, education and state government. They include SCMA board members and faculty members from USC’s Arnold School of Public Health, as well as Dr. Russ Pate, exercise physiology; Dr. Deborah Greenhouse, president, S.C. Academy of Pediatrics; and Dr. Marion Burton, DHHS medical director and past president, American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, he said S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Commissioner Catherine Templeton was one of the task force’s early members and “has made fighting obesity a priority of her agency.” Degenhart also said current DHHS Director Tony Keck and Gov. Haley have been supportive of its efforts.

So far the task force has:

• established that childhood obesity is a disease and can be recognized as such for Medicaid patients and those pediatricians and primary care physicians who counsel and care for children afflicted with the disease;

• established the “Prescription for Parks” program where a physician can write a prescription so that a child may go to a state park free of charge in order to encourage physical activity;

• created a “tool kit” for physicians’ offices to use in counseling parents and children on prevention and treatment of childhood obesity;

• spread school wellness programs throughout the state with physician input; and

• partnered with physicians, SCMA, MUSC, USC School of Public Health, state government department heads and staff to fight the epidemic.

Degenhart said the “tool kit” is also called the 5-2-1-0 Plan: at least five fruits and vegetables per day; no more than two hours of screen time (computer, TV, gaming, smartphone, etc.); one hour of physical activity; and no sweet drinks.

“Truly, the fight has just begun for childhood obesity,” he said. “We are beginning to see some decreases in the increase in childhood obesity, but no true reduction statewide or nationally. Our younger generation may be the first in hundreds of years not to have a greater longevity and quality of life than the generation preceding it.”

Degenhart said he believes the country can turn the tide.

“It will take great will, sacrifices and determination. Our nation has faced many crises; we can overcome this one, too. Indeed, it is not just South Carolina or the U.S. Most Western nations are experiencing the same problem. Food is relatively available; we are more and more sedentary; our work and entertainment has evolved from physical to sitting,” he said.

He said the best way citizens can fight the problem is to educate themselves and each other.

“What is an ideal body weight? What is BMI? Be a mentor. Sponsor a child, your own children -- be a good example,” Degenhart said.

Degenhart also suggested volunteering for school wellness programs, and that teachers can get involved, too.

“Studies have shown that schools whose teachers are active in the wellness programs have the best success. If the school does not have one, help organize one,” he said.

Degenhart said he was so awed by receiving both the Physician of the Year and Order of the Palmetto awards that, despite having prepared remarks to make, he dropped them on the floor and then couldn’t find his reading glasses to read them. Degenhart also said it was wonderful for both his parents -- including his father, who is a World War II veteran -- to be there as members of the “greatest generation.”

“I credit my wife for making it such a big surprise, the SCMA, for the award nominations, and my wife and family for all the support they give me,” he said.

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