Justin Jeffries was born to a single mother in Tennessee when she was just 16. Awaiting a kidney transplant, his ailing mother died when she was 23. At the time of his mother's death, Jeffries was 6 and his brother 4. His grandmother, who had already raised three children, took over raising both boys.
So goes a brief outline of the difficult early years in the life of Dr. Jeffries, who last summer completed a fellowship in pulmonary medicine and critical care at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV before becoming an assistant professor at the medical school.
Today, the faculty physician and his wife, Dr. Brandi Alexander Jeffries, both assistant professors at the school of medicine, have a 6-month-old son, Cameron. “We really feel at home here,” says Brandi Jeffries, a family medicine physician who was the subject of a Making the Rounds feature in 2021. “It’s a dream come true for both of us to practice with UNLV.”
“My passion to pursue a career in medicine began like many physicians – with the loss of a loved one,” says Justin Jeffries, who also completed his residency in internal medicine at the school. “I was a preteen when I told a teacher I wanted to be a physician. I remember vividly seeing my mother collapse and waiting for the ambulance to arrive at our home just outside of Memphis. The concept of mortality was foreign to me. My mother suffered from kidney failure. She died en route to the hospital of cardiac arrest. I remember the physicians who gave us time and space to process what happened while also being available for any questions we had. I think of this often when I am comforting the family of a sick patient. The importance of this time is something I know all too well.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, Jeffries frequently found himself comforting grieving families, trying to make the pain more bearable, just as physicians did in the wake of his mother’s passing. One evening he received word at home from University Medical Center (UMC) that one of his ventilated patients might not make it through the night. It was during the early days of the epidemic, when families were not allowed to be with patients because COVID was a highly communicable disease. “During that time, I felt that the physician handling a case like that should be the one communicating with the family, if at all possible.”
After making the 40-minute drive back to the hospital late at night, Jeffries called the family of his dying patient and set up an iPad with them on a group FaceTime call. He held the iPad to him so his family could see and talk to him.
“They spoke to him with so much love and desire for him to continue fighting and come home. I remembered what it felt like to be unable to say goodbye to my mother. They kept praying and crying, encouraging him to fight. I stood there holding the iPad as long as they needed. I did not want to rob them of this moment to speak to him while he was still with us. I am glad for the many moments I have had like that where I could at least help families get some closure for what is likely inevitable. Helping them to understand what’s going on gives families the most peace for what are often the most difficult moments of their lives.”
Jeffries credits his grandmother, who worked in human resources for a tissue manufacturer, for emphasizing education and for not allowing his mother’s death to keep him from living a purposeful life. “My grandmother is the oldest of seven children, and she is the centerpiece of our family. All of her siblings come to her for help. She is extremely intelligent, practical, and has endless patience. Late in life she went back for a master’s degree. She made sure my brother and I had what we needed. We did not want or receive flashy clothes or new material things but all the basics were plentiful.”
While school came easy to him – he also was captain of his high school track team as a decathlete – Jeffries admits he spent too much time in K-12 showing off his wit in class rather than studying or engaging in serious discussion. He did take his love for science seriously.
“Science for me provided answers when I felt that life itself couldn’t be explained.”
His high school standardized test scores were so high that he was given a full ride to Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta that lists among its graduates Martin Luther King Jr., film director Spike Lee, and Dr. David Satcher, the only physician to serve both as director of the CDC and surgeon general of the United States.
Jeffries fondly remembers the time he spent at Meharry Medical College, the South’s first medical school for African Americans and the same Nashville school attended by Dr. Joseph Thornton, the first full-time colorectal surgeon in Nevada and an associate professor at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. “Meharry was a medical school of young intelligent Black students who had a ton in common,” Jeffries says. “I met my wife there.”
The prevalence of asthma in the Black community played a large role in Jeffries pursuing a fellowship in pulmonary medicine and critical care after he completed his residency in internal medicine, where he was chosen by peers as chief resident.
“My very first patient was a young Black male suffering from uncontrolled asthma that reminded me of my younger brother who suffered from the same disease.” While completing his internal medicine residency, he also found he wanted to learn even more about critical care after training at UMC. “There is true wonder in being able to investigate a suspected case of hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (a potentially fatal immune deficiency disorder) while also managing a case of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (a rare viral illness that can be life-threatening). My ability to communicate in a calm, understandable manner has served me well in regards to speaking with other disciplines and leading the care of life-threatening situations. I take particular care in the often difficult conversations I must have with family.”
Whenever he can, Jeffries wants to help families of critically ill patients retain positive memories of their loved ones, who often must endure long periods of illness prior to death. To this day, he wishes he had more memories of his mother. He says even just one positive memory can give a grieving loved one something to hold on to, some semblance of peace.
“My time with my mother being cut short gives me very few memories of her so each of them are very important to me. The one that stands out the most is learning to shuffle cards with her on the living room floor while she made my brother and I snacks. I remember my brother just pushing the cards around and her teaching me to spread and roll the cards in my fingers. That is the only memory that I have of learning and playing with my mother, so it is extremely special to me. It is a peaceful and fun memory. Just the three of us.
"Her passing is the single most formative experience of my life, which created the person I am today. I am so grateful to the doctors and my grandmother and other family for helping me cope with tragedy and loss so it didn’t ruin me, but actually made me feel a responsibility for helping others."