Peace of Mind
Retired neurologist and alumnus Dr. Ross Pettit chats with North Dakota Medicine on retirement, giving, and his namesake scholarship for UND medical students.
The last time I saw Dr. Ross Pettit, he gave me a box full of anatomical models.
“Oh, those belonged to my father-in-law,” laughs Ross (BS Med ’70) over coffee recently, referencing Dr. John Taylor, who in 1960 helped establish North Dakota’s first electron microscopy laboratory within the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS). “That stuff was in his house after he died. Donna and I were cleaning his place out and thought that UND should have it.”
Giving back, it seems, is just something Ross and DonnaLee Pettit are inclined to do.
That’s why, a few years ago, the pair sought to give back to the SMHS in a more formal way by establishing the Dr. Ross and DonnaLee Pettit Medical Scholarship Endowment.
Each spring, the fund distributes allocations to one or more medical students with “financial need.”
“We both have relatively strong feelings that it’s important to give back,” Ross continues of the latter gift. “For me, a big part of this is expressing our appreciation to North Dakota for giving us this opportunity. I really wonder how many of my contemporaries would have been able to have a career in medicine if it hadn’t been for this school.”
Medicine in the family
Born in New York, Ross Pettit ended up in Grand Forks when his father, pediatrician Dr. Samuel Pettit, began practicing in North Dakota in the early-1950s. Growing up around a father who made house calls, Ross says that it was never really a question for him about what career path he would follow.
“I think I just assumed that as a college student I was going to go into medicine,” he says. “I don’t recall ever having any other aspirations. I liked the sciences, so I applied [to UND] and got in. Although I did take the Air Force officer’s qualification test as a fallback.”
After completing his two years at UND to earn what was then a Bachelor or Science in Medicine degree in 1970, all while DonnaLee worked as a medical librarian at the old Harley E. French Medical Library at UND, Ross transferred to St. Louis University to finish his M.D.
Initially pursuing pediatrics, like his father, Ross says he eventually fell into neurology,
completing a neurology residency—after an internship in pediatrics and a stint in the U.S. Air Force—at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Having married DonnaLee in the interim, the pair made their way back to the upper-Midwest in the late 1970s. After practicing for nearly 40 years in Grand Forks and around the region, Ross retired in 2015—the same year as his brother Bill Pettit, who earned his M.D. from UND in 1980.
Along the way, the pediatric neurologist saw incredible change both in the healthcare system and neurology as a practice.
“The [neurology] oral exam when I went through was four hours long, and one full hour of that was dedicated to psychiatry,” Ross explains, still sounding surprised at the number. “Twenty-five percent. Neurologists are still certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, but the one-hour oral exam in psychiatry was dropped for neurologists in the mid-1980s.”
Such a “divorce” is good, says Ross, in that while there is still overlap between the specialties, the domain knowledge required by providers within each profession and the demand for both types of healthcare is increasing. That is to say, not only are mental health diagnoses on the rise, also increasing is the scholarship on and diagnoses for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s. According to one report from the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, for instance, the number of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the United States “is expected to double by 2040.”
“Neurology has become more therapeutic,” Ross suggests, referencing English neurologist Oliver Sacks and his work on the drug levodopa (L-dopa). “Prior to L-dopa there was nothing you could do for some of these patients. Same with epilepsy. But today it’s much different. If I were in neurology today I would consider subspecializing in epilepsy. Neurologists can subspecialize in a number of areas, from multiple sclerosis and neuromuscular disease to movement disorders.”
Paying it forward
When asked about the explosion in not only pharmaceuticals for neurological conditions, but preventive practices and therapies such as probiotic supplementation or certain diets like gluten- or dairy-free, Ross waves the question away.
“Part of quitting means not keeping up with that stuff,” he says explaining that the decision just came to him one day: it was time to be done. So he retired. “I have literally not kept up at all. I thought I would, but haven’t.”
These days, Ross says he and DonnaLee spend a lot of time at the lake, a lot of time reading, and a lot of time enjoying greater peace of mind—which for a neurologist is no idle phrase.
Even so, the profession’s loss is the University’s gain as the Pettits can dedicate more time to giving back—or paying it forward.
“I feel a real debt of gratitude to North Dakota,” Ross concludes. “I think for a lot of us, the State Legislature establishing this medical school created opportunities for North Dakota students that they may not have otherwise realized. That’s part of why we decided to do this. I think it’s important to give back and I feel pretty strongly about that.”
For more information on the Dr. Ross and DonnaLee Pettit Medical Scholarship Endowment, or to give to the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, call 701.777.2611 or email Jeff Dodson at jeffd@UNDalumni.org.