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Tulsa Tech Graduate Takes Road Less Traveled to Medical Career

Ms. Mildred Hill, Surgical Technology instructor & James H. Neel, MD

The impact of your job can be felt across your life. The wrong job can impact happiness, home life and even mental outlook. The saying of Chinese philosopher Confucius comes to mind. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

A great example of choosing a job you love is Tulsa Tech graduate James H. Neel M.D., F.A.C.S. Neel is a Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeon at Ascension St. John. His Tulsa Tech story doesn’t start like every other. Growing up on a sod farm in Bixby, Neel came to Tulsa Tech as an adult student. His dreams of being a doctor were put on hold following college.

“I went to college and got pretty distracted playing baseball and goofing off,” Neel said with a grin. “I did not make the kind of grades that I should have, so when I graduated, I didn’t have the grades or the degree to even think about medicine.”

Neel says it was then he had to take a deep look inside. He talked with his mentors, considered his options and decided to go back to school, all with an eye on his dream of being a doctor.

“I figure while I am getting my grades up, I might as well get as much experience and exposure in medicine as I can,” Neel said. “The best way I could think of was going to Surgical Technology school. By the time I started medical school, I had worked in the operating room (O.R.) for almost three years.”

At Tulsa Tech, Neel was able to learn from professionals, taking part in instructor Mildred Hill’s first-ever evening Surgical Technology class. Surgical Technologists provide surgeons with the sanitary tools and equipment they need to complete procedures. It was within that program where he found a wealth of knowledge.

“My Tulsa Tech instructors were outstanding,” Neel said, smiling. “They are people who are doing what they are teaching all day, every day and they are experts in their field.”

 It also propelled him down a path to medical school. The Surgical Technology credits were able to count toward his overall grade point average, in a sense raising his grades. After spending three years and scrubbing in for thousands of surgeries, Neel started medical school.

His time at Tulsa Tech opened the doors to the O.R. with knowledge, skills and overall comfort level in a high-pressure situation, which helped create an advantage over his peers. However, beyond the O.R. skills and knowledge, Neel says his time at Tulsa Tech taught him humility.

“Just because you are a surgeon in the O.R., you are the captain of the ship, but that does not mean you get to treat people poorly,” Neel said frankly. “As a surgical technologist, you are lower on that totem pole. I had instruments thrown at me. I had people curse and yell at me when you make honest mistakes, we all do, and it never motivated me.”

It is those lessons that Neel keeps with him to this day.

“We don’t treat people that way. I don’t yell in the O.R., I don’t curse, we don’t throw instruments. It is a team,” Neel said. “I can’t do my job without everybody in the room doing their job. My job is no more important.”

Neel attributes that the essence of being a team was something instilled by Hill, for whom he still has a soft spot in heart for, all these years later.

“Every time I would see Mildred Hill until the day she retired, I stop everything I am doing, I go over and give her a big hug. I love that woman like she was my own kin,” Neel said, grinning ear to ear.

Her impact is evident in how he speaks of her and how he uses the lessons she taught him to make sure he is the best educator he can be. The boy who grew up on a sod farm in Bixby, now happy to have his dream job here in Tulsa, a dream that Neel says shows the importance of education.

“Tulsa Tech helped me get to where I do what I love for a living,” Neel said, smiling. “I got most people beat. I love going to work every day.  I love what I do, and the way I got there was furthering my education.”