Long before he became the first MD in his family, before he was a pediatrician or a neonatologist, before he had any idea where his career path would lead, Dr. Jason Pryor knew without a doubt that he would advocate for children and his community in some way. He grew up in Seymour, Tennessee, a small town near Knoxville, and spent much of his teenage years volunteering with kids in his community. He counts his volunteer work with the Knoxville Special Olympics among his most rewarding experiences.
Still unsure of ‘what he wanted to be when he grew up,’ Dr. Pryor went to Union College in Kentucky for his freshman through junior years and played on the school’s baseball and football teams, the Bulldogs. It was during this time Dr. Pryor realized that becoming a pediatrician would allow him to make the greatest impact on the lives of children and their families. He decided to focus solely on medicine and for his senior year, transferred to East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City as a biology major.
Because ETSU quickly became a second home to Dr. Pryor, he ranked its medical school as his first choice, but unfortunately, was not accepted. On top of that, US med schools require students to wait a full year before they can reapply. Restless and eager to begin his medical education right away, he began looking at Caribbean medical schools that admit students on a rolling basis. This would give him the opportunity to start working towards his MD immediately after college. His research and the discussions he had with AUA administrators, especially Bob Gelles, who Dr. Pryor mentions by name, left no doubt in his mind that AUA was the right school for him.
Why He Chose AUA
“Of all the Caribbean schools I evaluated, AUA was the one that impressed me most. I found that same personalized approach that made ETSU feel like my home away from home. The accessibility of professors, the genuine interest that the administrators and faculty take in you as a person—it was just so welcoming,” Dr. Pryor recalls.
Although he was disappointed to leave Johnson City, Dr. Pryor soon immersed himself in the AUA community. He focused on his studies, developed strong relationships with his professors, and learned about other cultures by being part of an incredibly diverse student body. During his clerkships, he took every opportunity to broaden his clinical experiences and in doing so, pursued emerging interests as elective rotations. “I worked extremely hard at AUA and took advantage of all the resources available to me,” Dr. Pryor says.
From Residency to Fellowship
When he started applying for residency, of course his thoughts returned to ETSU and the hope to complete some component of his medical training at his “home away from home.” Five years had passed since he first applied to ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine when Dr. Pryor received a letter from the Pediatrics department, offering him a position in their residency program. Everything seemed to come full circle when he returned to ETSU as a pediatrics resident and eventually became chief resident.
Today, Dr. Pryor is a fellow in neonatology-perinatology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he treats premature babies and infants with special surgical needs. “What I love about neonatology is that it’s the ideal combination of intensive care and pediatrics. It forces me to think on my feet, in the sense that every patient outcome is critically important. Every case is urgent.” Neonatology also allows for a longer continuity of care than many other specialties.
For one month each year, Dr. Pryor and his colleagues provide neurodevelopmental follow-up. During this process, recent pediatrics patients return to the hospital for a series of tests that measure cognitive and motor skills. “It’s incredibly rewarding to measure their improvement and witness how resilient these babies are as they grow healthier. Parents that were worried when we last met are now filled with joy and relief. You can’t help but share in that.”
“It’s Why I’m a Doctor”
The focus of Dr. Pryor’s ambition was always twofold—help children and improve his community. As a neonatologist, he certainly achieved the former, but felt there was more he could contribute to the latter. He recently completed a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at Vanderbilt. By evaluating health programs, utilizing qualitative data analysis, and studying the social determinants of health and epidemiology, Dr. Pryor’s master’s work taught him to see “the bigger picture” when considering issues like perinatal substance abuse.
The opioid epidemic was of particular interest to him because of its prevalence in the southeast region of the country. The Chattanoogan, a daily news website based in Tennessee, has reported that an “estimated 69,100 [people in the state] are addicted to prescription opioids and require treatment for prescription opioid abuse.”
While earning his MPH, Dr. Pryor conducted research on this crisis and its relationship to neonatal abstinence syndrome in the United States. The resulting article will appear in an upcoming issue of Archives of Disease in Childhood, Fetal and Neonatal. His research on maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy also appeared recently in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Now, Dr. Pryor is working as a neonatologist at the same hospital where his wife Meghan, a Doctor of Pharmacy, is based. “I’m really looking forward to this next chapter,” Dr. Pryor says. “I love what I do. Treating children and helping families in their time of need is what gets me out of bed every morning. It’s why I’m a doctor.”