One of the things orthopedic surgeon Michael L. Parks misses about life in Columbia is time to sit and sip sweet tea. First of all, it is difficult to actually find “real” sweet tea in the metropolis of New York City. Plus, Dr. Parks is a mega-busy, in-demand national expert in the area of hip and knee surgery and joint replacement.
Dr. Parks began his life, as most of us do, at a hospital — Providence Hospital in Columbia — but he never imagined he would spend his days at one. He was raised just outside of Greenview in Northeast Columbia in the home of two educators; both parents, Sylvia and Marshall Parks, taught in Richland School District One. Yet, one of the state’s first black physicians, Anthony Edward Boyd, who practiced in Greenville, was Dr. Parks’ great-great-uncle. Dr. Parks owns the ink wells Dr. Boyd once used in his office. In fact, Dr. Parks’ South Carolina heritage, especially on his father’s side, is embedded in his psyche as many generations of his paternal family claim deep roots in the state. It was after hearing stories about his grandfather’s uncle and other African American physicians who were friends of his family, that a light switch went off: “I can do this, too,” he thought. He became motivated.
“The community I grew up in was rich with medical professionals. I remember having great admiration for my pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin O. Stands, who took care of patients of all ethnic backgrounds,” says Dr. Parks. “He was an inspiration; also, my circle of friends in high school happened to be achievement oriented, and it dawned on me that I needed to decide what I wanted to do and how to make it happen.”
With an affinity for science, he graduated near the top of his class in 1982 from Dreher High School, attended Duke University, where he graduated with a degree in chemistry, and then pursued a medical degree at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. As a medical student, he met with the chair of the orthopedic surgery department at MUSC and was told he should spend time at the Hospital for Special Surgery. At the time, Dr. Parks did not think he had a chance to work at this number-one program, so he did not even apply for residency there.
Instead, he returned to Duke University Medical Center; Dr. Parks decided to specialize in orthopedic surgery because he especially desired to alleviate pain and immobility in patients. Ironically, he did end up doing his fellowship in hip and knee reconstruction at the Hospital for Special Surgery, Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City in the late 1990s — where he remains. He is an Associate Attending Physician and an Associate Professor. He sees patients, operates and teaches, as well as researches and publishes.
He says the interest in hip and knee replacement surgery began after he started an orthopedic rotation as a student. “When I saw my first joint replacement, I knew that was the field I wanted to go into.”
He adds that he had great mentors in the field: Eduardo Salvati, Marvin L. Shelton, Dempsey Springfield and Roger Levy — to name a few. “I am fortunate to have had individuals of this caliber take an interest in my career, which, consequently, has allowed me significant opportunities within my profession,” he says.
Dr. Parks’ expertise over the years has resulted in the attention of top publications such as Black Enterprise, Money and New York Times magazines. In 2012 he was an honoree featured in the AT&T South Carolina African American History Calendar. He has also appeared as an expert on the CBS Saturday Early Show and NBC’s the Today show. In addition, he has served on numerous medical specialty boards at state and national levels.
“I have had the opportunity to travel extensively in the United States and internationally,” says Dr. Parks. “I see patients from all over the world. My job is extremely fulfilling, allowing me to grow professionally and personally through ongoing challenges. I like that my job is bigger than I am.”
He meets many patients with arthritis who become concerned about losing their mobility and independence. Dr. Parks is often able to give them a better quality of life and prolong their ability to live independently. Since the Hospital for Special Surgery is the busiest orthopedic center in the country, it is common for him to perform at least 40 procedures monthly.
Dr. Parks says he never imagined he would be working and teaching at a leading orthopedic surgery program. “The take-home point is that you can do whatever you aspire to,” he says. “The big ‘aha’ that I tell medical students and residents is that you don’t know where you will end up. Just plan, prepare and aspire. You just have to work hard, dream and make it happen.”
He says Sylvia, his mother, is understandably proud. “She says she is glad that I chose a profession where I can reach out and improve the quality of life for others.”
Known all his childhood in Columbia as “the Parks boy,” he is never void of his history of family and tradition. Even as he travels, and navigates the busy heart of New York City, he clings to his roots. “The South gave me a sense of purpose, and I am solidly grounded in a community that included not only my family, but teachers, neighbors and friends.”
He recalls the influence of Joe Pinner as “Mr. Knozit” on local television, as well as enjoying his first live concert — Prince — at the Carolina Coliseum. He remembers walking down the street and often hearing someone ask: “You are a Parks, right?”
In New York City, although Dr. Parks has a multitude of opportunities at his disposal to teach, learn and grow, the sheer size and population means that a sense of community is often lacking. “The sense of community of the South brings civility and social norms. In the melting pot and rush of 10 million people, I often miss the gentility, Southern comfort and friendliness.”
What is your favorite Columbia restaurant when you return for a visit?
I loved Goatfeathers as a teen. I returned the week of Christmas to find it is still in existence as Goats (in Five Points), under new ownership and with the same lovely ambiance.
What part of the city do you miss most?
I liked shopping on Main Street — Berry’s, Tapps, Louries and Belk Department stores. I miss these local stores that were part of our community that no longer exist. I miss most that downtown has been transformed from that of my childhood.
What were your favorite things to do as a child growing up in Columbia?
As a child I liked to go to Sesquicentennial State Park for a barbeque or a field trip. As a very small child, I learned to swim with lessons at both Drew and Trenholm Parks. In the summer, I really liked visiting friends and swimming at Lake Murray — or going to Camp Thunderbird in Clover.
Do you think you will ever move back?
Although I don’t have any immediate plans to move back to Columbia, I don’t plan to stay in New York forever. I will always consider South Carolina my home. I hope to return some day because all of my family still lives in South Carolina.
What aspect of Columbia is hardest to be away from?
My friends and family. Although I have met good friends in New York City, the majority of my close friends are from South Carolina and specifically Columbia.
What do you personally feel to be the most significant difference between Columbia and your current residence in New York City?
What I like most about NYC is that it has the best of everything at your fingertips. New York City is in a microcosm of the world. Unfortunately, it is all at a cost. In Columbia, we can enjoy many simple things for free — just sitting on the porch sipping sweet tea on a hot summer day. That does not exist in NYC.