Dr. Serese Smith-Haxton and Dr. Lory Feeler have dedicated their careers to helping women live healthier lives. As healers, we sometimes forget that they too, have lives outside their office. Both are wives and mothers and have pursued their medical careers along with other passions for music, performing and service. Here we take a look at where they draw strength and energy and what inspires them to be their best selves.
An African-American, female Elvis impersonator is quite a stretch in believability but Dr. Serese Smith-Haxton definitely has nailed the rock-n-roll “king” in numerous performances. An OB-GYN at Capital Region Medical Center, Smith-Haxton’s also a talented singer and performer and is at home on stage as she is the operating room. During her residency at Truman Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital in her hometown of Kansas City, she took the grand prize at an Elvis karaoke contest in 1994 and won a trip for two to Las Vegas.
“My husband persuaded me and a few other people at our table that night to enter the contest so I got up on stage and performed “Heartbreak Hotel,”she said. “I can still remember his face.”
Her performance was good enough to move her to the next round and then a spot in the quarterfinals and finals. There were three categories in the contest, including Elvis: the Vegas Years, Elvis: the Doughnut Years and the one she entered – Elvis: the Memphis years. “I wore a leather jacket, jeans and slicked my hair back in a pompadour,” she said.
She then competed against the other 12 finalists, four from each category, and eventually found herself the winner at the then Fine Arts Theater in Overland Park, Kan. “I’ve always loved music and I’ve been singing and performing since I was young,” said Smith- Haxton, who was born and raised in Kansas City to parents who both worked in the postal service. “I sang a lot at church but my singing and performing in musicals started in high school. I was also involved in public speaking too,” she recalls. From eighth grade through high school she attended Sunset Hill, an all girls private school right off the Country Club Plaza and across from Loose Park.
“It was a bit of culture shock for me growing up in the inner city and here I was with mostly all white students and many with prominent parents,” Smith- Haxton said.
One of the first black students in her 8th grade class, she was also one of the only sophomores to make the special select choir called the Madrigals, and she also played volleyball and basketball. She came out as a senior in high school at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority AKA Debutante Ball, and also sang in the talent show. Not just any song but the show-stopping number “And I’m Telling You” from the 1981-83 Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” which was sung by Jennifer Holiday in a Tony Award-winning performance.
“I even stuffed myself a bit so I could look larger like Holiday,” said Smith- Haxton, who won first runner up and received a scholarship. During her sophomore and junior years of high school, Smith-Haxton also participated in the Truman Medical Center’s Summer Scholars program. “The first year you get experience in every facet of the medical profession and the second year I emphasized obstetrics,” she said. “I have known I was going to be an OB-GYN since I was in the eighth grade. I thought I wanted to be a hair dresser but my oldest sister is a nurse and another sister closest to me in age is a pediatric hematologist,” she said.
Smith-Haxton graduated from high school in 1984 and enrolled in the six-year combined, accelerated B.A./M.D. program at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Medicine, UMKC.
“When you get into the program you are in the fast track,” she said. “There’s a lot of patient experience early on and you have teams of medical students who work with the docent, or clinical staff.” Still even while she immersed herself in her studies, she continued to sing and perform. She took modern dance and theater classes and was part of a student organization the On-Call Musicians, a group of medical students who performed at various events and variety shows. When the announcement came that auditions were being held for a production of “Working,” a Broadway show based on the book by Studs Terkel. The musical was performed at the UMKC Theater, directed by a student who was part of masters program in directing. Smith-Haxton was cast as one of the maids and the wife of a mechanic character, and was in the chorus.
“Going to medical school while attending rehearsals was really tough and I was very busy,” she said. While involved in the production of “Working” she also met her husband, who attended The University of Kansas, through a production assistant on the show. Going into her third year at UMKC School of Medicine, she auditioned for “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Heartland Theater, where she was cast as one of the Doo Wop Girls.
“I changed my whole schedule to accommodate the practices and the run of the show and then they made scheduling changes and it was no longer a good fit,” she said. “Someone in the production even suggested that I quit medical school.” At a crossroads, she opted not to be involved in the musical and stayed her course and graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts in biology, and her M.D. conferred in May. That year she also worked as one of the technical people on “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (the musical), from David Luby, founder and artistic director of Gorilla Theatre Productions.
She and Chris married in 1992 during her four year obstetrics-gynecology residency and in June of 1994 they headed to the naval hospital at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, NC, where she served in many capacities, including assistant director, Division of Obstetrics. She had signed up for the Health Professions Scholarship with the Navy back in 1988, and in return for years of service the Navy paid for her last two years of college. “My parents had paid so much for me to go to the private high school and then college so I wanted to help out,” she said.
Early on, her husband, Chris, had to take classes in the then “brides” school to find out about all the benefits a spouse of a Navy officer would receive, which was a bit of a twist on the traditional married couple. “I liked it there a lot. I delivered babies, did surgery; it was no different than being an OB-GYN anywhere else,” she said. Maybe a bit different as there was more hierarchy in the military, and while they did have disaster drills, she was never deployed.
During this time, she was still singing at friends’ weddings and retirement events. She also won another karaoke contest singing “I Will Always Love You,” sung by one of her favorite performers, Whitney Houston. She and her husband went on a free trip to Freeport Grand Bahamas. By then she had invested in her own Karaoke machine. “I was really into it,” she said. After three and a half years, during which time she was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander, she was honorably discharged in March of 1999. She joined St. Luke’s Northland Hospital in Kansas City and then worked at Research Medical Center for five years from 2000 to 2005. For two years she was at Women’s Health Specialists, P.C. in Leavenworth, Ks., and in 2009 she moved to this area to join Capital Region, OB/GYN Associates where she has a busy practice. Being a bi-racial couple, her husband is Caucasian, they were initially concerned about their reception, but they have settled into the community of Wardsville where her three children – two sons Chandler, 17, and Joshua, 13, and 16-year-old daughter, Larissa, attend Blair Oaks.
“My husband is a stay-at-home dad and we’re both very focused on our children now,” she said. “Joshua loves art and wants to be a video game designer and Chandler is a senior this year and plays on the basketball team. Being loud and very vocal, the referees know me well.”
Her daughter, Larissa, is definitely following in Smith-Haxton’s footsteps. “She’s taken dance lessons since she was 3-years-old and is very talented,” she said. The mother/daughter duo was cast in The Little Theatre’s production of “Hairspray” in August of 2011. Smith-Haxton was in the chorus and Larissa played Little Inez. These days with busy family life and a busy job, Smith-Haxton has less time to pursue performing. This January she will begin serving as a subsection chief in OB/GYN and is a member of the Surgical Product Review Board and Quality Improvement Committee at Capital Region Medical Center. “It used to be all about delivering babies, but now I’m more interested in empowering women and educating them about their bodies,” Smith-Haxton said.
“I came from a family that you didn’t talk about things and I learned all my information about my body initially from my sisters,” she said. “Now I enjoy educating women about their body so they
don’t freak out and know what to expect.” Being a performer has definitely benefited her as a physician, she said. “I am comfortable speaking with my patients and it has definitely helped my bedside manner, too.”
As she’s on call a lot, she’s a bit rusty with her karaoke but said she’ll always be drawn to the stage. “Medicine is my calling but I’ve been able to pursue singing, dancing and performing as my hobby. I’m really blessed that I have been able to pursue both of my passions,” she said.
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