Holifield: Courage and compassion

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 25, 2004

His legacy will live long after family and friends lay Dr. Reese Holifield to rest tomorrow.

There will be tales of the time he saved a colleague’s life; the $40 he pulled from his own pocket to pay a patient’s bill for the medical procedure he performed; the countless hours he spent at the bed of a patient – for comfort’s sake.

The stories of Dr. Holifield will last for generations, but no family will carry the legacy longer than Kelley Parrish-Barnes and her son Martin “Rocky” Lyons Jr.

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Almost 17 years ago, the blood kept Barnes from seeing her life flash before her eyes. After her car tumbled down a 20-foot embankment, 5-year-old Rocky literally pushed his mother back up the hill – bum shoulders, crushed face and all.

A motorist – flagged down by the soon-to-be-hero son – carried Barnes to Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital on Oct. 30, 1987. Within minutes, Dr. Holifield responded to the emergency call.

“What’s funny is that I had always told people that if anything ever happened to me, I wanted Dr. Holifield there,” Barnes said on Friday.

Dr. Holifield was there that night, looking at a young woman he knew but didn’t recognize. Her face, for all practical purposes, was one large gash. In fact, the only way Barnes’ could describe the gruesomeness of the injury was to describe another person’s reaction.

“I was on an elevator in New York and a lady actually screamed when she saw me.”

Dr. Holifield didn’t scream, but he immediately realized the problem.

“The middle portion of her face was bashed in,” he told The Tuscaloosa News in a Dec. 20, 1987, story. “I had to rebuild her nose, sew her lip back up which was cut through to the nasal area, and basically put her face back together.”

As the story goes, Holifield wasn’t exactly a plastic surgeon. He was a family doctor. He also was a neighbor.

“I had grown up around him because I was friends with his daughter,” Barnes said. “He knew, basically, what my face looked like.”

For at least six hours, Dr. Holifield reconstructed the face he remembered.

“I have no idea how long the surgery lasted, and I don’t even know how many stitches he used,” Barnes said, 17 years later. “But he knew exactly how many hundreds of stitches he used.”

After the reconstructive surgery was complete, Dr. Holifield and physical therapist Don Sprewell devised a contraption to secure Barnes’ body.

“It was a cage made out of PVC pipe,” Barnes recalled.

Soon after the surgery ended and the healing began, Barnes’ husband at the time, Marty Lyons, checked his wife into a New York hospital in Lenox Hill.

“I saw this famous plastic surgeon, and the first thing they did was take the cage to the incinerator. When they couldn’t figure out a way to stabilize my arms, they sent somebody back down to the incinerator so they could reconstruct what Dr. Holifield and Don Sprewell had built,” Barnes scoffed.

During her three weeks in a New York hospital, Barnes said doctors performed no operations.

“[The doctors] would bring residents in and let them look at me,” she said. “Then they’d tell the residents how a family practice doctor down in Demopolis did all of this. They couldn’t have done it any better.”

For the life of Dr. Reese Holifield, that seems to be the theme. Whether it was his service to country during a stint in the U.S. Army, to a 48-year tenure at BWWMH, few seemed to do it better than Dr. Holifield.

Softly, Kelley Parrish-Barnes agreed.

“My son, Rocky, just started medical school,” she said, fighting back tears. “Dr. Holifield is the reason. The city of Demopolis should let his body lie in state at the civic center, because I don’t know what this city will do without him.”

That question may be tough to answer, especially for people like Barnes. Dr. Reese Holifield, in a prodigious fashion, left a legacy on this small town. He did so through compassion and professionalism.

He also had courage – enough to stand over an operating table and perform surgery to a face that, today, can catch the tears of Kelley Parrish-Barnes.