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College of Nursing alumnus: County's 'best pediatrician'

By Allyson Bird | News Center | November 12, 2013

Nursing alumnus Jacob Coward (left) and his father, Dr. Paul Coward, run Caring Hearts Pediatrics in Hartsville.

HARTSVILLE -- Jacob Coward popped into the Jungle Room, where a baby looked up at him, wide-eyed, from a paper-covered examination table beneath a cartoonish monkey painted on the wall.

“She’s beautiful,” he told the child’s mother. “Just beautiful.”

Here in Hartsville, where the motto is “a small town with a big heart,” people love Jacob. He grew up in this community, where charming homes border family-owned crop fields. People can remember when Jacob, as a boy, used to run 3 miles to his father’s pediatrics office while cross-training for soccer.

He came home after graduating from MUSC with his master’s degree from the College of Nursing in 2007 and began working with his father at CareSouth Carolina. Two years later, residents voted Jacob the “Best Pediatrician in Darlington County,” an award usually reserved for doctors.

“When they came to present the award, I said, ‘Are you here for me? Or did you want Dr. Coward?’” Jacob remembered.  

His father, Dr. Paul Coward, numbered among the first doctors in the state to hire nurse practitioners in the 1980s and 1990s. Dr. Coward graduated from MUSC’s College of Medicine in 1969, shipped out to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., and struggled to keep up with the demand to see 100 patients per day and field phone calls from another 200 people.

“I trained a nurse to do some screening, and she went on to become a nurse practitioner,” Dr. Coward said. He brought that logic back to his own practice, which CareSouth Carolina bought out in 1996.

Dr. Coward does everything his own way, from nontraditional work attire that abandons the white coat for button-down shirts and leisure pants. He continued working for CareSouth until one Thursday night in February of 2012, when he went to bed early but stayed up praying. For some time, Dr. Coward had wanted to devote part of his life to Christian mission work, and that calling had left him restless.

“It became very clear to me that I might not be able to go because of my age and my health,” he realized. “But I could send people.”

Dr. Coward and Jacob drove around looking for office space to rent. They spotted the building where Dr. Coward started his first practice in the 1980s, which happened to be owned by a man who runs a Bible college in Zambia, Africa.

Jacob Coward sees a patient at Caring Hearts Pediatrics.

“I asked him how long he had the ‘for rent’ sign up, and he said, ‘Two days,’” Dr. Coward remembered. The father and son team decided that the timing wasn’t a coincidence but instead part of a bigger, divine plan. “I told him, ‘Well, take it down,’” Dr. Coward said.

He and his son opened Caring Hearts Pediatrics in June of 2012. They know their patients personally and bring them into themed rooms for treatment. They designed a pink-striped room with Disney princesses on the walls and blinking lights on the ceiling for little girls, while boys and tomboys get the fire truck and train rooms.

A map of the world in the office’s waiting area marks mission work that the Cowards support across the globe with heart stickers. From Haiti to India and Africa, Caring Hearts Pediatrics has contributed more than $20,000 to support 16 mission groups each month.

Jacob traveled to Zambia in May, where he worked in a clinic from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day, primarily treating children with malaria. One morning he arrived at 7 a.m. to find a father waiting with his child outside the clinic.  

“There’s no telling how far he walked to get there, and we didn’t see them until 9:15,” Jacob said.

He already wants to go back. He and his father also intend to send anyone from their office who wants to go on a mission trip, including front-desk staff.

Gigi Smith, an assistant professor in the pediatric nurse practitioner program at MUSC, said that, even as a student, Jacob committed himself to public service. Successful nurse practitioners not only diagnose and treat but educate and guide patients through the healing process, she said.

“Jacob does a great job of that,” Smith said. “He and his father always had the dream of working together. They’re really beloved by their community, and Jacob is just an excellent role model for nurse practitioners.”

Jacob brushes aside the compliments. The way he sees it, his job is simply following the science, and his affinity for the work is simply accepting a blessing.

“If you ask the right questions, have the right interview and do the right exam, that should lead you to an appropriate diagnosis without running a bunch of tests,” Jacob said. “Nursing is a compassion-driven field, and I think the Lord has given me a heart for that type of work.”

Allyson Bird is with MUSC's Office of Development and Alumni Affairs.

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