A trusted primary care physician can be the difference maker between maintaining basic health and achieving optimal wellness, between listening and really hearing — even between life and death.
Nearly 20 years ago, Russell Matthews was looking for a new family doctor after he switched jobs and health insurance. His brother-in-law referred him to Texas Family Medicine, where he met Brian Byrd, MD, and formed one of the most important relationships in his life. Byrd helped him tackle nagging allergies and challenging weight loss. And he was there every step of the way when health crises struck.
"He was the only doctor I could recall that listened and didn't assume anything," Matthews said. His wife, Callie, who also chose Byrd as her physician, added: "Dr. Byrd has a way about him that you feel you could trust him with your life."
And that is exactly what they did when their world collided with cancer.
Looking beyond the obvious
In his early 30s, Matthews went to the doctor only for annual checkups and the occasional sickness. When he told Byrd he struggled with allergies that he suspected were seasonal, Byrd didn't just write a prescription for allergy medication. He listened to Matthews' stories of strong reactions to livestock as a boy visiting his grandfather's ranch, when his eyes would swell and his throat felt like it was closing. After taking his young sons to a stock show, Matthews' anxiety was revived. Byrd was the first physician he'd ever known who delved deeper into that mystery and ran tests to diagnose a deadly allergy to horses.
The diagnosis led to allergen immunotherapy, with the allergen administered in gradually increasing doses over a period of weeks, then months. Through these regular visits, Matthews built a strong rapport with Byrd. They also revealed the physician's penchant for examining a case thoroughly and not taking the easy route.
Road map for long-term health
In his mid-40s, with the stresses of increased work travel and raising a family, Matthews found he was putting on weight. Rather than writing prescriptions for cholesterol or blood pressure drugs, Byrd considered the root of the health issues. Board certified in family medicine, he looked at the full picture of Matthews' life, recommended exercise and encouraged the whole family, including his wife and sons then in high school, to participate.
Byrd also requested that Matthews check his blood pressure daily while maintaining regular exercise and healthy eating habits. Matthews built muscle mass and dropped pounds. To this day, he no longer needs medication for cholesterol or blood pressure.
"The goal was to get off of medication and to live more of a healthy life," Matthews said. "He monitored it pretty closely. He didn't want me to have too much medication when I don't need it."
That careful monitoring and strong relationship would sustain Matthews through the biggest health crisis of his life, which was looming on the horizon.
A difficult diagnosis to swallow
In 2014, not long after losing weight and reaching the best health of his life, Matthews began experiencing frequent heartburn. He thought he was eating too fast and initially chalked it up to the stress of starting a new job with a 100-mile daily round-trip drive to Dallas. Though he started avoiding spicy foods, he still couldn't keep food down and sometimes vomited. Within a couple months, he had trouble swallowing at all.
Matthews called Texas Family Medicine for an urgent appointment and was scheduled immediately nearby for an endoscopy. But the gastroenterologist couldn't even put the scope down Matthews' throat. Two masses the size of oranges blocked his esophagus and stomach.
He was transferred downtown to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. While Byrd doesn't have privileges at the hospital, that didn't prevent him from calling the thoracic surgeon, radiation oncologist, radiologist and other physicians, keeping close tabs on every development.
He just gave me so much encouragement and explained the difficulties I may have, but he told me he would be there — and he was.
Matthews' cancer required daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy over a two-month period to shrink the tumor to the size of a thumbnail so a surgeon could safely remove it. Throughout every twist in the tortuous journey, Matthews and his wife were comforted by Byrd's presence and his plan for Matthews' long-term survival.
On the morning of surgery, they were touched to see Byrd in the waiting room, there to offer support at a hospital he wouldn't have otherwise even been at that day. Jeffrey Lin, MD, removed both tumors and one-third of both the stomach and esophagus, reporting clear margins and confident he removed all the cancer.
"He just gave me so much encouragement and explained the difficulties I may have, but he told me he would be there — and he was," Matthews said about Byrd.
Callie Matthews added that Byrd handled her husband's pain management and helped her be his voice, especially in the eight weeks following surgery when he could not speak.
"He was the advocate for us," she said. "He kept tabs on everything. Anytime we needed anything, he was there for us. Dr. Byrd is the one who saved our lives."
A toast for the next half century
Matthews recently celebrated his 50th birthday, the start of a new decade with Byrd by his side. Byrd continues to watch Matthews' health closely, including monitoring regular bloodwork after another health scare last summer.
Matthews faces the future with confidence, knowing he has a partner in health. He appreciates having a primary care physician who doesn't categorize his health based on a checklist of symptoms. Byrd considers the whole patient when advising each one.
"We understand doctors are overwhelmed, especially with the pandemic," Matthews said. "It's that commitment not to categorize you based on symptoms — but to really listen — that makes him an exceptional physician. I trust him completely."