Internal medicine resident James Earl Corley, MD, was charting some orders in the busy ICU at Methodist University Hospital, when a family member of a patient stuck his head out of a door and asked, “Is your name James Earl?” The physician smiled and answered in the affirmative. “We thought that was you. He loves you,” the man said, referring to the patient, who was at the time unconscious. “He’s going to be so excited when he wakes up and finds out you are his doctor.”
Besides being a new member of the 2018-2019 internal medicine chief resident class at UT Health Science Center, Dr. Corley, has another, more global, claim to fame that has brought him plenty of fans. He was a contestant on the 2015 season of “The Amazing Race,” the CBS reality series that sends teams of contestants on a trek around the world to compete in a series of mental and physical challenges to determine who will be the first to arrive at a final destination and win a $1 million prize.
Dr. Corley, 28, was a contestant with his mother, Denise Williams, immediately after he graduated from medical school at the University of Alabama and before joining the residency program at UTHSC. “I literally finished the race, and came here and started working the very next day,” he said.
The duo traveled across five continents and nine countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Zambia, Zimbabwe, France, the Netherlands, Poland, India and the United States, in the span of 19 days.
“Mom and I had three goals in the race: We didn’t want to be the first out, we wanted to win a leg, and we wanted to win the race,” Dr. Corley said. They achieved the first two, and almost the third. They made it through 10 of the 12 legs of the competition before being eliminated.
Along the way, there was a bungee jump over towering Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, a walk with lions in Zimbabwe, a performance with a famous French rapper, and a stint as candelabra bearer in a wedding procession in India.
They moved from country to country at breakneck speed armed only with the contents of two backpacks and their own wits.
“For us, getting to experience all the different cultures was a blast,” he said. “It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s really cool to see everyone is kind at heart and does well. Everyone just does things a little differently.”
“The Amazing Race,” now in its 29th season, first aired in 2001. Mother and son had watched it for years and talked about how, as fitness enthusiasts, they would rock the competition if they ever got picked. One Saturday morning, they talked it over for umpteenth time on the phone, and Dr. Corley got in the car, drove home to Prattville, Alabama, made a three-minute video with his mother on his phone, and applied.
“About a month later, I was getting off an airplane for a residency interview, and I got a missed call with a voicemail on my phone. I picked it up, and it was one of the casting directors, who said they loved our video and they wanted to talk to us more,” Dr. Corley said. “We just kept making it through every single round, until we were on the show.” Their season aired in the fall of 2015.
Preparation consisted of personality tests, interviews with producers and executives at CBS, safety instructions, and minimal coaching. “They choose who they want, and when the race starts, it’s just you making the decisions,” he said.
Along their journey, there were lessons, large and small.
They figured out the hard way they didn’t need as much stuff as they thought they would. Two backpacks, 17 and 22 pounds, were whittled down to one 13-pounder by the end of their race, as items and clothing not needed were given away.
They learned how to make decisions, work together toward their goals, and accept the results, even when it meant elimination.
“One of the things the race taught me is you have to make decisions and stick with them, and just accept the consequences if you’re wrong,” he said. “I think that’s one thing that makes a great leader.”
And they found out you don’t have to speak the same language to communicate.
All of these, Dr. Corley said, have made him a better physician.
“As doctors, we go from room to room, and we get to meet all these different people. We don’t know where they’re coming from, and we take care of people from all over the world,” he said. For example, his brief time in Zimbabwe helped him connect with a woman from Zimbabwe he treated recently at Regional One Health. “Just from this experience, I had a little bit to share with her. And it helps the patients trust you a little more when you can share experiences with them.”
His mom said the race showed her the best in her son. “He is so passionate about life and about people,” she said. “He puts people in front of himself, and that’s why I think he’s going to make a great physician.”
As he continues his internal medicine residency, Dr. Corley is considering whether to specialize in pulmonary critical care or become a hospitalist. As one of five internal medicine chief residents, he will help steer the residency program for the next few years and will recruit others to internal medicine.
He would love to stay in Memphis after residency, he said. “I didn’t really have any connections to Memphis when I came here. I just loved the residency program, and I just loved the residents. I thought they were really good people, so I ranked this placement Number 1, and now I’ve come to love the city. “
Regardless of where he settles, his TV travel left him hungry for more adventures.
“I did a swing rope over the Zambezi River,” he said. “I never would have done that. Now that I got a taste for travel and I got a taste for doing things like that, I can’t wait. After residency, I’ll start traveling again.”