Beloved Physician Joyce Copeland, M.D., Retiring After More Than 40 Years at Duke

Monday, November 12, 2018
By Courtney Decker
Joyce Copeland, M.D.

By the time Joyce Copeland, M.D., was in the third grade, she had already narrowed her career aspiration list to three options: doctor, the first woman astronaut on the moon or the first woman president.

“I did one of the three,” she says, laughing. “The other two are still open, but I'm no longer interested in astronauts.”

As a child growing up in the early Space Age, Copeland’s aspirations made sense. She was intrigued by science, politics and news, but her family’s doctor sparked her interest in becoming a physician. She recalls his passing and cites the subsequent outpouring of grief and love in her hometown of Elizabeth City as what led her to consider a career in family medicine.

“He had been in that community for decades and everybody loved him,” recalls Copeland, associate professor of community and family medicine. “… It sort of inspired me.”

However, Copeland had her doubts about becoming a physician. Her high school guidance counselor, who also served as her basketball coach, told her that since she was a woman and may want to have a family, she should consider other options.

“If it was now, I’d punch him in the nose!” Copeland says. “But … it kind of scared me a little bit. It made me think, ‘Can I do this?’”

Still interested in the medical field, she pursued a career in medical technology instead, enrolling in a four-year program at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College). During Copeland’s third year in the program, a faculty member encouraged her to apply to medical school.

With more confidence in herself and her original career goal, she reconsidered applying to medical school, deciding that if she was accepted somewhere, she would go. But if not, she had the medical technology program to fall back on.  

She ultimately was accepted to The University of North Carolina School of Medicine and enrolled in medical school the fall after her graduation from Atlantic Christian College. In 1975, she was one of 10 residents who matched with the Duke (then Duke-Watts) Family Medicine Residency. Copeland has fond memories of her days as a resident, recalling the camaraderie among her class.

“We worked really hard, but we also played really hard,” she recalls. “Those were good people, and they’re still doing great things.”

Now, after more than 40 years at Duke, including residency training and a fulfilling career as a family doctor, Copeland will retire at the end of this year. While she won’t miss “metrics, prior authorizations, inbox and hours in front of the computer,” she will miss the people: her colleagues, students and patients. After all, they are a huge part of what kept her at Duke and in Durham for the past 43 years.

Residency Program in 1978The Best of Both Worlds

After completing family medicine residency in 1978, Copeland worked at a Durham practice for one year, then returned to Duke to join the Department of Community and Family Medicine’s clinical practice, where she has been ever since. She became a faculty member in the Division of Family Medicine in 1980 and has held various academic positions over the years, in addition to seeing patients. The ability to work in both academic and clinical medicine has been very rewarding for Copeland.

“When you’re in a clinic by yourself, you’ve got one-on-one and you can influence lots of people, and what you do with a family can make a difference down the road for a lot of people,” she says. “But when you’re training medical students and residents and working with them, you’re influencing generations of people — thousands of people — and the health care system as a whole. You can sit back at the end of your career and go, ‘Wow. I got to watch that develop.’”

Copeland is certainly able to do so. After being in the Duke community for over 40 years, her influence has been felt by generations of her colleagues, students and patients.

“Joyce embodies the family physician that we see less and less of today,” says Samuel “Woody” Warburton, Jr., M.D., professor emeritus of community and family medicine and former chief of the Division of Family Medicine. “In days long gone, the family physician established a practice and stayed in that community, that practice, for 40, 50, even 60 years. Joyce has done that here at Duke Family Medicine, and that’s very much beloved by her patients, students and the faculty. I think she has really set a model that hopefully others will emulate.”

A Mentor and Model for the Future

In 2005, Copeland was recognized as North Carolina’s Family Physician of the Year. But despite her widespread influence and her role as a mentor to so many, Copeland remains modest.

“I’ve always felt that being a mentor is not something that you choose to be. That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to be, but being a mentor is hoping that you are doing things or being the kind of doctor that people would say, ‘Oh, this is somebody I want to be like,’” she says. “It’s the mentee who selects the mentor. You can be an adviser and a person can be forced to be your advisee, but being a mentor is something you have to earn.”

Recent residency graduate Brian Blank, M.D., HS’18, now an attending physician at an urgent care in the Greenville (South Carolina) Health System, was one of Copeland’s many advisees who, just a few days into his residency, realized she would be so much more than just an adviser to him.

Blank recalls seeing an elderly patient who was experiencing a bug problem in his home and had brought cockroaches into the clinic on his clothes and in his shoes. Unsure of what to do, Blank says he excused himself to talk with the supervising physician, who happened to be Copeland that day. She accompanied Blank back to the examination room and began to talk with the patient. Using her humor, charm and knowledge, Blank recalls that Copeland put both men at ease, and then helped develop a plan that ensured the patient was safe at home.

“I will never forget thinking to myself during that moment that this is the kind of doctor I want to be,” Blank says. “I will spend the rest of my life trying to learn how to do what Dr. Copeland did so masterfully, so elegantly, in the span of maybe 10 to 15 minutes.”

Care: The Copeland Way

Compassionate care has always been the “Copeland standard.” As a result, many of Copeland’s patients have stayed with her for the duration of her career. She’s cared for multiple generations of families and delivered their children, grandchildren and, in a few cases, great-grandchildren. She even has some patients who have been with her since she was a resident.

In addition to providing excellent medical care, Copeland has always enjoyed getting to know her patients beyond their medical charts. She keeps a scrapbook full of photos, drawings and other mementos that her patients have given her over the years, and she recounts stories about every single page. Like her colleagues, her patients have also become like family.

“There are some of them that I really have a sense of family with. That’s what is sort of hard now,” she says. “I guess it’s selfish in a way, but I feel like I am a part of their family, and a part of their lives.”

Indeed, she is.

Eric and Marion Monson, two of Copeland’s patients, say that she has been “a fixture” in their lives. The couple began seeing Copeland after discovering that Marion was pregnant with their first child. Since then, Copeland has cared for Eric, Marion and their daughters Chloe and Eva (both of whom she delivered).

“She’s been a part of our family for the last 15 years and seen [our daughters] through their whole lives,” Eric says. “Her dedication, craft and personality have meant a lot to us as a family. … She has really set a model for the young [doctors] coming up by showing how much she cares about her patients and values the relationships she has with them.”

A New Chapter

As Copeland prepares for retirement, she looks forward to the freedom that will bring. With a busy work schedule, she has always had to make time for her hobbies, which include photography, kayaking, traveling and attending basketball games. Now, she will have the ability to do all her favorite things without the constraints of planning and scheduling — “the freedom to be free” as she puts it.

She has somewhat mixed emotions, but she feels that she has finally found the right time to say goodbye.

“It’s exciting, and it’s frightening. … But it feels really good to feel like you’ve been a part of a really great thing,” she says. “One of the things that helped me make the decision … is I really feel, in my heart of hearts, that we have the leadership that is going to make [Duke Family Medicine] as great as it’s ever been.”

The Joyce Copeland, M.D., Residency Education Fund

The Joyce Copeland, M.D., Residency Education Fund honors Copeland’s decades of service to the Department of Community & Family Medicine, specifically the family medicine residency and division. The fund supports residency learning and academic excellence for our physicians-in-training, and honors Copeland’s long and rewarding career as a physician, mentor, and friend.

Courtney Decker is a communications intern for the Department of Community and Family Medicine. She is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in media and journalism.