ECU alumna returns to care for patients in her rural, underserved hometown

Holly Stegall spent most of her life living in rural Anson County, North Carolina.

After matriculating through the local public school system from elementary school through high school, the Polkton native then commuted to nearby Wingate University — from which she received a scholarship covering all her tuition — while earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and minors in chemistry and English. She also spent a year teaching science in her local school district while applying to medical schools.

When it came time to choose a medical school to attend — having decided on that career path while in high school — Stegall was drawn to the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University for two main reasons: the low cost of in-state tuition and its emphasis on primary care.

“I already knew at that time that I was interested in pediatrics or family medicine, so I thought that attending Brody — with its strong reputation in those areas — would really help me decide which path was best for me,” Stegall said.

Not long into her Brody experience, Stegall realized that she made the right decision.

“From a primary care standpoint, starting in your doctoring classes and your first clinical settings in your first year, and then from the experiences you have later working with preceptors, the emphasis is consistently on primary care,” she said.

“So, I think that Brody does a really good job of exposing you to primary care from the beginning and letting you see all of the different elements early on, so it helps feel more comfortable deciding to do it for your career.”

The well-rounded Brody experience helped Stegall choose family medicine over other specialties like pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecology.

“I love treating kids, I have a ton of kids and OB (obstetrics) patients in my current practice,” she said. “But as a pediatrician, for example, if a child came in and their parent or grandparent also had a health issue, you couldn’t treat them and I wanted to be able to do that. And now as a family medicine doctor, I can treat everybody.”

The other deciding factor was her desire to return home to care for patients in Anson County and its historically underserved surrounding areas after graduating from Brody in 2012 and completing residency training at Atrium Health Cabarrus Family Medicine in 2015.

Stegall '12 interacts with a patient at Atrium Health’s Union Family Practice in rural Monroe, North Carolina.

Stegall interacts with a patient at Atrium Health’s Union Family Practice in rural Monroe, North Carolina.

“We need more pediatricians, OB-GYNs and surgeons in Anson County. We need more of everybody,” she said. “But if I was really going to be able to serve the whole family, the only way I was going to be able to do that here is to become a family physician.”

Stegall’s desire to serve her community did not end at her decision to return home to practice.  She also wanted to help train the next generation of physicians.

“I love to teach, I love to be learning myself. And I will tell you that being a teacher for residents and medical students forces you to know what is going on because they are up to date with what is new and that forces you to make sure you’re helping teach them the right medical information,” said Stegall, who currently serves as a site director for Carolinas Medical Center’s Family Medicine Residency Program.  “And by working with them, I know that I am helping to build the future of family medicine. I know that if I take my time to teach them, they’re going to make an impact, they’re going to make a difference and hopefully, they feel ‘called’ and motivated to serve in similar ways.”

In addition to her day job, Stegall volunteers as a board member for the local health board, as a physician for the local high school during sporting events, and as a physician for the Special Olympics. And when she noticed that many of the people in her counties who were most at risk of having life-threatening complications from COVID-19 did not have adequate access to vaccines, she spent what was left of her free time tirelessly advocating on their behalf.

“For me, it’s about giving back to where you came from and helping those who really helped to bring you up, but also helping those who are unable to help themselves,” she said. “It gets you back to why you went into medicine. I love everything about family medicine — whether it is delivering a baby, doing a procedure or taking care of a grandparent, I love all those things. But part of that is giving back to my community, and where I live is where I want to serve.”

Stegall said she is grateful to the Brody School of Medicine for helping her answer that calling.

“I think what makes Brody stand out the most is its commitment to primary care and very specifically, its commitment to primary care in North Carolina and establishing that foundation very early on,” she said. “Also, with (ECU Health) being the only tertiary care center east of I-95, everything outside of Greenville in that region needs some kind of medical assistance. Brody students learn very early on what it means to care for the underserved and to care for people who just don’t have resources or access to what they need to maintain their health.

“Those are just some of the many things that I think make Brody special.”