BAR Awards Profile – Michael L. Zollicoffer ’85 (MD)

2010 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Michael L. Zollicoffer ’85 (MD)

Dr. Michael Zollicoffer ’85 (MD) broke records in distance running at his high school in Baltimore, at the University of Maryland when he was an undergraduate, and at Carolina, where he went to medical school. Even now he’s been known to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., without training. He similarly goes the distance in his pediatrics practice in a low-income neighborhood in Baltimore. When a baby had a cardiac emergency in his office, he scooped up the child and ran the two blocks to the hospital emergency room because he would be faster than an ambulance. In so doing, he saved the baby’s life.

Dr. Z, as he is known throughout Baltimore and beyond, practices as a country doctor in the inner city. A pediatrician by training, he treats the whole family. Recently, a woman brought her grandchildren in for a health visit, and Dr. Z asked her why she was wearing only socks. She said her feet were too sore to fit into shoes. Dr. Z took a look, and diagnosed and prescribed treatment for a pernicious parasite that had been plaguing her for months. Two weeks later, she came back for a follow-up visit wearing shoes. Everyone in the reception room cheered.

The pace of health-care reform seems too slow for Dr. Z, who has implemented changes to his practice by starting an urgent-care facility, Life Care Plus — badly needed in his neighborhood, where many of his patients are uninsured. The clinic aims to treat anything that ails society, he said. He started a Race to Read literacy program for those with reading deficiencies; his Don’t Sit, Get Fit program puts people on a fitness trail; his Straight Talk From Dr. Z lectures inform and motivate listeners on topics of finance, relationships, even career options.

Over the years, Dr. Z’s accomplishments have been recognized with many awards, including UNC medical school’s MacNider Award, as well as awards for achieving excellence in immunizing children and providing excellent Medicaid-compliant services. He serves as a member of the Baltimore City Childcare Workers Literacy board and UNC’s Board of Visitors. While in medical school, he helped establish the Xi Gamma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and holds the office of treasurer of his regional chapter.

Dr. Z follows in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Lawrence Zollicoffer, the fourth black student to graduate from UNC’s School of Medicine. Though the elder Dr. Zollicoffer graduated from N.C. A&TState at age 17, he held off going to medical school until UNC would admit him. Dr. Z said his dad knew a new attitude was on the horizon and wanted to be there when the light came on. His dad’s medical career was cut short by colon cancer; he died at age 45.

As a child, Dr. Z grew up around greatness. While his father was in medical school, the family lived on Caldwell Street in Chapel Hill. Educators R.D. and Euzelle Smith lived across the street from the Zollicoffers and would sometimes babysit the young Dr. Z. Community activist Frances Hargraves lived a couple doors down. Henry Frye ’59 (JD), one of the first black students at the law school, and Julius Chambers’62 (LLBJD), the first black student on Law Review, lived on the block, as did Dean Hayden Bentley Renwick. “Back then, they were just people,” Dr. Z. said.

And “just people” matter to Dr. Z. He follows in his father’s footsteps by making house calls to patients who are too sick to come into his clinic or who don’t have transportation. He’s been known to give his cell phone number to patients who may need to reach him after his office closes. He mentors medical students and young people training to be medics, inviting them to intern in his practice. One medical student said she learned more in one summer at his busy urban practice than in two years of residency in a suburban hospital.

Dr. Z shows amazing patience with those he mentors, said his friend from childhood, Eric Talley, a scientist in informatics at the University of Maryland. “He’ll forgive mistakes and take the time to retrain people to make sure they do the best in their job,” Talley said. “He believes you can’t give up on people; you have to work with them. I use that idea now when I interact with my staff.”

There are only 24 hours in a day, but you’d never know it by Dr. Z’s accomplishments. He sees patients, sets up a new health delivery system, helps his staff with their personal problems, lends his expertise to community boards and gives inspirational speeches to nonprofits. He even gives an occasional golf lesson.

His passion for life doesn’t end with his patients. In his office, he has a huge salt-water aquarium for his tropical fish. A few months ago, he noticed the water had gotten contaminated, and the fish were suffering. Using a rubber hose, and starting the suction with his mouth, he siphoned off several hundred gallons of contaminated water, cleaned the tank and refilled it.

All of the fish lived.