A Doctor in the House

A desire to serve God, family and community led Dr. Norris Little to a 40-year career in medicine. The beloved physician retired after nearly a decade as Piedmont Newton’s chief medical officer, having helped steer the hospital through various challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic.

by Gabriel Stovall

A love for science and service sustained Dr. Norris Little during an illustrious 40-year career in medicine. However, he believes that it was divine intervention that initially opened the door. 

Little on May 31 worked his last day as chief medical officer for Piedmont Newton—a position he had held for the past eight years. That day also meant the end of a four-decade-long season of patient care, with 32 of those years spent practicing in Newton County. Ask Little when he first felt the pull to be a doctor, and he will point you to his early childhood and to God. 

(L TO R) Lindsey Petrini, CEO and Norris Little, M.D., CMO

“From the time I was 6 years old, it’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I don’t know. It had to be a God thing. I had no family members in medicine. I was very much interested in the out- doors, science and nature as a child, but I don’t know how you know that this is what you want to be at age 6 unless God just puts it on your heart to do.” 

God, family and community have been Little’s staples during his long and successful career. Born in Dalton, not far from the Georgia-Tennessee border, he set out on his path to the medical field right after high school graduation. After he received an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, he earned his medical degree in 1981 from the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. It was in Augusta where he met two other medical students: Henry Patton and Timothy Park. The three of them were in residency together in internal medicine at Memorial Medical Center. 

“They finished a year ahead of me,” Little said. 

Once Little completed his residency, he looked for a place to put down some roots, both in medicine and with his family. Prior connections led him to a cardiologist in Covington. He met with him at a physicians recruitment fair and found work in a group practice with Patton and Park. 

“I’m a little tired, but I also think God has some other things for me to do now.”

Dr. Norris Little

“We started as three physicians, and then over the years, we expanded to ultimately six physicians and several nurse practitioners,” Little said. “We built the office building over on Newton Drive and did that for 32 years.” 

Success during that time positioned Little in such a way that he could have gone wherever he wanted in order to further his career. However, the Newton County community had a magnetic effect on him and his family. 

“We raised our three children here,” Little said. “We have a son and his wife and children who all live here, and we’re very strongly connected with the community through our friends, neighbors and our church. We really found Covington to be home.” 

The ability to see patients, neighbors and colleagues in grocery stores, in schools or at church, along with the chance to watch their families grow and expand over the years, provided Little with a purpose he could not bring himself to walk away from.

“I guess I’m of the mindset that being an integral part of a community is really, really important,” he said. “To be able to live there, work there and also serve there, that’s what makes communities thrive. You’re able to give back and make things better. That’s why, I think, we’ve been—and wanted to be—very committed to Covington since we moved here.” 

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Little’s career took a significant shift when he left his practice as a private care physician to lead Piedmont Newton in 2016. “I’d always been involved in medical staff work here at the hospital,” he said, “so when there was a need, I was at a point in my career where I just felt I could do something different.” Little called it a rewarding job, although the last eight years were fraught with unprecedented difficulties, headlined by his trying to help an entire hospital navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Hospital work is very complex,” he said. “We have 700 employees here, 100 physicians, 100 patients. All kinds of things going on. It’s a very intense work environment and a complicated place, and it requires a lot of energy. Having served through the pandemic, that was a difficult couple of years for hospitals and healthcare.” 

Little admits he feels blessed to have been able to remain in his position for as long as he did. He sees it as the “right time” to close one chapter of his life to start another. 

“They say an average CMO’s life span in this position is only about five years,” Little said, “so I’m fortunate to have made it eight years and have the success we’ve had. I’m a little tired, but I also think God has some other things for me to do now.” 

For starters, Little pointed to a three-year stint teaching chemistry at Piedmont Academy in Monticello. It was gratifying work to which he would be open to returning someday. “I really enjoy young people,” he said, “so I might pick back up the teaching mantle a bit and do some teaching.” In addition, he remains “very active in the church I go to” and serves on the board at Willing Helpers—an appointment-only charitable medical clinic in Newton County. Because his faith tie-in to science has always seemed innate, he wants to continue finding ways to explore and share that conviction in the days, months and years ahead. 

“It’s one thing I think about quite often,” Little said. “From a philosophical standpoint, I think that the belief in a Creator is the only thing that brings goodness into the world. Otherwise, we’re just animals. Philosophically, I think that is what brings benefit to the things that we do, such as caring for one another, our families and serving. Without that belief, I don’t know how you find anything that’s good.” 

While he acknowledges the vast changes to the world of medicine over the last 40 years, he still believes it to be a career worth pursuing, especially for those who approach it with a desire to serve others. A servant’s heart allowed Little to push through the inevitable difficulties associated with his profession, and it will push him to stay busy and productive in retirement. 

“I’m not a believer in retiring so you can play golf and go fishing all the time,” he said. “We should probably continue to serve in some way. My mother is 93. She doesn’t drive anymore, but once a week in Dalton, the city bus picks her up to volunteer at the local hospital’s gift shop. It’s that example my parents gave to keep serving and keep contributing as long as you have something to contribute; and even though it may shift forms or emphasis, I still think I have plenty to contribute.” 

Click here to read more stories by Gabriel Stovall. 

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