Givers: Mary Susan Fulghum

In 1954, when she was 9, Mary Susan Fulghum was unconscious for a week and nearly died from polio. The experience simply reinforced her existing fascination with medicine. Even before her illness, Fulghum, 67, now a leading Raleigh doctor and community volunteer, would hide behind the sofa in the library at her grandmother’s house in Raleigh, poring over her grandfather’s medical books. She was mesmerized by “the innate beauty and sanctity of the way the human body is put together, the perfect machinery of it.”  She earned a medical degree at UNC-Chapel Hill at the same time as her husband and high school sweetheart, Jim Fulghum. After returning to Raleigh, Fulghum went into practice with her uncle, Louis Wilkerson, and her aunt, the legendary obstetrician-gynecologist Annie Louise Wilkerson. (Both are now deceased.)

Fulghum’s life has been rooted in faith, healing, giving, music and reading. She volunteers at Edenton Street United Methodist Church and the North Carolina Symphony, and last year was named volunteer fundraiser of the year by the Triangle chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals for her work with the symphony.

How did your childhood experience with polio motivate you to help others?

I almost died. And I survived. I was given this life to live. It was up to me how I was going to use it and how I was going to try to help improve things here. There were doctors in the family, and they gave back to the community with their professional life. My mother, Josephine Kirk, was a social worker and was director of social services for Wake County for 37 years.

People used to quip that your aunt (who died in 2005 at age 91) had delivered most of the babies in Raleigh for generations. What was it like to work with her?

Wonderful and inspiring. She could be daunting. She was a very strong woman who spoke her mind. At the time of her career, to be a woman physician, that’s what you had to do. Annie Louise gave up a home life, she never married, so she could pursue her career. She was such a trailblazer for the next generation of doctors, including me, so we are freer to marry and have families and still work and have the respect of our peers.

How did you connect with the North Carolina Symphony?

When we moved back to Raleigh in 1977 (after medical school and residencies), we had two small daughters. They became wonderful followers of the Symphony’s young people’s concerts. It’s an intangible gift you give children by exposing them to art and music. It informs who they are as individual citizens.

Are you a musician?

I play the piano. It’s sort of soul food for me.

How are music and medicine connected?

The structure, the precision, the skill with which both have to be executed, particularly classical music and surgery. I used to play classical music in my operating room, mostly orchestral and piano music. It was soothing and comforting to me when I was doing surgery. It would keep my mind focused.

What is one of the most interesting acts of philanthropy in Raleigh you know about?

My aunt had a beautiful farm in North Raleigh for 50 years. She knew none of her heirs would be able after she was gone to afford to keep it up as a property. So long before she died, she and her lawyer and the City of Raleigh’s lawyer began working on a plan whereby she would donate her farm to be used by the city in perpetuity as a nature reserve park. (The Annie Louise Wilkerson, MD, Nature Preserve Park is off Ravenridge Road.)

What is your favorite book?

To Kill a Mockingbird. It embodies the essence of what the human spirit and human interaction should be at its finest, and at its worst.

Who are your heroes?

My mom and dad. They both were great humanitarians. Both grew up in reduced circumstances during the Depression. Both were college educated. Dad (the late J. Sidney Kirk) was an electrical engineer. He was a man of the world. He was always reading and studying. He loved travel. Mom had an intense love of this community. She had an intimate knowledge of what needed to be done in Raleigh and how to do it. She was perfectly happy just staying in Wake County.