Need a doctor? Try city hall
David Wetherby stands in front of his other officeFort Gaines (GA) city hall.
David Wetherby may have been genetically programmed to become a country doctor: His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all small-town GPs. After completing his residency in 1958, Wetherby opened an office in Fort Gaines, GA, a poor community of 1,500 located on the Chattahoochee River. He chose the town because it badly needed a physician.
When Wetherby arrived, the town's medical facilities consisted of a primitive 12-bed hospital. With a group of local citizens, he launched a campaign to build a new one. He ran for mayor and won, then used that position
to push for federal funds for the project. By the mid-1960s, thanks largely to his efforts, Fort Gaines boasted a new 35-bed hospital and an adjoining nursing home.
Despite some progress, the region's economybased mainly on peanuts and cottonhasn't improved much since he came. But Wetherby has never left Fort Gaines or the mayor's office. He's spent 37 years in the nonsalaried mayor's job, presiding over municipal affairs, city council meetings, andfor many yearsthe city court. He's also a member of the regional planning commission.
Until low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements forced the "new" hospital to close 20 years ago, Wetherby performed frequent operations there. "In those days, I did everything from delivering babies by C-section to doing surgery on hunters who got shot," he says. "I still miss that part of medicine."
On a typical weekday, Wetherby's schedule begins with morning rounds at the nursing home, followed by a quick stop at city hall before heading for his medical office. Most of the 30 patients a day show up without appointments, and he takes them first-come, first-served. When they're too sick to come in, he makes house calls. After hours, patients stop him in the street, or call him at home.
Many of his patients are poor and uninsured. "We know they can't pay," says Wetherby, "so we don't even bother to bill them." (Some show their gratitude with gifts of fresh vegetables or baked goods.) He doesn't complain about the unpaid bills, however. "If I'd wanted to be a millionaire," he says, "I'd have gone into cardiac surgery."
On Wednesday nights and one weekend a month, Wetherby covers the ER at the hospital in nearby Arlington, where he's now chief of staff. In addition, he's the doctor for the Fort Gaines elementary school, the local nursing home, and the county mental health clinic. He also serveswithout payas medical director of the county EMS and as chairman of the county board of health. His various roles reinforce one another: He's a public official who's in touch with the people, and a physician who understands the complexities of public health.
Although Wetherby's home is only a mile from his office, wife Vicki complains he's so busy that she rarely sees him. "This man puts more miles on his body every week than most people do in a year," she says. Once a month, she drags him off for a long weekend on the Gulf Coast. Asked about "real" vacations, he replies, "Are you kidding? I haven't had one of those in 10 years."
Wetherby's nonstop schedule is possible because he has lots of energy and requires little sleep. He recently turned 70, but hasn't thought of retiring. "Hell, no!" he says, when the subject is raised. "I'm havin' too much fun to quit now, and my health is good. Besides," he says, "they need me here."
Berkeley Rice. Doctors Who Go the Extra Mile.