Dr. Calvin Reeves trims the ivy growing on the wall of his Bernice home on one of his few days off from the Tri-Ward Hospital. Reeves has been employed at the hospital for 50 years and is one of the few remaining “country doctors” in north Louisiana. Reeves plans to retire in 1998, leaving the hospital to attempt to hire a full-time doctor on the open market.
Written by Melissa M. Scallan
For residents of rural parishes the image of a country doctor endures: a kindly, older man who makes house calls, delivers babies and carries a worn, black leather bag.
But country doctors just aren’t plentiful enough these days.
The ideal number of patients to physicians is 1,500 – 1, said the Department of Health and Hospitals. In some rural Louisiana parishes, that ratio is 5,000 – 1.
Doctors who have spent their careers in rural areas call their practices unique and rewarding. But the advantages aren’t enticing enough for new doctors to fill the needs of those communities.
When Dr. Joel Jackson opened his Avoyelles Parish practice in 1955, he wanted to live and work in the country, where he had grown up.
“I do have people come by my house or call me at home.” he said. “You treat the family. You get to know them and they get to know you. You have a personal relationship with all of your patients.”
Jackson worked in Cottonport for 30 years. He then practiced emergency medicine in New Iberia from 1985 and 1992. And he has practiced general medicine in Newellton since 1992
Dr. Tom Colvin grew up in Fort Necessity. After attending medical school he opened a clinic in Winnsboro and another one in Newellton. Colvin believes he has a calling to help residents of rural parishes.
“The rural population sometimes has decreased access to health care,” Colvin said. “They’re poor, and when they don’t have insurance, it’s hard to get into hospitals and to see specialists.”
Dr. Betty Whiener always knew she wanted to get to know her patients. She settled in Mer Rouge in 1961 and has worked there ever since.
Her hours are supposed to be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But if she arrives early and patients are there, she see them. If patients are in the waiting room after 5 p.m. she stays until she sees them all.
She works through lunch and answers the phone when necessary. She sometimes calls patients in from the waiting room, weighs them and puts them in an examining room.
She would rather perform duties from which most doctors are exempt than move to the city.
“I like to see the grass grow,” she said.
Reeves is the only physician in Bernice. He plans to retire in June.
Tri-Ward General Hospital administrator Charolette Thompson is trying to find another doctor for the area.
She has received visa applications from a program that targets immigrant physicians and requires them to serve three years in an underserved area.
“We’re working on that now,” she said. “We get calls from people in this area who know people who might want to come here, ” she said. “We try to incorporate the whole community in this process.”
Newellton Town Council member Ed Britt said since the town has three primary care physicians and a nurse practitioner, the hospital board is trying to reopen the local hospital, although two of the town’s doctors are older than 65.
“We don’t really worry about that (replacing doctors) because if we had a medical facility, that would give us something to go on,” he said. “If we can open the hospital or some other medical facility, the other would take care of itself.”
Less specialists means that rural doctors see more patients, are on call more often and handle a wider variety of injuries and illnesses.
But rural doctors say once physicians practice in a rural area, they see the benefits and want to stay.