Local physician gets statewide accolade

After 57 years of practicing medicine, Dr. Henry Gibson has answered a lot of calls in his life - late-night calls from patients; calls to medical needs abroad and the call of his country too.

But then, Gibson sees his career not as a profession, but a calling. 

Gibson answered another calling Nov. 13 when the S.C. Academy of Family Physicians (SCAFP) named him as their 2008-09 Family Physician of the Year.

The award caught Gibson by surprise when he first learned he had been selected, he said.

"It was a surprise. I knew when I went down there (to the Nov. 13 meeting for the award). They called a month before," he said. "It's probably the highest award in family medicine."

Gibson said he did not know who nominated him for the accolade.

Dr. Neal Shealy of Estill nominated Gibson, said Dr. Fran McCarley, a SCAFP  board member.

"I supported what Neal did. Neal mentioned Dr. Gibson and I quickly seconded it," McCarley said.

SCAFP selects its yearly honoree by an appeal for nominations through its publication, South Carolina Family Physician, which as a readership of about 2,000 comprised of interns, residents and doctors. Nominations are then considered by the Academy board and its executive committee, said Paquita Turner, a SCAFP spokesperson.

SCAFP has about 1,400 members in the state and is a constituent chapter of the national American Academy of Family Physicians.

SCAFP has been in existence since 1949 and has been honoring family physicians of the year since 1979, Turner said.

From this honor, Gibson will also be nominated to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a national organization, for its "Doctor of the Year" award for 2009, she said. 

For the last six years, McCarley has journeyed to Honduras as part of the medical teams that provide health care to the natives in Limon, Honduras and surrounding areas twice yearly for the Carolina Honduras Health Foundation, which Gibson founded in 1995.

McCarley noted Gibson's passion for the foundation. McCarley is a family physician herself in Chesnee. She has been practicing medicine for 20 years, she said.

"He is exquisitely passionate - I think his passion is what keeps him going. He lights up when he talks about Honduras," she said.

"I hope I'm as passionate when I get to that age," McCarley said of Gibson.

Gibson is now 84 and still sees patients three and a half days a week.

Gibson has been practicing medicine as long as he has because it is simply a job he enjoys doing and one he sees as a calling, not a profession.

"I'm from the old school. I say go into it as a calling," he said. "If you are really dedicated to medicine, then family practice is one of the best field for that type of work."

Gibson said he was "destined to be a doctor" and follow in his father's footsteps. Often as a child Gibson would  accompany Dr. Thornwell Gibson on house calls to his Batesburg patients.

Before starting into medicine, Army 1st Lt. Henry Gibson piloted a B-24 Liberator bomber through 25 combat missions for the 446th Bomber Group, 8th Air Force in World War II.

His father practicing medicine for 50 years, starting in 1911, Gibson said.

"My father was a true country doctor. His philosophy was that to treat the family you had to know the family," he said.

Knowing the family meant going to their family events and being one of their neighbors and part of the community, he said.

Since he first picked up a stethoscope, Gibson has see a lot of changes in healthcare.

Even when his father was still practicing, he warned his son about government intervention in medicine, he said.

"I've been worried about the future of medicine. The government is controlling it. It's become so controlled," he said.

Healthcare has become more business-oriented and concerned with patient volumes as more doctors go into specialized fields and work in clinics with multiple physicians, Gibson said.

Yet despite the changes from the administrative end of the profession, Gibson said he marvels at the advances in medicine he has seen, such as how commonplace organ transplants have become.

Gibson was also recently featured on the cover of the Living magazine, a publication of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. The magazine asked readers to write in about their favorite  healthcare professionals.

Chris Zawacki, who had been a clerical and medical assistant in Gibson's office for seven years, wrote about her former boss.

"I really got to see the man up close and personal and see the real caring where others might not see how he really worried over his patients," she said.

Zawacki is a board member and medical team coordinator for Carolina Honduras Health Foundation.

"He worked in the golden age of medicine when you spent 90 percent of your time with the patient and not doing paperwork. They (family doctors) relied on what they knew. He's a walking encyclopedia of knowledge," Zawacki said.

"It's a true calling," she said of being a family physician.