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At 90, Gainesville doctor recalls a different kind of health care

POSTED: June 10, 2012 1:30 a.m.

If Dr. Ward in Cordele wasn’t such a good family physician, a young Henry Jennings may not have been inspired to pursue a career in medicine.

If Jennings hadn’t been inspired, he would have never enrolled at Oxford College in Atlanta. If he wasn’t a college student, then after enlisting in the U.S. Army he could have been shipped to the front lines of World War II, and who knows where he might have gone after that.

But, thankfully, that’s a fate the greater Hall County area never has to ponder.

Instead, residents can thank Dr. Henry Jennings for his local contributions to medicine — namely establishing a private practice that would grow into Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic.

"When I first opened my office in 1953, there weren’t but 22 doctors in Gainesville. Now there are over 500," said Jennings, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

"My specialty was internal medicine. I was the first board-certified internist that came to Gainesville."

Had he followed his initial plans, that honor might have gone to someone else.

Path leads to Gainesville

After finishing at Oxford, Jennings continued his education at Emory University in Atlanta, where he was a full-time student and a reservist in the Army. After his undergraduate requirements were complete, Jennings enrolled in the Emory School of Medicine.

Because the war was over, when Jenning completed his coursework, he had to fulfill his military duties elsewhere.

"I went to San Antonio, Texas, and was there from 1946 to 1948. I loved every minute of it. If it hadn’t been 1,000 miles from Georgia where our parents were, I would’ve practiced medicine in San Antonio," Jennings said.

"I came back and finished my residency training at Emory. During that time, I was planning to go to Moultrie, Ga., (after I finished). I’d already been down there and selected an office and all.

"One day, Dr. Paul Beeson, who was a professor of medicine, called me to his office and said, ‘We’d like for you to stay on at Emory and join the private diagnostic clinic.’ So, I stayed. After less than a year, I became one of the founding partners of the Emory Clinic. I’m the only one left."

Although the area was good for his career, it wasn’t the best choice for personal reasons.

"My children were young and I didn’t want to raise them in Atlanta. It wasn’t ‘Hot-lanta’ then, but still I didn’t want to raise my family there," Jennings said.

"At that time and for many generations, Gainesville had a very good reputation as having a very good hospital. It was said to be the only good medical center between Atlanta and Greenville, S.C.

"I knew some doctors here who’d gone to Emory ahead of me, so I decided to come and start my practice."

He opened his office on Dec. 1, 1953, with one employee, Louise Pickard.

"We started in a little brick bungalow on (East Broad Street). It had three bedrooms that we used for examinations," Jennings said.

"The living room was our reception area and the kitchen was where she answered the phone. (Pickard) did everything. She answered the phones, she greeted the patients and she even learned to do some lab work. When I had to do a female pelvic exam, she would come in the room and be the chaperone.

"After about six months, we started growing and that’s when we employed Geneva Evans, who had some lab experience. (Evans) would help me with the nursing aspect and (Pickard) was strictly the business."

During those early days, medical practices were very different than they are today.

"In those days, a doctor would see all of his patients in the hospital in the morning. Then in the afternoon, he’d see patients in the office," Jennings said.

"That evening before he went to have supper, he’d go back to the hospital to see his patients again. They don’t do that anymore. Matter of fact, the patient sees a hospitalist when they’re admitted now, not their personal doctor. That would be hard for me — to know that my patient was in the hospital and I couldn’t make orders for their care."

Practice grows quickly

After about 18 months, things got too busy for the trio, so Dr. Sam Poole joined the practice.

"So it became Jennings and Poole," Jennings said.

"After about another year, we got so busy that Dr. (Warren) Stribling (the area’s first cardiologist) came up to join us. We were outgrowing our office, so we decided to build one over near the hospital.

"About that time, the people at Emory called Dr. Poole and asked him to come back and be in the Emory Clinic, so he left just as we started to build.

"He’d been down there about three months before he called up and said, ‘Can you make that building big enough for three? I want to come back.’ So we were Jennings, Stribling and Poole again."

Once Dr. James Butts joined the practice a few years later, it was clear that they’d need more office space.

"That’s when we built the first actual clinic building," Jennings said.

Next came Drs. Neil Kelley and Sam Rauch, who rounded out the founding six members of the Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic.

Though the clinic provided a greater access to care, if patients couldn’t come in, Jennings — like most doctors at that time — would make house calls.

"I made house calls all over the place. I can ride around town now and remember the bedroom where the patient was sick and who was sick in it," Jennings said.

"I made house calls as far up as Hiawassee and I would go to Buford and Cumming, too. I had a big bag that I could carry medicines in and a little bag that I would carry just for hospital visits.

"I couldn’t not go see somebody if they needed me."

Even if those calls came in the middle of the night, like a true blue lifesaver, Jennings would be there.

"One night, a man called and said, ‘Doc, can you come see my old lady? She’s short of breath,’" Jennings remembers. "He said, ‘It’s raining and I’m not on a paved road. You might get down here, but you might not get back up.’"

The unpaved hill may have been difficult to navigate, but thankfully the doctor wasn’t deterred.

"When I got down there, she had acute pulmonary edema and needed immediate hospitalization," Jennings said.

"I got back up that hill and came back to Gainesville and sent the ambulance to get her and bring her to the hospital."

The value of personal contact

Going the extra mile was just what Jennings did, even if that meant staying after hours to make sure every patient in the waiting room received care. It was a practice he stressed to physicians in the making.

"When I was teaching at Emory, I used to tell the students to always touch what hurts. If somebody comes in with a shoulder pain, you touch it. You may not learn anything by doing that, but you establish personal contact," Jennings said.

"If somebody came in to see me with a headache, I’d sit and take their history just about the headache for 10 or 15 minutes. Then I would examine their head and decide what to do.

"If someone comes in now with a headache, the doctor tells them to go get an MRI and that’s the end of the doctor-patient relationship. He finds out what’s the matter, but he hasn’t established a relationship. I couldn’t function like that."

From checking vitals to catering to hospital-bound patients and those who couldn’t make it to his office, Jennings admits his doctoring skills are from a different time and place, and wouldn’t jibe with today’s administrative requirements and sometimes hands-off care.

"It would be very difficult for me to practice now. I’m old-fashioned. I didn’t have a horse and buggy though," Jennings jokes.

"I made my house calls in a car."


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