‘The vast majority of people I’ve seen down through the years have not only been my patients, but my friends’
Perhaps it’s not surprising that on the very last day of his decades-old family medical practice, having tended to Rappahannock residents of every age for 44 years, that patients were still streaming through the door for one last visit with Dr. Jerry Martin.
“I saw about 15 people the last day,” Dr. Martin admits. “That was the 28th of December. For several years I would tell people that one of these days I’m going to retire, you’re going to have to find a new doctor. I kept reminding them of that.”
And yet they still came, right up until the last hour.
When we caught up with the doctor this past week he was boxing up the items he wished to keep from his accomplished career. His University of Virginia medical diploma from 1970, all that remained on the otherwise bare wall behind his desk, would be the final thing to go out the door.
It’s been an amazing journey for the 74-year-old Dr. Martin, who hails from Orange County, “a little village called Unionville. My dad worked for Southern States and he moved around. Basically I grew up in southern Delaware.”
He would eventually return to Virginia — “my whole family is from here,” he points out — graduating from Bridgewater College and UVA medical school. His post-graduate training started at the U.S. naval hospital in San Diego, at the time the largest U.S. medical center in the world and the first stop for dozens of former U.S. prisoners of war returning home from Vietnam. He’d become medical officer aboard the USS Proteus, a submarine tender docked in Guam, and finally complete his two-year post-graduate stint in San Francisco.
“I couldn’t decide whether to stay in California,” he says. “I loved California, but I got this really incredible offer from Culpeper Hospital paying $35,000 a year. More money than I could dream of.
“It was a gigantic walk-in clinic,” he recalls, “so busy that I was just swamped. And I was thinking, ‘I’m going to be burnt-out in the first year.’ People would come in in cardiac arrest. They had no radio system — you didn’t know what was walking in the door. Everything kind of came through there.”
It happened that Dr. Werner Krebser was at Culpeper Hospital, having been a general practitioner in McLean for many years. He’d purchased a farm here, and no longer wishing to practice medicine full time he’d remarked to Dr. Martin that Rappahannock County would be a nice place to hang out a shingle.
The young doctor originally hoped to return to Orange to start his practice, but he was reminded that the county already had three doctors. Wouldn’t you know, he says, “within a year two died and one moved away. But I’d already made a commitment to be here.”
Which suited him just fine, as “I was into horses and fox hunting at the time.”
“Dr. Krebser was sort of the main architect of the whole thing,” Dr. Martin continues. “We bought a lot [on Gay Street in Washington] from Ray Cannon, who was one of the realtors here in the county at that time. I think we paid something like $10,000 for the lot, which of course I thought was outrageous back then. I think we put the building up for $65,000.”
It was a modern brick building by town of Washington standards, christened the Rappahannock Medical Center, and it opened with much fanfare in January 1975. Besides a reception area and offices it consisted of several examination rooms and even x-ray facilities. The two doctors worked by appointments — Dr. Martin four days per week, Dr. Krebser only one day, while the two physicians alternated Saturday hours. Emergency service was also available.
“Did a lot of orthopedics, broken bones — did the x-rays right here — set fractures, minor surgeries, GYN, pediatrics,” he rattles off the care that was offered. “Finally, these past 10 years or so, I cut back the scope of the office.”
It’s understandably difficult for the doctor to sum up 44 years of his medical practice, treating the aches and pains and so much more of generations of Rappahannock families.
“I would say that the vast majority of people I’ve seen down through the years have not only been my patients, but my friends,” he says. “I’ve really gotten to known them, their families, their lives.”
Which also makes the goodbyes difficult.
“I got a lot of cards, a lot of notes, a few tears from the patients,” says Dr. Martin. “I often joke when people say, ‘Why are you quitting now?’ Well, I answer, ‘I’ve never been sued and I don’t think I killed anybody.’ So leave while you’re on top, when you still have your wits about you.
“Some people just hang on too long,” he offers. “I hope there’s still some mileage left on me. I’m still going to do volunteer work, the free clinic and what have you. I’m still very interested in medicine. I still love the intellectual challenges of medicine.
“I don’t like running a business, dealing with the insurance companies, the bureaucracy, the mandates. But I love reading about medicine, learning about medicine.”
The doctor also has many places yet to explore.
“I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve done a lot of travel. I’ve been to all the continents,” he says, recalling one memorable three-week trek to Nepal with his daughter. “It’s a wonderful experience, a real eye-opener. There’s a lot of places I haven’t seen.”
And one of the best parts of travel, “It really makes you appreciate what you have here.”