*This article was originally published by the author of this blog in the Winter 2018 Issue of Albany Living Magazine.
The small-town family doctor has long been transformed by local hospitals and large practices. The days are no longer the ones seen in the movie My Girl, where Vada visits the local doctor where the few nurses and Dr. Wetly knows not only her name, but her family and doesn’t have to pull her file to know everything about her. This concept, however, is not totally gone. Dr. Charity Wilson, 37, of Albany, Georgia, still attempts to keep this kind of concept in her practice and in the way she interacts with her patients, standing on equal ground with those who need her most.
Though Wilson practices with many other doctors at The Veranda in Albany, she creates within the practice a family atmosphere with her fellow doctors and nurses and with her patients. “Patients,” Wilson says, “have an automatic, instant relationship with doctors from the minute they walk in the room. They open up and talk to you, which you won’t always have in other settings. They want to tell you what they’re upset about or what’s going on. They pour their heart out, and it is like an instant connection that is always going to be there.” This, she says, is her favorite part of being a doctor. This helps her connect with her patients, but more than that, Wilson is trained in many areas, allowing her to treat patients herself instead of refer them to specialist. If she does have to refer them, The Veranda usually has the specialist she needs instead of having to send the patient away, helping to maintain the town-doctor feel.
Wilson, who was born and raised in Albany, did not always think that she would be a family medicine physician. She knew she wanted to go into the medical field, having several family members who were LPNs or nurses, but she never dreamed she would make it to being a doctor because “the idea of being a doctor just seemed way out there.” Her senior year in high school at Dougherty Comprehensive High School, Wilson shadowed a P.A. in Albany, “and that is what I thought I was going to do,” she says. “At that time, it was going to school for two years and you had like bachelor’s. Now it’s practically a doctor.”
After graduating high school, she found herself with a full scholarship for the most part “so I had enough to cover four years” at Mercer. In the beginning, as a Pre-Med major, she found herself doing well, “so, I said if I can do this, then I can keep going. I started learning about different positions and getting experience. Before I ended, I did almost every specialty. I did NICU, internal medicine, OBGYN. I just shadowed all these different specialties. I was even a hospice volunteer. I wanted to get a wide variety of experiences,” Wilson says. She had so many different experiences that when she applied to med school, “the interviewer was like, I have never seen someone who had this much experience. What have you not done?”
Doctors tend to be put on pedestals as superheroes, who can cure the world, but Wilson says “they are normal people.” When she realized that doctors were normal people, she realized, she says, that she could also be a doctor. It wasn’t reserved for certain people, she just had to put the work in to learn the material and have a passion for helping people, both characteristics she possesses.
After finishing her bachelors at Mercer, she chose to go to the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) for medical school because, she says, “I needed to go where I knew no one so not to have any distractions. I didn’t know a single soul, and I left all my friends in Macon. It was a different environment than what I was used to. It didn’t seem like a smaller, local hospital and they discouraged primary care and family medicine,” which is what Wilson was determined to do. However, she did not let this stop her. Instead, she pushed back, taking the steps to do what she wanted to do – practice family medicine. “It wasn’t really respected,” she says. “We’re kind of the most challenging of the specialties because we have to cover so many things,” says Wilson, who is not boasting, but does note that in order to practice family medicine, all parts of the body have to be known to best assess what is wrong and if a specialist is needed, where a specialist can concentrate mainly on the body parts of their specialty. “I don’t think people realize that,” says Wilson. “Family Medicine is a specialty without as much prestige as others and it doesn’t pay as much. It is a thankless type of job, but I enjoy the variety. I can’t imagine just concentrating on one specialty. I would get bored,” she says with a laugh.
During med-school, Wilson chose to come back to Albany for her residency; a choice she said was easy. “We [Wilson and her husband] always knew we would come back to Albany,” she says. “I kept, in my head, imagining practicing in Albany and practicing in my hometown. That’s what motivated me the whole way through. We knew we wanted to come back to Albany, we just didn’t know if we were going to do it right away or after residency.” With this idea in mind, Wilson knew that Phoebe had its own family medicine program. “When I was looking at programs, I knew I had to go to a residency program that only family medicine. So, I was looking for smaller programs, and Albany was called an unopposed residency. All they had was family medicine and Rome had one,” Wilson explains. It made it so that in Albany, when I was doing my surge rotation, it was just the surgeon and me. I didn’t have a big pile of students that have all these residents. It was just a surgeon and me, so I got a really good experience with that. It also worked out because that is how I got my job here at The Veranda.”
While doing her rotations at Phoebe, Wilson met a mentor who would also inspire her and show her the kind of doctor she would strive to be. “Early on, there was a physician in Albany. He’s still around, but he’s not practicing anymore – Dr. Lawrence Crimmins. He’s been around Albany forever. HE was in private practice, and then he became part of the residency program,” says Wilson, who knew of him in high school when she was shadowing. Dr. Crimmins became Wilson’s attending physician while doing rotations in Albany. “Attending,” explains Wilson, “is like your physician that’s over you as a student.” Crimmins is well-known by Albany residents, most holding him in high esteem. As an attending physician, Wilson found him “to be a great teacher. The other physicians respected him, and the patients loved him. You hear all of these Crimmins stories. He was kind of like the classic country doctor who everyone just loves.”
Crimmins set the example for what Wilson wanted to be like as a doctor. “You really don’t know what type of doctor you’re going to be when you’re in residency,” Wilson says. “You know you’re going to be in family medicine, but you don’t know how you’re going to be working. I always thought I wanted to be like Dr. Crimmins. That was always my plan,” says Wilson. “I wanted to help teach students, help teach residency. He has things named after him, like the student housing for the med students at Phoebe is called the Crimmins House. Everyone knows Crimmins. If people want to go to med school, they have Crimmins write their letter of recommendations because everyone knows him and respects him.”
However, in the middle of Wilson’s residency, Crimmins retired. At his retirement party, people came to talk about Dr. Crimmins and how great he was. “Stories like, he sat at my bedside all night long. All of these wonderful stories,” Wilson says, who sat listening and realizing that that kind of doctor was not what she was probably going to be. “ I started feeling kind of depressed and sad. I don’t know if I can ever be a Dr. Crimmins,” Wilson says. “I was like, maybe I’ll just never be known. I’m just going to be a doctor somewhere.” As the stories came to a close, Dr. Crimmins was the last to stand and talk. “He gave this twenty minute speech with no notes,” says Wilson. “He was as sharp as a tack.” As she and the table of other residents sat listening, Crimmins looked toward them. “He said the only thing he regretted out of his long career was that he never spent as much time with his family.” Upon hearing this, Wilson knew that she would never be a Crimmins, but it no longer made her sad. “As soon as he said that, the other residents and I started crying. At that point, we didn’t have kids, but we all wanted children. We were having to wait because we were so busy. We were having to decide when in our career we were going to have children. So, when he said that, I said, I’m not going to be a Crimmins, and I’m okay with that. That, to me, is like my big moment in my life that I realized that it’s okay not to be that doctor,” she says. “I may tell my patients, I may not be at your bedside at 3 a.m. because I’m going to be home with my family, but I’ll be there for you when I can.” Because of the great teacher he was and the realizations he left her with, Wilson says Crimmins “was one of my biggest mentors. He encouraged me to go on in the field. He was the biggest champion of family medicine,” she says. “I’m okay with not being a Crimmins, though. I would rather my kids know me more than being known as Crimmins is.”
Though Wilson may not be known as a Dr. Crimmins, she is known and respected not only in The Veranda, but by those who call themselves her patients. The best part of being a family doctor, Wilson says, is that she is able to prevent things before they happen and she gets to know the patients really well. “I’ve been with The Veranda, this summer will be nine years. I’ve had patients who have been with me from day one. I had teenagers I’ve seen go to college, get married, and have kids, and when they come in, I feel so old. I look at these kids, and I was 29 when I started here and they are young adults now. And, there are kids who I delivered when I was in residence,” she says. She stopped doing obstetrics when she took the job with The Veranda after her residency, but “there are people that I run into that I delivered their babies. It’s crazy to think about that!” These are the things, the preventative care and the relationships with patients, that are most important to Wilson in her career. The Veranda has made this easy for her, as it is a multi-specialty type of practice, which is the only one of its kind in Albany. “We have the OBGYN, endocrine, pediatrics, and more, so if I have something a little bit beyond me, then I can tell a doctor down the, and I have a lifeline. I can call and say, can you come look at this really fast; I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at. They do the same with me. I don’t feel alone here. I always feel like I have some backup.” This is a great asset in the doctor business, she says, because it not only facilitates the family atmosphere, but it helps the patient more than just a one specialty office or a single family practitioner.
Wilson not only helps the Albany community through her dedication to her practice, she also sits on the board for the local Junior League of Albany chapter. She joined the local Junior League the same year she joined in practice with The Veranda. “I couldn’t do it earlier when I was in residency because I wasn’t in control of my own schedule or life at all,” she says. “I needed something that isn’t work, though. It’s like my mental break. I want to feel like I’m giving back, but I wanted something that wasn’t work.” Junior League fit this bill as an organization of women who are dedicated to helping the surrounding community through charity events and raising money. However, this is Wilson’s first year on the board since work must come first and her family second. “I like that the League has opportunities where I can do things on my own as a woman and not a mom, and then there are things that I can bring my kids to as well,” says Wilson. “It’s voluntary and you get to do a little bit of everything. That’s what I like about it.” A large part of being in the Junior League for Wilson is that for some events she is able to take her children with her. “Alex is now eight years old and I can take her to things, and she can help me and see that. She’s helped the League and me pass out food for the tornado victims, she’s helped me do stuff at the hospice house, she helped me plant plants at Chehaw, and she’s helped ring the bell at the Salvation Army,” says Wilson, who is also now getting her other two younger children, Piper, 5, and Asa, 2, involved. “I want them to see me early on do that and try to also give back. I want them to see that it’s not all about you.” This idea is one she pulls through her life, not only in volunteering, but also in raising her kids and in her practice at The Veranda.