Doctor in the House

by Meghan Barnes

Although many doctors can point back to a moment when they realized they had a calling for their profession, not many can recall this moment happening as early as Dr. Ellis Tinsley Sr. Growing up in the small Southern town of Red Bay, Alabama, Tinsley was well aware of the importance of a doctor who valued family and community.

My uncle was a country doctor. He graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1919. He came back to the town where I was born and he was always a family doctor, Tinsley explains. In fact, he delivered me.

Without any grandparents to visit on Sundays, trips to his uncles house were frequently interrupted by the clear sound of a pocketknife rapping on the door. A man or woman would be standing outside waiting for help -- sometimes they carried sacks of potatoes or bushels of corn because they would be unable to pay in cash. Money was never an issue for the doctor.

 Uncle Claude would grab his hat and curved pipe and say, Cmon Ellis, lets go, Tinsley says. From the age of 12, Tinsley understood his uncles importance to the community.

I thought what he did was one of the most important things that anyone could do in this world. If they wanted to pay, well, then that was good, and if they couldnt he would write it down in his little book and they would never hear of it again, he says.

Because his hometown had 800 residents and only two doctors, Tinsleys uncle was kept very busy, especially because there were no hospitals within a reasonable distance. This meant that the country doctors would do everything from giving medicine for the flu to removing an inflamed appendix or delivering a baby -- all in the patients home.

 If he was going to see someone with the flu hed pack a pipe with a twist of tobacco and say, Ellis, if youre going to go in, youre going to have to go in with a big cloud of smoke. Often I wouldnt go in with him, I would wait out in the car.

Uncle Claude drove a typical black Ford coupe.

 In the back of his car he had this delivery table that was a fold-up delivery table. He told me that when I got old enough he would teach me how to use that, Tinsley jokes, But we never got that far.

After completing four years at a military academy prep school in Columbia, Tennessee, Tinsley entered Vanderbilt University, where he would stay 15 years, earning undergraduate, graduate and medical degrees and where he served his surgical residency.

The first operation I saw, I dont know what they were doing but it was something involved, and whatever the condition was, it was corrected by the operation and one week later the patient left the hospital whole and got on with their life, Tinsley explains.

During his third year in medical school, he made the decision to pursue surgery.

Boy, thats the deal, Tinsley recalls thinking of his career choice. I dont want to spend my days dealing with chronic diseases that you cant heal.

Where to practice and how to specialize was a decision Tinsley shared with his high school sweetheart, now wife, Betty.

I didnt make very good grades my first year in medical school because I was visiting her every weekend. We figured if we were going to do this thing we needed to pool our resources so we got married after my first year, Tinsley explains. We worked our way through medical school and shes been a major part of this journey.

The Tinsleys learned of Wilmington and New Hanover Regional Medical Centers plans to open a new hospital from Vanderbilt classmate Dr. Bertram Williams Sr. In 1967, they chose to move to Wilmington to begin working for the newly-built medical center equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

It had all of the equipment that I had trained on that smaller hospitals wouldnt have, Tinsley explains. A smaller hospital wouldnt have the specialties like a larger hospital. I wanted to do thoracic surgery. To do that you need cardiologists and anesthesiologists and other people to support that, and you had that here.

NHRMC featured an emergency room, a fully equipped recovery room and an intensive care unit.

One year later, in 1968, Tinsley, Williams and Dr. Horace Moore opened Wilmington Surgical Associates.

 We helped initiate microscopic surgery. There are many surgical procedures that came into being that we promoted and put into use here, Tinsley explains.

His wife, Betty, was also very involved in the development of NHRMC. Because Betty had been by Tinsleys side throughout his residency and during his practicing years, she understood the toll sickness could take on a family. As someone who had grown up in the country, far away from hospitals, she understood the hardships placed on families that must travel to support the wellness of a loved one. That is why, with the womens auxiliary, she helped start a hospitality house to comfort out-of-town families of long-term care patients. It was eventually bought out by NHRMC and served the hospital for more than 25 years.

In those early years, Tinsley and his medical partners traveled to Burgaw once a week to practice the country-style medicine that he had learned from his uncle. Because Burgaw did not yet have its own hospital, all of the members of Wilmington Surgical Associates were required to work one shift a week, and because the roads were still unpaved, uneven and very dark, Betty always accompanied Tinsley on these trips and sat outside in the waiting room knitting until they were ready to leave.

Decades into his career, Tinsley was still receiving praise for the work he did in Burgaw.

 Years later this fella came into my office and he needed to have an operation, and he said, You didnt know it, but you took my appendix out when I was six years old. He was about 30 years old, Tinsley explains. He went to check out of my office and the receptionist said, Im sorry but you have an old bill here from 20 years ago for $50 that your father never paid. And he said, Darn! Id be happy to pay it.

Although Tinsley has had a long, rewarding career there is only one thing he would do again if he could.

If I had one wish it would be that I could be 25 years old and doing it all over again, Tinsley says. My mother used to tell me: You have to do something, because you have to pay the Lord back for your oxygen.

 


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