North Carolina doctor named best in 'country'

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2004

BELHAVEN, N.C. When an ornery hurricane began beating at the shoreline near Belhaven, Charles Boyette had an idea of what to expect.

He'd weathered six of those storms in as many years as mayor of this small town on the Pamlico Sound, seen hundreds of houses wrecked by floods and their owners equally battered as tree limbs and power lines sliced the air.

Boyette, also one of the town's few doctors, knew the local hospital would drop its floodgates and shut down. He gathered up some supplies and equipment that day last September, stocked his house with them and quietly told rescue workers he would be on call.

''Word got out that I was available to people who needed advice,'' Boyette said.

Before the hospital opened the next day, Boyette had seen about a dozen patients, including one woman who suffered a heart attack. He had navigated the low-lying town that stood under as much as six feet of water so that he could open his practice.

Jay Wilkins, the bookkeeper for Boyette's practice, said he and many others didn't know about his boss' efforts until weeks later.

''The ambulance just stopped at his house when they had an emergency call,'' Wilkins said. ''That's just the way he is.''

Others have taken notice.

Staff Care, a temporary physician firm based in Irving, Texas, recently named Boyette its Country Doctor of the Year, pointing out the dedication he showed during the storm. His reward is a plaque and a week's worth of the services of another physician at his office. Staff Care values the service at $10,000.

The award, given out by the company since 1995, honors primary care physicians who practice in communities of fewer than 25,000 people.

Boyette, 68, has worked in Belhaven for 38 years, coming to the town as a young family man after serving as a flight surgeon at Marine Corps Air Station New River.

For 30 of those years, he was the town's only doctor. For all but six years since 1970, he has also been mayor of the town that's about 140 miles east of Raleigh.

He sees them as complementary roles.

''You must have the confidence of the patient to get good medical results and you must have the confidence of the people to be a good mayor,'' he said.

Boyette has steadily built the practice over the years. His office is a renovated house in view of the Pungo River. He started in a smaller house and expanded into the two-story building next door by building a connecting breezeway.

His office still has the feel of a comfortable, old-time practice. Blue and white tiles checker the floor and paintings by local artists decorate the walls. An old church pew sits out front where patients take their last drags from cigarettes before heading in for their appointments.

Boyette has the help of a few nurses, a nurse practitioner and two doctors these days. They see about 100 patients in a typical day, and Boyette heads home at about 8:30 p.m. after a 12-hour day.

''The country doctor must be broadly trained,'' said Boyette, who embraces the role. ''The country doctor must not be from the bottom of the class, but must be from the top of the class. He must exercise impeccable judgment.''

Boyette had some idea of what he would be taking on when residents of Belhaven began to recruit him to succeed their aging doctor.

Boyette has been tireless since he finished school.

''When you look at what that man's done in town ... it's pretty amazing,'' said Town Manager Tim Johnson. ''Everything is possible with him.''

After Hurricane Floyd in 1999 flooded hundreds of homes, Boyette helped spearhead a project that rebuilt or elevated about 360 houses in floodplains.

During Hurricane Isabel in September, just 15 homes were flooded.

David Faries, a spokesman for Staff Care and one of five people who helped select Boyette for the award, said that in addition to medical acumen and public service, Boyette displays a charitable spirit.

Wilkins recalls his boss sending an employee to fetch a new cat for a sick patient whose own cat had just died. He remembers Boyette buying clothes and shoes for a pair of poor children who came to his office.

''Touches like that,'' Faries said, ''recognizing the humanity of a patient, that's what missing in health care.''

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