Albany's first physician assistant recalls decades of service to area

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Forty years ago, the concept of a physician assistant was virtually unheard of. Today, it's a vital and growing part of the medical field.

As Carl Scarbrough nears his retirement, one of the profession's pioneers recalls his service to the Southwest Georgia medical community and how the field has matured over time.

Scarbrough worked as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy for four years. Knowing he wanted to continue working in medicine, he applied to the physician assistant program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. After graduating from what was then the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in 1973, he moved to Albany to work under Drs. Charles Hollis, Thomas Johnson and Dempsey Guillebeau.

In so doing, he became the first physician assistant in Albany, and perhaps in Southwest Georgia. On Dec. 30, he plans to move on to the next chapter of his life after nearly 37 years on the job.

The roots for him getting into this profession were laid out in the mid-1960s. Then, there was a professor at Duke University who noticed there were many who had gotten medical experience from working in the military, yet there was little they could do with that knowledge once they left the military. From there, a new concept was created.

"He came up with the idea of training them to do a lot of the things doctors do," Scarbrough explained.

It seemed to be a good concept. Within the first five years of existence, the physician assistant profession had programs springing up throughout the country.

The job of a physician assistant is what it sounds like. Rather than taking a doctor's place, they help them out, Scarbrough said.

"(Physician assistant programs) train people not to replace doctors, but to assist doctors," Scarbrough said. "You work under the supervision of the doctor."

Scarbrough ended up in Albany when a mentor told him that Hollis had expressed interest in him coming down here. The day before he had planned to leave Wake Forest, he got a job offer.

"Within a month, my wife and I moved to Albany," he recalled.

In order to become a physician assistant, one generally spends two years at a medical school taking courses fairly similar to what a doctor-hopeful would be expected to take.

"It's pretty much the same thing medical students do on a much abbreviated basis," Scarbrough said.

The concept did encounter some resistance from the community, as is typical with new things. In Scarbrough's case, luck was on his side at the beginning.

"The doctors I worked under were well respected in Albany and the state of Georgia," he said. "There was some resistance at first, but it dissolved when they (the patients) realized it was going to work and that it wasn't a threat to anybody.

"I got lucky; I'm the first to admit that. You have to prove yourself, but it doesn't hurt to start out with a little help."

Since starting out, Scarbrough has seen a boom in the medical community of Southwest Georgia. The growth has included the physician assistant field, as well as a few others.

"When I first moved here, there were very, very few specialists in Albany," he said. "That's blossomed all over the place, and that's great."

As patients in the area got used to Scarbrough being there, it made the careers of future physician assistants after him much easier, he said.

"After I came here and got started, everyone was happier with the concept," he said. "It made it easier for other physician assistants to come here."

Albany's second physician assistant arrived roughly two to three years after Scarbrough relocated to the area.

"After that, the number of physician assistants (in the area) increased," he added. "(Patients) had to come to appreciate the concept."

With the end of his career on the horizon, Scarbrough has reflected on some of the best and worst things about his more than three decades in the profession.

"The best part was the patient care; it's all about patients," he said. "When I retire that's what I'm going to miss most -- the patients.

"I don't know if there was a worst part. Sometimes you can barely keep your eyes open, but that's part of the job."

After having spent that much time working in the medical community, Scarbrough may find himself a little lost in the early days of his retirement.

"When you've had a job since you were 16, you think: 'What am I going to do now,'" he said. "I have mixed emotions on retiring. I've done it so long, and I've always liked what I do."

Scarbrough, who currently works with the Southwest Georgia Nephrology Clinic, said he might eventually do some medical teaching.

"I can't just do nothing," he quipped.