Dr. Charles B. Gillespie has a constant travel companion — his camera. Gillespie said he added a day or two onto his medical trips to take photos. He got interested in photography in high school.
ALBANY, Ga — The late entertainer Phyllis Diller never knew the impact she had on improving emergency medical care in rural Georgia.
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It was the 1960s, and she was performing in Albany. Diller’s style of comedy wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, a couple of men in the audience that night weren’t appreciative of her particular brand of humor. One was Dr. Charles Braselton Gillespie, an Albany orthopedic surgeon. The other was a state senator from Sumter County who had political aspirations that would take him to the Governor’s Mansion en route to the White House. It also was the night that emergency medical services in rural Georgia was born.
“It actually started with a conversation between me and Jimmy Carter at the Hasan Temple on the night when Phyllis Diller was talking,” Gillespie said, recounting the chance conversation during a lunch interview last month for our A Table With a View series. “He said, ‘You like what she’s saying?’ I said, ‘I can’t stand her.’ He said, ‘Let’s go out front. I want to talk to you about something.’”
Carter told Gillespie he was going to run for governor of Georgia, and he wondered whether the doctor had any ideas about what he should include in his platform regarding health care.
“I said there’s a movement going on right now to improve rural health care, to train people better. The term EMT (emergency medical technician) hadn’t come out at that moment,” Gillespie said. “If the technicians on the ambulance had radios, better equipment, they’d have better ways to get them to the hospital. He said, ‘That sounds good. Would you help me with it if I get elected?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
It could have ended there, but it didn’t. Carter won the 1970 gubernatorial race. After he took office, Gillespie got a call from Carter’s executive secretary, Hamilton Jordan of Albany. Gillespie was familiar with Jordan, whose father was his insurance agent and whose mother was one of his patients. Jordan asked the doctor if he remembered the conversation he’d had with Carter. Gillespie told him he did and he’d be happy to do what he could to help.
He went to Atlanta, where he met with Carter and Jordan. Carter asked him to head up the statewide effort, and Gillespie agreed to it. He told Carter he didn’t want a salary, just a phone card and reimbursement on expenses he would incur.
That launched nine years of working with what became a 23-member commission to get quality ambulance services in Georgia counties. Gillespie says he met with officials in 145 of the state’s 159 counties during that period. The phone card ended up with about $35,000 worth of calls on it — many of them conference calls that were particularly expensive, given the technology of the time — during the nine years, something Gillespie was questioned about after he left the job.
“I had a lady from the state call asking about my logs, my telephone logs,” he said between bites from his shrimp bowl. “I said nobody told me I was supposed to keep a log. She said you’re going to have to come up with some kind of information about it. I said ma’am, Gov. Carter handed me this card, said go for it. If you want to talk with him, I’ve got his number for his desk at the White House. You call him up and talk to him. I said, ‘Don’t call me about this again.’ ... I never heard any more from them.”
The story’s typical of Charles Gillespie in that not much about the man is typical at all. In addition to being the father of EMS in Georgia, he’s a skilled orthopedic surgeon (now retired), a world traveler, a member of the Aviation Commission in Albany and an accomplished photographer.
SKIP THE BROCCOLI
We met at the Hibachi Express on Old Dawson Road. Gillespie ordered the shrimp bowl. I got the steak and chicken bowl, and we went to a side room and sat down to talk. Terry Ho, the owner, dropped by to make sure the orders were correct and to mention the stir fry bar he was starting.
Gillespie had ordered his shrimp bowl without broccoli. “I eat this all the time now that I know they’ll leave out the broccoli. It’s very good,” he said, adding he had been at odds with that particular vegetable since his boyhood years in Braselton.
That’s where the Franklin, N.C., native was raised, a small town at the time and one where his family essentially was Braselton. He said he was kin to 365 of the 366 residents of the town at the time — “We didn’t know where that other one came from,” he quipped. He lived in his grandparents’ house, which had 23 occupants in its 10 bedrooms when he was coming up. From there, his family moved to Mississippi, where he graduated high school, and then he returned to Georgia to earn his medical degree at Emory University. After Emory, he moved to Albany, where he established a 32-year practice, retiring in 1997.
He and his wife, Carolyn, who he married in 1958, have two children. His daughter, Katherine Gillespie Baker, is a media specialist with the Dougherty County School System. His son, Dr. Charles Frederick “Ricky” Gillespie, followed a family tradition shared by about a dozen of Gillespie’s kin. The younger Gillespie has both an M.D. and a Ph.D. and is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Gillespie’s alma mater, Emory.
Gillespie’s influence, however, hasn’t been strictly in the medical field. He worked to improve Georgia air transportation during the Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission reviews, an effort that brought jets back to Albany’s Southwest Georgia Regional Airport.
The turboprop service that preceded the small jets forced military heading to assignments to travel separately from equipment because of weight restrictions. “You can’t leave your rifles and stuff at home when you send your troops off,” he observed.
As a member of the Dougherty County Aviation Commission, he’s excited over the new terminal that is being constructed at the airport, one of only two in Georgia used by UPS. After the controversial regional special-purpose local-option sales tax for transportation measure failed this past summer, he’s hopeful the sirport will find the funds from somewhere else to extend the airport runways.
But establishing rural EMS is something that can’t be separated from Gillespie’s professional life. I mentioned that I could remember when my home county of Baker didn’t have an ambulance service, when what passed for ambulances in small rural counties were funeral home hearses. The old joke was they’d check and see whether you were breathing before deciding to head to the hospital or the mortuary.
Gillespie recalled how a horse-riding accident ended up improving Baker County’s emergency medical services. Connie Mellon, who owned Pineland Plantation, fell off a horse and broke her hip. Gillespie told her he could get her to Albany, then fly her to Pittsburgh for surgery. She asked him how many of that type surgeries he’d done. Gillespie said he had stopped counting at 1,247.
She said he had more experience than the doctor’s in Pittsburgh. Gillespie called an ambulance from Albany and operated on her at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. After the surgery, Mellon said she’d noticed Gillespie had to call the ambulance from Albany and asked him how much it would cost to establish one in Baker County. He told her.
“About three weeks later,” he said, “I got a check in the mail for $45,000.” While that wouldn’t outfit an EMS rig these days, it was enough to get the Baker service off the ground.
The job of getting communities to buy in on the importance of emergency care, however, wasn’t always that easy. Some counties didn’t see the need for an EMS service, and many of those that did were hard to convince on footing the cost of it.
“The second county I went to to get a service established was Worth County,” Gillespie recalled, adding that the county attorney at the time was adamant that it would be too expensive.
“I really became a little irritated because it sounded like he wasn’t listening at all,” Gillespie said, adding he told the lawyer that you never knew when you’d need emergency medical care.
“I said, ‘You’ve got two choices,’” Gillespie said. “’Either you can put one in here and the state will work with you to get it started, training and so forth, or I’ll put one down here and I’ll run it for you and you won’t have any say-so about it, except you’re going to pay for it.’”
The next day, he got a call from the commission chairman. The county attorney, only 38 years old, had died from a heart attack. It was something Gillespie often mentioned at subsequent meetings with officials in various counties.
“We had some interesting county commissions to work with,” he said. “Ninety percent of the ones that had some hesitance had concern about continuing funding.”
THE EMT OATH
The EMS work, however, contributed to Gillespie’s decision to retire from his medical practice. He’s endured eight heart procedures over the years, with bypass surgery and stints. He said his cardiologist, Dr. Craig Mitchell, told him the source of his heart problems was the stress he had experienced. Much of that stress came from establishing emergency medical services throughout the state.
But it also led to one of his proudest moments — the naming of the first responder building at Albany Technical College after him — and to what may end up being his greatest legacy — the EMT Oath, which has been translated into a number of languages. Gillespie has also written an EMT Prayer and an EMT Code of Ethics that have been widely distributed and used.
The genesis of the oath was a case in which something good came out of a bad situation. Gillespie had been proud that the state convention of emergency medical technicians was meeting in Albany, but a serious situation had arisen. Two EMTs from outside counties had been accused of committing inappropriate actions while transporting patients. Gillespie, who chaired the state’s Emergency Health Services Advisory Council from 1972-81, was asked how he wanted to deal with the problems.
“I remembered the Hippocratic Oath we (doctors) took,” he said. “So, I sat down and wrote what’s now known as the EMT Oath and carried it back down to the convention and got one of the offenders to stand up and take the oath, the other to take the oath and then the whole crowd to stand up and take the oath, 600-and-something people.
“And that was it. I didn’t do anything else, and those two EMTs turned out OK. The Oath now is used all over the world ... all over the world. That’s sort of a proud moment.”
The pride was evident in his face ... and in a slight crack in his voice ... as he told the story. The oath has been translated into a number of foreign languages and is administered to trainees.
“I don’t know how many signed oaths I’ve sent out,” he said. “If I have a legacy that I would like to see go on and on and on, I would like to see the oath survive all over the world. If you read it, you’ll see how kin it is to the Hippocratic Oath, but it wasn’t based entirely on the Hippocratic Oath.”
NEVER STOP LEARNING
I mentioned that orthopedics was a field that appeared to be changing rapidly. After he started his surgical practice in 1996 in Albany, Gillespie said he never stopped learning. With the exception of treating basic fractures and handling tissue, he said, very little was the same when he took down his shingle.
“I would bet you 80 percent of what I was doing at the end was stuff I’d learned going to continuing education,” Gillespie said.
And staying on top of developments led to his extensive travel. Gillespie went to Wrightington Hospital in Wigan, England, to learn total hip replacement from Sir John Charnley, the surgeon who created the technique. He studied advanced hand reconstruction in Davos, Switzerland, and took the Slatis pelvis reconstruction course in Stockholm, Sweden.
In 1969, a visit to the then-Soviet Union with a group of orthopedic surgeons had some very real benefits, especially for two Southwest Georgia patients. Gillespie was introduced to technique invented by Russian general practitioner Dr. Gavriil Ilizarov. He came up with the idea that by getting rid of micro motion in fractures and compressing the bone, a patient could get well even without antibiotics. A bone cut without severing the periosteum would grow new bone to fill the gap.
“It fascinated me,” he said.
It was a life-changing technique for two patients. One was a woman from Montezuma who was a dwarf. Her lack of height made it impossible for her to do everyday things like turn on a light switch.
Gillespie had her taken to New York, where he cut her leg bones below the knee and applied the Ilizarov apparatus. The device was tightened a millimeter daily and didn’t affect blood supply. “It took a year,” he said, “but I ended up lengthening her legs six inches.”
In another case, a Blakely man was injured in a tire explosion that took out three inches of bone in one of his legs below the knee. “I knew he didn’t want to have a three-inch deficit in his right leg,” Gillespie said. After ensuring there was no contamination in the injury that would lead to infection, he cut the man’s tibia and applied the technique. The process took nearly a year.
“The new bone that forms in the place that you cut it, you get normal bone,” Gillespie said. The new bone migrated upward and attached at the break point. “It worked out. He went back to work at the same shop.”
In all, he did 46 procedures using the technique. “I was real pleased with my results,” he said. “I never had one get infected.”
The educational travel also allowed Gillespie to develop a love he met in high school while working on the annual staff with a Kodak 828 — photography.
“As my economic status improved, I invested in better cameras,” he said. “During my medical practice, I would always add one or two days to my continuing education trips to make pictures.”
TRAVELS IN FOCUS
Gillespie — who’s also traveled to favorite domestic spots like Savannah, New Orleans, Alaska and Yellowstone — said he hadn’t counted the number of countries he’s visited. And he was hard-pressed to say which he liked best, at least at first.
“I think probably Norway is one of my favorites,” he said. “Switzerland is up there. I’ve been to Switzerland five times. I like England because it’s got the same language. It’s always better if you speak the same language. There’s just so many different qualities in all the different countries.”
Ironically, given his former occupation, Gillespie broke his leg on a train platform in Switzerland two or three years ago. He had to crawl up on the train for a 67-mile ride to a trauma center to get the leg set. That prompted a long recovery period.
It hasn’t, however, slowed him down. A trip to Peru to experience the Amazon this month was the last on his travel to-do list, he said.
“I think that probably is the last one on my bucket list,” Gillespie said. “I go for two reasons. No. 1 is education. No. 2 is to take pictures. That’s the reason I want to go there.”
He produced “Countries Along Our Way,” a 270-page collection of photos from their travels, as a gift for Carolyn. When I interviewed him, he had recently returned from a National Geographic tour of Cuba. It was the second time he’d been there, this time to photograph farming. I told him I’d always heard that Cuba was a place stuck in the 1950s, at least in appearance, because of the U.S. trade embargo.
“It’s more like I walked back into the 1800s with all the old steam engines built in the United States (on the sugar plantations),” he said, adding Russian parts are used to repair them.
As far as changes he noticed, he said, “The farmers, for example, can take about 40 percent of their crop and make some money above what the state pays them. Tobacco’s pretty much on the western part of Cuba, not all over. The buses have been replaced by Chinese buses, and the Chinese told them if they didn’t fix the highways they aren’t going to give them the buses because some of them are pretty bad. ... But the hotel we stayed in in Havana was a five-star hotel, good as anything in Atlanta.”
I asked him what his favorite shot was, knowing full well it was an unfair question, given the tens of thousands of pictures he’s taken over the decades.
Gillespie mulled it over, fiddling with his shrimp bowl as he thought. “It depends on what category you’re in,” he said.
“There’s a historic shot that I think is my best journalistic shot,” he said, pointing to an image on a page that he’d printed out for the interview, one taken on a medical-related trip overseas. “It’s this one, right there with the Statue of Liberty. We were in Shanghai right during the Chinese uprising (1989) and we were going down this street — suddenly surrounded by about 30,000 people — and this group came up on the street beside our bus and I was the only one with a decent camera, and I stuck it out the window and, fortunately, I had a flash.
“We went from there to Tiananmen Square. We were surrounded by a million people, and it was quite a sensation to do that.”
But there are others. There was a breathtaking shot of the sun peering through the Twin Towers taken from a plane, the barn and bell at his old homeplace in Braselton, the steps of the Xian Temple in China that won him $100 in a photo competition, and then there’s the photo of the first responder building at Albany Tech, a cause never far from his heart.
I asked the doctor if he had any tips for someone who might want to get into photography.
2818 Old Dawson Road, Albany
Shrimp Bowl, no broccoli — $5.99
Steak & Chicken Bowl — $8.99
Unsweet tea — $1.59
Water — 15 cents
TOTAL (including tax) — $17.89
This was my first visit to Terry Ho’s Hibachi Grill restaurant. You walk in and go to the bar in the back to order. I thought the steak was tender and chicken was well seasoned, plus I liked the mustard sauce that accompanied it. Dr. Gillespie says the shrimp bowl is a favorite of his when he visits. There was also a new stir fry bar that was opening when we ate there for this interview.
“No. 1 is have good equipment,” he said. “I’ve used Canon equipment primarily all my life. A lot of people use Nikon. The next thing they have to do — and I know this may be an oversimplification — they need to know how to find their pictures once they have them. You’ve got to have a good filing system.
“I have probably nine hard drives full of pictures. And I have a system if I type in certain key words ‘Albany Herald’ and hit a button, it’ll bring up every picture I’ve got about The Albany Herald, sort of an Excel spread sheet. The main thing is, you’ve got to find them.”
That was beneficial when Gillespie was running a stock photo agency. Hobby Farming in particular was a good client because, being located in the middle of the farm belt, he had a large number of agriculture photos.
“In all the years of taking pictures, I have never had a situation where I haven’t gotten paid,” he said. “It might take three months. It’s the Code of the Photography West. You get some reasonable fees for photos. I’d get between $150 and $300.”
These days, Gillespie usually shoots a Canon EOS 30, but he was taking a new camera — an Olympus 810UZ with 28-800 mm lens — to the Amazon.
“I took it to Atlanta ... for Chipper’s last game,” he said. “I got pictures of him standing at the plate with his bat in his hand with that 800 mm lens, and it’s just perfect.”
But ditching his Canon for the Olympus was a pragmatic decision. He said he could only take up to 16 pounds of luggage “on the puddle jumper plane from Lima to where we catch the boat.”
“That’s what I’m taking to the Amazon because it’s light,” he said. “It weighs about a pound and a half. ... You can make movies with it and everything.”
A LOT OF TRADITION
It was getting close to the end of our lunch. Past it actually. I’d promised the doctor that I’d keep it at an hour, but when I checked the clock on my cellphone, we’d been chatting a solid hour and a half. I thought about all he’d accomplished in his life, and I wondered: What’s ahead?
“I live one day at a time,” Gillespie said. “I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but right now I’m in the process of getting rid of stuff because I don’t want my wife to have to put up with it when I’m gone. I’m working with Darton and Tech and Thronateeska in picking out segments of my things.”
Before he went digital with his photography equipment — he converted after a National Guardsman made him place his film canisters in an x-ray machine when he returned from his first trip to Cuba — Gillespie used five-ring binders to hold slides of his work. Each binder holds between 2,000 and 4,000 slides, and he has 186 of the binders. He talked with Darton about using the 2-by-2-inch slides for teaching programs, but the college said it could only use the images if they were digital.
“I went through and selected pictures that I thought were marketable, teachable photographs and I bought a scanner,” Gillespie said. “I could scan 27 slides at a time. It took me almost two years, but I scanned 97,000 slides, and I put those on hard drives.”
He said he knows how complicated things can be if plans aren’t made. “I know when my grandparents died up in Braselton, it was a monster of a problem getting rid of all the things in that house,” he said. “It had 10 bedrooms.”
The homeplace was advertised for sale, and the family got two bids. One potential buyer wanted to place a massage parlor in it; the other one wanted a make it a wedding parlor. Gillespie, who was in charge of the decision with an uncle, took the bid that was $50,000 smaller and told the buyer, “I sure am glad we’re going to have white lights on the front porch instead of red lights.” It’s known as the Braselton Stover House.
“A lot of tradition in our family,” he observed.
As far as public service, Gillespie says he has one goal left: universal 911 service in Georgia.
“That’s one of my last projects I want to see finished before I die,” he said. “I want every county to have 911. We’re down to about two or three counties now. It’s mostly the counties around Stewart and Webster.”
The problem yet to be overcome is the investment. Small, private telephone companies in the sparsely populated counties can’t afford the equipment, which is often outdated by the time it’s installed. “The smaller counties don’t have all that yet,” he said, adding former Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor of Albany was instrumental in helping fund 911 when he had $350,000 transferred for that purpose from Georgia’s tobacco settlement fund.
Other than that, he said, he wants to “get things in pretty good shape for my family when I leave the world.”
I had to make the observation that he’d done more with his life than just make things better for his family, important as that is. When you look back at his body of work — the medical practice that affected so many lives, the establishment of EMS, expanding 911 coverage, his work on the Aviation Commission and in preparation for the BRAC Commission — Gillespie has already made life better for countless Georgians.
“Starting life going down the right highway makes me proud,” he said.
And before we parted company, I did manage to get an answer about that favorite travel destination.
“If I had my suitcase right here and an airline ticket and I could walk out the door and fly somewhere, where would I go?” Gillespie said. “It’d be Norway. It is such a beautiful country. Now, when I got there I’d want to pick out my own trip. You don’t want to go all over the place.”
Maybe not, but Gillespie has been “all over the place” and a lot of lives have been the better for it. And there are many journeys still waiting to be taken.