Dr. Chuck Mendenhall, the director of radiation oncology at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, was recognized by the local medical community recently for 30 years of service. (Special Photo)
ALBANY — Dr. Chuck Mendenhall’s not one to pull punches. At 30 years and counting, he’s been in the radiation oncology business long enough not to have to.
So when Mendenhall offers a direct challenge to the governor of the state of Georgia, folks under the Golden Dome in Atlanta would be wise to take note.
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“This governor (Nathan Deal) has refused to expand Medicaid in the state, and to me that is absolutely idiotic,” Mendenhall, a native of Williamsport, Pa., who has been practicing medicine in Albany since 1983, said. “He’s so out of touch on this issue, he needs to go and see some of the patients with advanced cancers that could have been picked up if they’d been screened earlier. More and more diagnoses are being made in emergency rooms — when it’s often too late — and that’s just wrong.”
Mendenhall’s just getting warmed up.
“To me, if a person has cancer, getting treatment is a basic human right, not a privilege,” he said. “I’ve always voted Republican in the past, but that may change. The Republicans in this state appear to be out of touch with reality. There’s no concept of what the poor must go through to receive health care here.
“I’d like to make a standing offer to have the governor spend a day with me in the clinic here. Let’s see what he thinks after he sees the things that I see in a day.”
Lest anyone accuse Mendenhall of meaningless bluster, he offers plenty to back up his commentary.
“Currently, I’d say that I don’t get paid a penny from one-third of the patients I treat,” said the radiation oncologist who attended medical school at the University of South Florida and completed residency and internship requirements at the prestigious Shands Healthcare System Radiation Therapy in Gainesville, Fla. “But I’ve never turned a patient away. Ever.
“I love what I’m doing, love to work with my patients. I never have a problem with the work, it’s the government, the insurance companies and the regulations that are aggravating. I’ll tell you something that might shock you, but it’s the absolute truth. Because of the way the health care industry is regulated these days, I made less money last year in actual dollars than I did my first year here.”
Mendenhall’s seen his discipline, once considered experimental at best, become primary in the treatment of cancer. Technological advancements and improved combination chemotherapy/radiation treatments have provided amazing results.
“The machines we use are more precise now, they limit the amount of radiation that impacts areas around the cancer,” he said. “That allows us to use higher doses and improves our cure rate. By combining more chemotherapy treatment with radiation, we’re able to better localize treatment. And adding chemo to radiation is like throwing diesel fuel on a bonfire, it makes it more effective.”
Mendenhall admits he’s in a unique professional position in Albany. He’s been allowed to impact the poor population in a way many health care providers can’t.
“You can make a difference in people’s lives in Albany, Georgia,” he said. “It’s a great place to live, there’s an amazing medical community and a great, caring hospital (Phoebe) that stays off your back and let’s you practice medicine.
“My brother (who does similar work in Florida) always tells me this community is very spoiled. If you get cancer, he tells me all the time, and you come to Phoebe Putney, you get treated. That doesn’t happen where he is, and it doesn’t happen at a lot of places. The question becomes would I want to work in a place like that? The answer is hell no.”
Mendenhall says his love for his profession is such that he’d recommend it to anyone. But there are stipulations.
“If you want to do this, you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice while you’re in school 12 to 14 years,” he said. “You have to be willing to deny yourself the partying all your friends are doing, a decent income for quite a while, lots of nights of sleep and time with your family. You’d better be a great believer in delayed gratification.
“Even with all that, though, when I look back at my career I’d do it all over and wouldn’t do a thing differently.”