ALBANY — If, during a conversation about cancer — survival, loss, treatment — the name Chuck Mendenhall is mentioned, the reaction is the same.
“Oh, man, he is great.” ... “He saved my life.” ... “There is no one like him.”
Mendenhall, a renowned radiation oncologists who came to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany on July 16, 1983, after completing medical studies at the University of South Florida and an internship at the University of Florida, spent the following 38 1/2 years saving lives, helping make the Phoebe Cancer Center one of the nation’s best, and always — always — putting his patients first.
“There’s no way I could have done this without my wife, Kathy,” Mendenhall said. “We talked about it before we got married, how, with cancer, the patients had to come first. That meant missing a lot of birthdays and a lot of family events. Family is so important, but this is cancer. The patients were always first.”
Mendenhall shared with a visitor some of the stories and highlights of his career, which will officially end Friday with Mendenhall’s retirement. Phoebe officials will mark his storied career with a celebration during which the hospital’s radiation oncology center will be named for him.
The term “bittersweet” was created for such moments.
“I’ve always worked; I missed two days for sickness in 38 1/2 years,” Mendenhall said. “But physically, I cannot maintain the pace that is required.
“I’ve always loved what I’ve done, and that’s what makes this so difficult now. I am just thankful that I have two excellent young partners (Drs. Jay McAfee and Adam Jones) — I call them ‘The Boys’ — who have stepped right in and are doing the job the way it’s supposed to be done. I never told them this, but I’ve been kind of grooming them all along to step in and do the job.”
Mendenhall was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Gainesville, Fla. He decided early on — as young as 4, he says — that he wanted to be a doctor. Why?
“Since as early as I can remember, I spent a lot of time in emergency rooms,” he said. “Falling on barbed-wire fences, falling off porches. And, since I lived in that era, I was responsible for my fair share of house calls.”
Mendenhall spent “the most stressful three years of my life” studying medicine at South Florida (“If your grades fell below 70, you were gone,” he said.) Following in the footsteps of his older brother, Mendenhall found himself drawn to radiation oncology, a relatively new field that was, at the time, beginning to lead to positive cancer outcomes.
“Being there in the follow-up clinic during my internship, I got to see patients walk in who had been very ill, and they were doing great,” Mendenhall said. “The vast majority of them were living productive lives.”
Duncan Moore, who was the CEO/president at Phoebe in Albany, heard of Mendenhall’s work and gave him a call. The next day, he came to southwest Georgia for a visit.
“I was fortunate to work with great administrators: Duncan Moore and then Joel Wernick,” he said. “When he hired me, Duncan Moore spelled it out for me this way: He said, ‘You’re signing a contract, and that’s like you’re a football coach. You get to pick your assistant coaches. If you win, you stay with us. If you lose, we get rid of you.’
“I was fine with that. It gave me an opportunity to make a difference in my career. That’s what’s mattered: making a difference.”
Mendenhall said Albany checked off all the boxes he had when determining where he and Kathy, an Ohioan whom he met standing in the bathroom line at a keg party in Gainesville, would make their home.
“I’m passionate about hunting and fishing and outdoor activities,” he said. “Places where I’d hunted in Florida were being turned into apartment complexes and condos, so I knew I wanted to go farther north. I also don’t like large metropolitan areas, so when I came to Albany I liked what I saw. It’s a great community, great people, you could get to work easy, and you could buy land.
“Plus, I knew I was coming to a good program at Phoebe.”
Coming to Albany meant working with oncologist Phillip Roberts, a physician Mendenhall said is “one of the Top 5 doctors I’ve ever known, and that’s pretty damned strong company.” The radiation oncologist said he and Roberts became so attuned to each other’s technique, each knew what the other was doing before they even discussed diagnosis.
“Phil Roberts is the consummate physician, extremely dedicated,” Mendenhall said. “Working with him made things easier; we were so in tune we were like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.”
Even as he worked with his patients in Albany, Mendenhall was able to maintain his passion for hunting and fishing, frequently making sojourns to Canada in search of sheep and other game. (A fully mounted sheep and Canadian geese peer over his shoulders in his Phoebe office.)
In 2000, Mendenhall lost sight in both of his eyes. He’s since gone through six cornea transplants that have allowed him to continue his calling.
“There were periods when I worked one-eyed,” he said. “It takes about a year to get your vision back when you go through a transplant, but I wasn’t ready to stop doing this job that I love.”
Mendenhall, who currently wears a boot on his ankle and uses a cane to walk, suffered an injury that eventually led him toward retirement when he “slipped off a tractor” and broke his ankle.
“At first I was like one of those tough-guy football players; I was just going to ‘walk it off,’” he said. “I took a couple of steps, and the bones came through my skin.”
Eleven months later, Mendenhall had back surgery, and infection that had set in in his ankle during surgery for that break moved up his back.
“I got a helicopter ride for that one,” he said. “They air-lifted me to Emory Hospital (in Atlanta), but I don’t remember much about it. The pus that had developed around my ankle surgery moved up my thoracic cavity and inflamed most of my spinal cord. They had to open a large part of my spinal column to remove it, and I spend two months at Emory.”
Upon returning home, Mendenhall has left much of the work at Phoebe to The Boys, and he’s spent a large chunk of his time at his office training medical student Kristin Walker, who, he said, is leaning toward radiation oncology.
Mendenhall says he is “humbled” by Phoebe’s decision to name the center where he’s spent his professional career in his honor. But he’s not really one for legacies.
“It’s about making a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “Everybody talks about those ‘miracle patients’ that survived cancer even though they didn’t have a great prognosis. What’s stuck with me, though, are the young patients that were expected to be cured and they have a recurrence and die. You remember those patients. This is not a business — at least not for me — where you treat someone, slap them on the back and say, ‘See ya.’ It’s about more than that.
“But you know what: If I had it to do all over again, going all the way back to when I came here in 1983, I’d do the exact same thing.”