Heritage

Dr. Walker Dempsey: A lifetime of change

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Longtime Red Bay physician witnessed evolution of the Baymont area, healthcare during his career

Originally published February 24, 1988 in The Red Bay News. Republished in the March 2018 edition of Heritage.

Dr. Walker Dempsey was a longtime physician in Red Bay. (Red Bay News archives)

In the community of Dempsey, there is a very old pear tree planted by Dr. Walker Dempsey’s grandfather, according to family tradition.

“My uncle, who was married in 1900, told me that he could remember eating pears off of that tree the year of his wedding,” Dr. Dempsey said. “I don’t know of any other tree that old that still bears fruit.”

When Dempsey’s grandparents arrived in Franklin County from Georgia and Tennessee in the 1880s, no one could know that the family’s contribution to this rural area would extend far beyond the planting of pear trees. One descendant alone has been largely responsible for seeing to the health and physical well-being of Red Bay area citizens for more than 39 years.

Since he first hung his shingle out in October 1948, Dr. Walker Dempsey has established two medical clinics, assisted in establishing a hospital and delivered 2,040 babies. He still remembers that none of these accomplishments would have been possible without the interference of “old Dr. Weatherford,” the local physician who saved Dempsey’s life when, in 1929, he lay dying of pneumonia at the age of five.

“After that, I guess it was only natural that I later decided, in the 11th grade, to become a doctor and return to Red Bay to practice,” Dempsey said. “Of course, it worried my mother, the expense of medical school, but we managed.”

Apart from the two years he served on a California Air Force base shortly after his marriage in the early 1950s, Dempsey has been administering to the medical needs of his Red Bay neighbors and taking an active part in civic affairs. Sometimes, the two areas have overlapped, as when, on his return from military service, Dempsey reached into his own pocket to build Red Bay’s first six-bed medical clinic downtown. Later, when the Red Bay Hospital finally was built in 1967, it was largely through Dempsey’s efforts.

“We had a time with that,” said the doctor, a three-time city councilman. “We had to work hard in Montgomery and here, too, to get a city sales tax passed to help pay for it.”

Now settled in a larger, more modem clinic built in 1979, Dempsey is still taking care of his patients, though he no longer performs surgery. He speaks with pride of the three young doctors who now share his general practice with him, calling them his greatest contribution to the community.

“I feel I’ve really helped the area by bringing these young men here. They’re fine doctors. It used to be hard to attract young doctors to this place, but now we have this new clinic here, one of the best office set-ups in the state. It’s been a pleasure to work here. We stay busy.”

Dempsey didn’t always have this much help looking after the colds, fevers, broken bones and various other ills of local residents. In fact, from 1967-70, as the only doctor in town, he was on call seven days and nights a week for three years after every other physician in Red Bay had either died or relocated.

“I tell you, that like to got me,” Dempsey said. “If I hadn’t been healthy and had a good wife, I wouldn’t have made it.”

Considering the increase in Red Bay’s population, which at nearly 4,000 has almost doubled since Dempsey began his practice in 1948, it is fortunate that he is no longer solely responsible for the town’s healthcare. With Drs. Fabianke, Norman and Humphries, Dempsey now numbers some 18,000 patients from Red Bay and the surrounding area on the clinic’s active charts.

“The town has certainly grown and changed a lot,” he said. “When my grandparents settled here, you could really take 40 acres and a mule and support a family. Now, farming has just about disappeared as a way of life. There are only about four full-time farmers left here; the others usually work at one of the plants and farm in their spare time. We’ve watched this change from a sawmill/farming community to a manufacturing community in a very short time.”

Dempsey applauds the new wave, remembering darker days when young men returning from military service in World War II were forced to take their families far away to find work. Now, he said, when many of those people are returning to Red Bay upon retirement, young people have a good chance of finding local employment, thanks to diversified industries like Sunshine Homes, Sunshine Feed Mills, Bluebell, Gates Rubber, Allegro and several others that have become established here, along with a flourishing pulpwood industry.

“I feel they’re here because they saw people who were doing something for themselves, and they felt that was a healthy climate for their businesses.”

As chairman of the Bank of Red Bay’s Board of Directors, which he has served since 1954, Dempsey proudly notes the growth of the bank, too, which now includes three banks and one holding company. “That’s a great number for such a small town,” said Dempsey, whose grandfather was an original stockholder of the bank when it was founded in 1908.

 

Always active

With all of his other activities, Dempsey finds he never has enough time for hobbies like turkey hunting, fishing, gardening and golf. But he and his ever-supportive wife strive always to make time for their four children, all grown and living away from home, but close enough to visit. In the summer, Dempsey enjoys taking his eight grandchildren camping and fishing.

“We have a good time,” he said.

There is also time to visit his mother-in-law, who celebrates her 102nd birthday next month, and Dempsey’s remarkable 89-year-old mother.

“My father left us when we three kids were little, and my mother brought the family back here to live with her parents on my grandfather’s farm. She taught school in the winter, went to college to work on her masters in the summer, and later, she sent my brother, then me, then my sister and her husband through College.”

Among the family photos on Dempsey’s desk are pictures of a few patients, including a school portrait of a 15-year­old girl who has a starring role in one of Dempsey’s favorite case histories.

“This child’s mother, a girl from Hodges, had lost her first two babies, who were born prematurely. She was expecting her third child when she began hemorrhaging heavily. Well, l was out on the golf course when they called, and by the time I got there, I was Just in time for this little girl to be born. She came early, too, but we were able to save her. That’s always been one of my most enjoyable cases.”

Naturally, Dempsey has other stories to tell. The last 40 years have brought many historic changes to modern medicine, and Dempsey marvels at some of me breakthroughs – the eradication of polio in the 1950s, the development of the birth control pill and the advancement of cardiac surgery, for instance.

“We used to have to send patients away from home, to Birmingham or Memphis, for that, but now it’s available in Florence and Tupelo,” he said. “It’s a very expensive process, about $30-40,000 per case, but worth it.”

Other changes have been less beneficial. Dempsey mourns the rising expense of malpractice insurance, which he didn’t even carry when he first went into medicine.

“Now, it costs more per year than I earned in my first year of practice,” he said. “If I still delivered babies today, my insurance would be $40,000 per year. It’s just gotten so far out of hand.”

Far enough out of hand for the Red Bay Hospital to close down its obstetrics ward three years ago – after delivering some 5,000 children without losing one mother – due to the prohibitive costs of malpractice insurance. Though Dempsey regretted the decision, which deprived him of the chance to deliver a third generation of Red Bay citizens (he has already delivered the children of a number of “Dempsey” babies), but admitted it was necessary.

“Obstetrics is simply a losing proposition for rural hospitals like ours these days. Now, people living in this area who are expecting babies usually have to go to Florence or to Tupelo to have them. It’s a problem for the whole country, and I don’t foresee that it will get any better. In Alabama, we have the highest infant mortality rate in the country. That’ll probably get worse too; out of 67 counties in this state, 30 now have no delivery facilities.”

Like many doctors, Dempsey also has a few complaints about Medicare, claiming it discriminates against small town hospitals.

“They will pay us less than they pay a big hospital, say in Birmingham, for an identical procedure. The red tape it creates has become very disagreeable to patients as well as to the doctor. We’re rapidly approaching what the Canadian doctors practicing in Russellville left when they came here – socialized medicine. We’re almost there now.”

Dempsey’s most disturbing prediction for the future concerns the AIDS epidemic, which he feels sure will affect the Red Bay area in time.

“It’s going to be terrible in the next few years,” he said. “They’ll probably find a vaccine to prevent it in the next five years or so, but they may never find a cure.”

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