Dr. Smith Celebrating 45 Years of Practice in Marietta
Posted on Thursday, March 20th, 2008
Dr. Vergil Smith
In 1963, a brand-new doctor moved to Marietta and opened a clinic on SW 3 St. It was a risky move as three other physicians were in town already.
But Dr. Vergil Smith won instant and enduring acceptance – “ten people the first day and it never stopped. Busy, busy, busy, busy, busy,” he recalled recently.
The open and friendly general practitioner will turn age 78 this year and celebrate his 45th year in Marietta. He sees patients Monday-Thursday in the clinic at Mercy Health/Love County Hospital.
Smith figured heavily in establishing a county-owned hospital in Marietta in 1972 and in keeping it open when financial turmoil struck the industry in the late 1980’s.
He expanded his solo practice in 1972 to welcome Dr. J.T. O’Connor, another brand-new doctor at the time.
For an extended period, they were the only physicians in Love County.
They made the decision to close their private practice in 1990 and transfer their services to a newly-organized county-owned clinic whose profits would accrue to and help save the hospital.
Their dedication and that of many others associated with the hospital and in the community worked to steady the institution. Two more doctors, Stephen Hutchins and Larry Powell, joined the staff and a long stretch of financial and management success has ensued.
Dr. Smith said he believes the hospital is “in better shape today than any other small hospital in Oklahoma.” He talked about his career in a recent interview.
What got you interested in medicine?
Out of high school (in 1948) I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to fly airplanes for a living. The Korean War was on. On New Year’s Eve 1950 I joined the Air Force with 10 other Claremore guys.
Nine months later, after finishing radio school, I was ordered to Korea. I wound up at Kunson Air Base. There wasn’t a lot for enlisted men to do in our off hours, so I got to reading a lot. Along about then I decided that I’m going into medicine.
I had a cousin who was a D.O. I served out my Air Force time and started college in 1951.
(For the next dozen years, Smith worked in his parent’s restaurant in Claremore and pursued his undergraduate and graduate degrees. He earned a D.O. from Kansas City College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed an internship at a Tulsa hospital).
What brought you to Marietta?
I had two classmates who had opened offices in Madill and Ardmore. Six months later, after looking at several towns in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas, I decided on Marietta.
I was just tired of looking. As a matter of fact, when I came here, I fully intended to go back to Tulsa and go into a residency program.
But I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It’s been a good life, a good place to raise a family and live.
What were your first years of practice like?
I was busy from the first day, forever. I’d go three or four days and not even get home in bed. I’d go all over town and up to Ardmore where I had patients. I’d work right through to Thursday noon and take the afternoon off. That went on for a while. You know, you’re young and you do what you have to do. I liked it. Ten years I worked alone.
But (in 1971) we were able to get a National Health Service Corps doctor to come in. He was a smart guy but he couldn’t communicate with people.
In 1972, Dr. O’Connor arrived and he was such a better practitioner in every way. On the first Monday, he had 20 people to see and the other guy saw two people. The National Health Service Corps doctor was supposed to give two years, but the next morning, he made arrangements to finish his year in Ringling.
You can’t believe how much difference Dr. O’Connor made.
(In 1956, one year after the Ardmore hospital opened, Love County, through the Board of Commissioners, applied to the State Health Department for a license that would enable it to acquire federal matching funds to construct a hospital. The citizens would have to pass a bond issue, backed by property taxes, for the other half.
Over the next 10 years, the application was repeatedly rejected by Paul Snelsen, the Health Department’s hospital division chief. After arriving in Marietta, Smith threw his efforts into the pursuit.)
How did the drive to establish a hospital in Love County finally succeed?
Back then there were people in town who could dig and dig and get things done, a half-dozen or more who, when we needed something would say, ‘Let’s do it.’
On the committee, Mr. (George) Goodrich was a prime mover, the undertaker here, and H.A. Welsh, the pharmacist, Clarence Cochran, Worth Zachary, Bill Anderson, and Willis Choate. Our little town supported this bond unanimously. I hear it was the largest tax bond issue in the state of Oklahoma at that time.
I had a friend from Claremore, John Green, a dentist, who was the right hand man of Governor Bellmon. I contacted John and asked him for help with the Health Department, but it was near the end of Bellmon’s term. John put the matter on his desk but nothing happened.
Then Bartlett was elected. Finally, I talked to a friend of mine (referring to Clem McSpadden) who was also head man in the Senate. He contacted Dewey Bartlett and they put their heads together. Bartlett met with our committee and told us he saw nothing wrong with our application. Then he set another appointment with this guy from the Health Department and us.
Bartlett made him stand up the whole time. He had him on the carpet, really grilled him about why he wasn’t approving our application. When he was finished, Bartlett told him, ‘I want papers on my desk Monday morning showing me how you’re going to allow this hospital.’
We spent a lot of time on the road getting the hospital approved. That guy (Snelson) really, really had animosity for us. But we sicced two governors on him.
If we didn’t have this facility here we wouldn’t be starting it now. We were very fortunate that we went ahead and did that.
(Governor Bartlett spoke at the hospital dedication in Marietta on January 30, 1972. He told the audience, ‘It’s good that Okies are a tough breed, because if you hadn’t been, this hospital would not be here today’).
What has changed in patient care through your career?
Actually, the major difference is probably our ability to detect illness with some greater sensitivity than we did then. Until some of these lab studies were improved upon, old docs were just practicing by the seat of their pants. They were just guessing. The good ones got better than the bad ones.
There weren’t any tests to detect thyroid disease, there were one or two tests to detect liver disease, and basic blood sugars took 35 or 40 minutes to do. Then the diagnostic things like CT scans just changed the whole concept of medicine. You can tell now what’s wrong with someone and you don’t have to be too smart to do it.
I did a special study as an intern and a student on how to read EKG’s and I brought an EKG machine down here and I could tell when someone had a heart attack and I could do whatever had to be done. It took a long time for (others) to catch up to that.
Today they can do 25 tests in 30 minutes. We know when an attack occurred, and whether it was two hours or two days ago. Now they’re coming out with new machines and I don’t even know what the heck they are. But I’ll find out what they do and we’ll use them.
We have such good access to make a good diagnosis. When we’re wrong we find that out quickly, too.
What is your approach to patient care?
We all here do things a little different than most family practitioners. There are some in Tulsa or Ardmore I know who see 40 or 50 people a day. We don’t do that here. We can’t. I can’t. I can’t make decisions that fast. I have to take time and dig things out and I know pretty much everybody else feels that way. Twenty-five people is a big day.
I don’t see how you practice and not talk to patients and not listen to what they tell you. We sit there and visit most of the time. Patient history is much more important than a physical, much more important.
What are your hobbies?
I used to fly an airplane, but I don’t fly as much anymore. I’ve played golf three times since my wife (Marilyn) and I were married (three years ago). I don’t know if it’s her fault or mine. I spend my time taking care of the home place, mowing, digging. That’s about what I do now.
Any thoughts on the future?
Every once in a while someone will call me and say, ‘I hear you’re retiring.’ Well, I don’t know where it came from. I didn’t decide it. I’m going to do this as long as they let me.