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From soldier to physician

Camden’s ‘Dr. Mac’ recounts war, nearly 60 years of healing

Posted: May 3, 2013 4:59 p.m.
Updated: May 6, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Tray Dunaway/C-I

Francis N. McCorkle, Jr., MD in his Mill Street office, home to his practice for more than 50 years.

Birthdays are often a reason for celebration. Dr. Francis McCorkle’s April birthday is a yearly moment of celebration, reflection and gratitude. A caring man the community has known as “Dr. Mac” for 57 years, the solo practitioner wasn’t always a physician; he was also a soldier.

After graduating Camden High School in 1943 and completing his first semester at the University of South Carolina (USC), McCorkle contemplated becoming a physician but joined the army in 1944. After 13 weeks of training at Camp Croft in Spartanburg, he found himself with the U.S. Army’s 45th Division in France.

“Thank goodness I was young enough to miss Anzio; that was terrible,” McCorkle said.

But things heated up pretty fast after leaving France. On April 30, 1945, two weeks after his 19th birthday, he found himself at the spear’s tip of an assault on an SS war college about 10 miles outside of Munich.

“Things were going pretty smoothly until the big German 88’s (artillery) opened up and the Germans launched a counter-attack and pinned us down and our tanks had to back up,” McCorkle said. “A machine gun bullet knocked my rifle out of my hands, destroying it, and we hunkered down in foxholes.”

In the rapid allied tank retreat, a tank rolled over McCorkle’s position and crushed another soldier’s leg.

“We got him into the foxhole with us and discovered we were then in a no man’s land and I didn’t even have a weapon,” he said.

Fortunately, there was another push forward from U.S. forces and the trapped men were able to rejoin their units. That engagement earned McCorkle the Combat Infantryman Badge and a Battle Star.

After the battle for Munich, McCorkle’s 180th Regiment arrived at Dachau in the middle of a snowstorm on May 1, 1945. His regiment, along with the 179th and 157th, were the first allied soldiers to witness the horrors of Dachau.

“It was a sight to see,” McCorkle quietly commented of the concentration camp.

A 1980 trip to Europe afforded the opportunity to revisit the camp.

“It was a lot different 35 years later,” he said, “but it’s something that we should keep forever to remind us of what happened there. Some people say ‘there’s no such thing,’ but they’re not right.”

McCorkle sums up his war experience simply: “I grew up fast in two years because you had to become an adult quick, and it was tough going. I wouldn’t take anything for those experiences, but I wouldn’t want to try that again!”

After VE Day (Victory in Europe), he was sent home for a month in August of 1945 with orders to go to the Pacific after his stay in Camden. Mercifully, VJ Day (Victory over Japan) arrived in the beginning of August while at home and he never had to go the Pacific. For the next year, McCorkle was sent to various camp assignments in Texas, Colorado, Georgia and North Carolina before mustering out in August of 1946.

“After the war was over the only action I saw was when I had my appendix removed in Texas,” he joked.

Returning to South Carolina, McCorkle reentered college in September and finished at USC in three years; he earned his MD from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in 1953. After interning in Cincinnati for his first post-graduate year, McCorkle again returned to South Carolina where he completed his internal medicine residency at MUSC and then received a special National Institutes of Health grant for a year of cardiology fellowship. Returning to Camden in 1957, he started his practice and married his wife, Betty, the same year.

McCorkle said that his sons, Philip and Francis (Trey), were only “half interested in medicine,” but decided to choose computer programming and banking careers.

“I think they saw me having to get up in the middle of the night too much for them to be interested in medicine, but I have a granddaughter, Kelly, who is interested in becoming a physician,” he said.

Years of solo practice meant countless trips to the hospital in the middle of the night.

“It’s tough by yourself but swapping call with other solo practitioners helped us all by working together,” McCorkle admitted.

During his 57 years of practice, McCorkle has probably seen more patients than two physicians might see in a practice lifetime. For his first years of practice, “physicians were free to practice medicine.”

Decrying the changes brought about by the government and insurance companies, McCorkle said, “In 1965, Medicare started to make things difficult, increased the hassle factor of practice and insurance companies started telling you what to do. Before Medicare, physicians were more independent and were more free to make decisions; that has changed with increased rules and regulations.”

Increased government participation in patient care causes McCorkle concern.

“The more government runs something, the less efficient it will be,” he said. “I worry about the government taking money from Medicare to run Obamacare and I’m worried it will change American medicine into a European model and create an even larger bureaucracy.”

Despite the changes, McCorkle’s practice has spanned decades and he’s quick to point out, “you conform as best you can but all of this changed the practice of medicine.”

In the midst of this year’s KershawHealth Centennial, McCorkle noted he has practiced at the same hospital for more than half of that very centennial.

“The old hospital was open for its last year when I started my first year in Camden,” McCorkle joked. “When I started here, you could get a private room for $10 a day, that’s something, isn’t it?”

McCorkle sees progress in healthcare as a two-edged sword. He said the advances in technology that allows advanced testing to be done locally today is a boon for patients, but technology has affected how patients feel they are treated.

“Our nurses are great, but nurses are now required to spend a lot of their time on a computer and  ‘hands on nursing’ has suffered,” McCorkle explained. “The time nurses can spend with their patients gives the very best nursing care possible -- sometimes it’s the nursing, not the medicine that makes the difference.”

With today’s emphasis on medical teams, McCorkle illustrated a unique and different team effort he had early in his career.

“When I got out of school, I thought I knew everything. I had a patient from Bishopville in my office one day. Her symptoms didn’t make any sense and I wasn’t sure exactly what to do. On the next office visit I found out that she was cured. Turns out someone cast a spell on her and she paid someone else money to get rid of the spell -- isn’t that something?”

McCorkle modeled his style of medical practice and high professional standards after two specific professors he recalled.

“Dr. Vince Moseley was a strict fellow but compassionate and he liked to solve a problem any day, or night. Dr. Kelly McKee practiced till he was 90 and was always enthusiastic. I was lucky to have them as mentors and to follow in the footsteps of doctors who were first class,” McCorkle said.

Physicians themselves account for a lot of the overall changes in medicine today compared to physicians when he started his practice, McCorkle said.

“In the 1950s, attitudes were different. This new crowd wants time off, which is natural, but just different from what I was used to because being a physician really shifted my life for years,” he said. 

Dr. McCorkle lost his wife, Betty, in 2005.

“After you lose a spouse it’s a terrible blow, but I thought I’d be better off if I got up every morning and did something positive -- the best thing for me to do was to keep busy,” he reflected.

McCorkle also has advice for students now considering a career in medicine.

“You’ve really got to be enthusiastic because it’s a different world now,” he said. “My kind of practice, solo practice, is vanishing. It looks like the government will run everything directly or indirectly; so going into medicine is a lot different now than it was when I came along. You’re going to be working for a hospital unless you work in a real big group; you’re not going to be in a private practice anymore.” 

Of all the changes in medicine he’s witnessed during half a century, McCorkle has nothing but praise for KershawHealth’s inpatient specialists.

“People often get sick in the middle of the night,” he said with a wink, “and hospitalists have kept me going. I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night. The hospitalists take great care of my patients and then send ‘em back to me in the office; this works out good. ”

The professional ER staff has also helped physicians, McCorkle said.

“Now that we have ER people, it saves a lot of night stuff. You know after a certain age, getting up in the middle of the night all the time isn’t as easy as it used to be!” McCorkle said.

After more than 56 years of practice, has Dr. Mac considered retirement?

“I’ve thought about retirement,” he admitted, “but I’ll work till nature gets me. I’m going to stick it out unless something physical gets to me. Mentally I’m still OK, and I keep up with CME (Continued Medical Education) to stay current.”

McCorkle rattled off many familiar names of retired physicians.

“They quit too soon and died,” he said, chuckling. “If you don’t keep your mind sharp, it’s not good. Staying in practice allows me to avoid just hanging around and getting depressed.”

While hospitalists have allowed him to limit his practice to outpatient medicine today, he still makes rounds at two local nursing homes every month and shows no signs of slowing down -- much to the relief of countless patients he’s treated and still continues to treat.

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