Few moments in life are more captivating than the birth of a child. For nervous parents, it is the culmination of all of their thoughts, dreams, plans and prayers over the last nine months. It is the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. In the waiting room, excitement is palpable, as aunts, uncles, and grandparents-to-be, all eagerly await the opportunity to wrap their arms around the new baby for the very first time. And for the doctor in the room, who has spent a lifetime delivering babies, this precious moment of shared delight is one he will cherish for the rest of his life.
After delivering more than 2,000 babies during his 40-year career as a pediatric and family medicine doctor in Avery County, Dr. Charlie Baker retired in June. Since opening his solo practice in 1979, The Baker Center for Primary Care, a member of Appalachian Regional Medical Associates, has grown to become the cornerstone of accessible healthcare in the community. And although many consider him to be a bona fide local, this mountain doctor’s journey to the High Country just might surprise you.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”After delivering more than 2,000 babies during his 40-year career as a pediatric and family medicine doctor in Avery County, Dr. Charlie Baker is set to retire this June.” quote=”After delivering more than 2,000 babies during his 40-year career as a pediatric and family medicine doctor in Avery County, Dr. Charlie Baker is set to retire this June.”]
Charlie and his sister Cilie spent many summer vacations searching for buried treasure around their grandmother’s old antebellum home in Atlanta, GA. It was rumored that a previous owner of the house had buried his treasure on the grounds of the home in anticipation of Civil War General William T. Sherman’s famed March to the Sea in 1864. After years of investigating, the children felt vindicated when at last they discovered a clue in the form of a few Confederate bills hidden in the walls.
“Outside of those bills, we never did find that treasure,” he said. “But I’ll never forget those memories. My grandmother, Irene and I used to sit on the front porch swing together and talk for hours. She taught me to ask questions in life, to be inquisitive, to read and appreciate Sherlock Holmes, and to give freely of my time.”
For Charlie, volunteering time with his grandmother usually manifested itself at the church. It was there that he found choir practice to be particularly distressing because it occurred at the same time on Saturday morning as Captain Midnight, his favorite television show.
“My grandmother did not seem to understand that I needed to be home during the episode so that I could use my Captain Midnight cereal box decoder to figure out each week’s secret message,” he joked.
Charlie’s parents were members of what is often referred to as the Greatest Generation. After surviving the Great Depression they married just before World War II. Like many other young men at the time, Charlie, Sr., enlisted in the Army to go fight the Third Reich while his new bride, Sarah, stayed in Atlanta to teach school. After the war ended, Charlie, Jr. was born in 1946 and the family moved to Charlotte, NC.
Charlie’s interest in medicine first developed when he was six years old. His parents took him to see an allergist who had a profound impact on his life.
“My doctor was a polio survivor and I remember that he took care of me from his wheelchair,” he said. “During the 1950’s polio was deadly, and yet he was able to not just overcome it, but to also help others. Something about that resonated with me. He was very supportive when he learned that I wanted to be a doctor.”
For those that know him, it is not surprising to learn that the young doctor in training went on to be recognized as Most Conscientious in his high school annual. He credits his nose to the grindstone mentality in life to his mother, who always pushed him to do his best.
War and peace
Charlie went on to study pre-med at Davidson College. It was there that he also decided to branch out and take other courses like modern drama, abnormal psychology and romantic poetry. One poet, by the name of William Carlos Williams, stood out in particular to Charlie. In addition to poetry, Williams also served as a general practitioner and as a pediatrician during the 1950s.
“Williams said that being a doctor gave him the privilege to be where important things are happening in people’s lives and that fed his heart. Williams is a big reason why I am a general practitioner and a pediatrician today,” Charlie shared. “For him it was not only about taking care of patients, it was about then reflecting on what that meant in the big picture.”
The Vietnam War began a few years before he started medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). At the time, Charlie was burned out on medical school, but knew if he quit, he would be drafted. Charlie considered going to language school so he could learn Russian, avoid the Vietnam draft and go to Germany to interrogate defectors. This plan would have also allowed him to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, as fate would have it, all of the Russian language classes were full. It was then that Charlie’s academic advisor, Ike Taylor, James Taylor’s father (world renowned singer and songwriter), encouraged him to at least try to pass his medical school final exams before making a decision.
And so it was that Charlie spent the remaining weeks of his first year of medical school under the spring trees in Chapel Hill studying the biochemical pathways, the Kreb cycle, the brachial plexus nervous system and more. Needless to say he scored well on the exams and so decided to stick with medicine.
Romantic at heart
All the while Charlie continued to audit creative writing and poetry classes. It was actually an Irish playwright, John Millington Synge, who inspired him to take his then girlfriend Ann to the Island of Inishmaan, off of the coast of Ireland, during his third year of medical school in 1972.
It was there that Charlie proposed at a rocky ocean overlook known as Synge’s Chair. It is said that the late poet used this location as his seat for creative inspiration.
“Our plan was to camp out on the island,” said Charlie. “But a local village woman asked us if we needed a place to stay. She then cleaned out her chicken barn and put down fresh straw. It was modest to say the least, but it was also beautiful and everything we needed. I guess you could say I’m a romantic at heart.”
The happy couple went on to spend the following year in England. Ann was accepted into the Edinburgh College of Art while Charlie managed to secure a scholarship at UNC so that he could complete part of his fourth year of medical school in Edinburgh. To help supplement their living expenses, he worked as an orderly at the Edinburgh Psychiatric Hospital.
“They couldn’t find any Scots to take that job,” he joked. “Working as an orderly at a psychiatric hospital was difficult to say the least, but it also allowed us to stay together.”
And stay together they did. During their year in England, the couple married and returned often to the Island of Inishmaan where it all began. Still madly in love today, Charlie and Ann will celebrate their 47th year of marriage later this year.
After he completed two years of pediatric residency, Charlie made a deal with Ann. If he got to pick where the couple lived for the next two years, she could decide where they lived for the following two years.
Once the deal was struck, Charlie decided that the Bakers should move to the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Shortly after moving there, Ann realized she was expecting their first child.
“Although it was the first time in our lives that we were a minority, the Native Americans were very welcoming to us,” he said. “They would invite us to their powwows. I remember one powwow where Ann, who was 38 weeks pregnant at the time, reached over and put my hand on her stomach. The baby was kicking at the same beat as the ceremonial drums.”
Charlie was at the hospital the night that Ann called him to say that she was going into labor. “I’ll never forget Charlie just told me to walk the 200 yards from our hut over to the hospital so the baby could be delivered,” Ann quipped. “I still give him a hard time for telling his very pregnant wife, who was going into labor, to walk to the hospital.” Charlie often jokes that the distance she had to walk seems to get longer each time she tells the story.
The actual delivery was hard and proved to be life-threatening. Shortly after their son was born it was determined that his heart rate was dangerously low. Charlie, who was the only pediatric doctor on the reservation, immediately started to use a mask and air bag to resuscitate his own son.
“In that moment I was a doctor first and a dad second,” he said. “I was emotional of course, but this is what I had been trained to do and I knew I could do it better than anyone else.”
Fortunately, their son Daniel survived the ordeal. His proud father also likes to mention that he went on to graduate from Davidson.
Art in the city
After their two year stint in South Dakota, it was Ann’s turn to decide where they lived next. Eager to pursue her own career goals, she was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts Program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.
It was there that she thrived as an artist and sculptor. She also won an award at the Three Rivers Arts Festival for her sky art. The enormous kite-like fabric sculpture was hung between three downtown buildings in Pittsburgh. The sculpture also appeared in color on the front page of the Sunday Pittsburgh newspaper and on the cover of the Carnegie Museum catalog.
Meanwhile, Charlie worked at an inner city clinic for one year and then completed his pediatric residency the following year at the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. He also moonlighted in the hospital’s emergency department for extra cash. When their two years were complete in Pittsburgh, Dr. Charlie Baker was board certified in both pediatrics and family medicine.
The mountains are calling
The Bakers decided to make their next move a joint decision. After all of their travels, the couple longed to return to North Carolina. And so it was a moment of serendipitous delight when Charlie discovered a help wanted ad for a doctor in Avery County.
The couple made a two-week trip to check out the area and soon fell in love with the mountains. In 1979, Dr. Charlie Baker opened his solo medical practice inside of Garrett Memorial Hospital, which later became Sloop Memorial Hospital. Sloop Memorial Hospital then merged with the old Cannon Memorial Hospital in Banner Elk, NC, to form what is today the Charles A. Cannon Jr. Memorial Hospital in Avery County.
“I purchased three lab coats when I moved to the mountains and I never put one on,” he said. “I don’t hold myself in such esteem that I’m more important than anyone else. Not to mention lab coats and ties are notorious sources of bacteria.”
Charlie does admit that being a mountain doctor means that he is always on call. He often tells his medical students, whom he has taught for more than 30 years, that they better keep their prescription pads on the ready when they go into the grocery store.
“That’s what is different about practicing medicine in the mountains,” he said. “If you live in a rural community, you are part of it. It is not so much a job, but more of a lifestyle. Some of my patients have become my best friends and some of my best friends have become my patients.”
Over the years, Charlie has developed a routine at the office. Before leaving at the end of each day he reviews his patient list for the next day. He jokes that after practicing medicine for 40 years in the community, he recognizes every name on the list.
“That will be the hardest part about retiring,” he said. “I have to say goodbye to patients that I have looked after for generations. In many cases, I have had the privilege to deliver the mother and then deliver and take care of her daughter and granddaughter.”
[click_to_tweet tweet=”“That’s what is different about practicing medicine in the mountains. In a rural community, you are part of it. It’s a lifestyle. Some of my patients have become my best friends and some of my best friends have become my patients.” – Dr. Baker” quote=”“That’s what is different about practicing medicine in the mountains,” he said. “If you live in a rural community, you are part of it. It is not so much a job, but more of a lifestyle. Some of my patients have become my best friends and some of my best friends have become my patients.””]
Charlie is proud to leave the health of the community better than he found it. Before his arrival in the High Country, patients would often have to scramble when a doctor left town or died. For this reason, he is glad that his practice joined Appalachian Regional Medical Associates, part of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System in 2013.
“All things considered, joining the healthcare system was the right decision for my patients,” he said. “It allowed my practice to grow from a handful of providers to a good and sustainable number today. It actually all came full circle for me the other day when we hired a new nurse practitioner, whom I had delivered.”
Since joining the healthcare system, The Baker Center for Primary Care also began operating as a same-day clinic Monday through Friday and on Saturday.
“None of this would have been possible if it were not for my wonderful staff,” he said. “I could not have asked for better clerical people, better medical assistants, better nurses or better doctors to work with through the years. It is because of this group of folks that I can tell my patients, even though I’m leaving, that they are still in great hands.”
Charlie said that he is most looking forward to spending more time with his wife, kids and grandchild. His son Daniel went on to work in the Peace Corps and now has a little girl of his own. Charlie and Ann also have a daughter, Alice, who is a veterinarian in Colorado and a daughter, Kate, who is a school counselor in Portland, Oregon.
“My wife has stuck with me here for 40 years and we are ready to be more available grandparents,” he said. “I am also looking forward to writing more poetry. I have a few stories to tell.”
From all of us at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, we would like to thank Dr. Charlie Baker and his wife, Ann, for their years of service in the High Country. As a couple, you braved the frontier and left good tracks for the rest of us to follow.
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