By Josh Jarman
Have you ever thought about what goes into hospital operations? Oftentimes we spend so much time thinking about doctors, nurses and patients that we tend to overlook those who work behind the scenes to take care of the hospital building itself. Each pipe, ventilation shaft, walkway and lightbulb must be well-maintained in order to keep the hospital up and running.
No one knows more about hospital operations than Carlton Isaacs. For more than 41 years, Carlton has served as a caretaker for Watauga Medical Center in Boone, NC. During that time he has shoveled snow, waxed floors, washed dishes, pulled telephone wire, and even helped out in the operating room. He jokes that he knows the ins and outs of the hospital better than his own home. Recently, roles were reversed however when the 67-year-old caretaker relied on the hospital to provide him with lifesaving care.
Words to live by
Carlton was born and raised on a farm in Watauga County. It was there that his father taught him that ‘you are only as good as your word.’ This truth was lived out on the farm where he and his five siblings would milk cows, herd sheep and pull tobacco to help the family stay afloat.
For fun the kids would eat popcorn and watch Westerns at night. They also enjoyed chasing fireflies in the summer and sledding in the winter.
“Money was tight back then,” he said with a chuckle. “Since we couldn’t afford gloves, my mother would make each of us wear our wool socks like mittens in the snow. When they got wet we set them by the stove to warm, grabbed another pair and then back out the door we went.”
To help provide for the family, Carlton landed his first job in the environmental services department at Watauga Medical Center when he turned 17. His first assignment was to scrub and wax all of the floors in the hospital. Often viewed as a menial task, his supervisor noticed that he performed the job with a great deal of pride.
“Growing up on a farm will teach you not to be afraid of hard work,” he said. “No matter what you do at the hospital, your job is just as important as the next one. It takes a team to make everything work.”
Thanks to his positive attitude he was promoted to work in several other departments including plant operations and information technology. He was also recognized as the hospital’s employee of the year in 1991.
“I was shocked when they called my name at the banquet,” he said. “It just goes to show that if you stay true to your word, good things happen.”
One evening, while working second shift at the hospital, Carlton spied a pretty girl who was there to visit her sick grandfather. Unwilling to let the moment pass him by he summoned all of his courage to say hello. And so it was a friendship formed. Night after night the blushing teenagers would secretly rendezvous in the hospital cafeteria until one day when she informed him that her grandfather’s health had improved and he was getting discharged to return home.
“At that point, I knew I had to quit playing around and ask the girl out,” he laughed. “But, without a car or license I felt like a poorly equipped bachelor. So I asked if it would be alright if I called on her once I got my driver’s license and my own set of wheels. She agreed.”
After a year of saving, Carlton purchased his datemobile, a red 1968 Chevrolet 327 Camaro. As fate would have it the couple went on to have their first of many dates at Hilltop Drive Inn and got married a year later. Today, after 47 years of marriage, Carlton and Mary have two kids, three grandchildren and three great grandbabies.
To love and be loved in return
Recently, because of his history with smoking, his primary care provider Jerica Smith, FNP, and Dr. Kevin Wolfe, a pulmonologist at The Lung Center in Boone, NC, recommended that Carlton participate in the hospital’s lung cancer screening program. This low-dose CT (LDCT) scan is free and available as a preventive service for Medicare patients between 55 – 77 years of age who qualify. Private insurance plans also cover the screening program.
“I was surprised to learn that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States,” he said. “But, Jerica and Dr. Wolfe explained that with early detection, patients have a better shot at survival. Needless to say, I signed up for the screening.”
Unfortunately, the screening revealed a suspicious spot in his left lung. He was then referred to Dr. Tim Edmisten, a Boone native and general and thoracic (lung and esophagus) surgeon at Watauga Surgical Group. Dr. Edmisten and the surgical team at Watauga Medical Center were able to use an advanced minimally invasive technology called endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS) to determine that Carlton‘s cancer was detected by the screening CT scan at an early stage. EBUS combines traditional bronchoscopy (looking into the airway and lungs with a light) with ultrasound imaging to enable the surgeon to visualize and biopsy lymph nodes or masses beyond the traditional access points of bronchoscopy in order to increase the ability to obtain a diagnosis and determine the extent of the cancer. All of this can be done as an outpatient procedure without any incisions or need for lengthy recovery time.
Thankfully, the EBUS and x-rays confirmed that Carlton’s cancer was localized in the left upper lung at an early stage, which would give him a high chance of cure with surgical resection, as opposed to the vast majority of patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer at a more advanced stage. Dr. Edmisten went on to explain that less than 20 percent of patients with lung cancer currently survive the disease because it is not detected until a more advanced stage. However, the screening program at Watauga Medical Center enabled Carlton’s cancer to be diagnosed at the earliest stage which would allow an 80 to 90 percent chance for cure with surgical resection. Dr. Edmisten and the team at Watauga Medical Center proceeded to perform a thoracoscopic lobectomy for Carlton which enabled removal of the upper lobe of the lung containing the cancer through a minimally invasive technique involving two keyhole incisions plus a 1 1/2 inch incision utilizing thoracoscopic video technology. This advanced technique, offered to less than 50 percent of lung cancer patients in the United States who have surgically removable tumors, provides the benefit of less pain, lower risk of complications, and more rapid recovery and return to work in comparison to the traditional larger open incision thoracotomy.
As a result, Carlton was able to be discharged from the hospital two days after surgery and is thankfully on a full road to recovery.
“I’ve been around long enough to remember working with Dr. Edmisten’s father (Edmisten Heating and Cooling) to add Freon to the chiller at the hospital,” said Carlton. “Now, I have lived long enough to have his son, Dr. Edmisten, say a prayer over me before surgery. When you have a doctor like that and the good Lord on your side, not much can go wrong.”
Before he was discharged to return home, Carlton was touched by the number of hospital friends who stopped by to check on him.
“I had friends from all points in my career stop by to look in on me,” he said. “When you spend a lifetime taking care of a building, and then that building and the people in it take care of you, well, it’s just pretty special. I love these people like my very own family.”
Nearly two months after his procedure, Carlton, who still wears his 20 years of service pin on his belt buckle, is eager to get back to work on a part-time basis. When asked why he was only coming back part-time, he smiled and said, “So I can spend more time spoiling my grandbabies.