An annual project of the Sampson Regional Medical Center Foundation, the Tree of Love this year is honoring four doctors whose immeasurable contributions and invaluable service left an indelible impact on healthcare in Sampson County.
The physicians being honored include Dr. John P. Surratt, Dr. Rufus McPhail “Mac” Herring Jr., Dr. John L. Rouse and Dr. Thomas J.C. Woods. All retired from their respective practices within the past five years, leaving their mark on the hospital, the community and so many individuals for whom they cared.
“This year will be very special, as we are collectively honoring a group of retired physicians — names that ring loud in this community,” said Amber Cava, vice president for marketing and community relations for Sampson Regional and its foundation.
The Tree of Love was first started in 1989 by the Sampson County Medical Society Alliance. The hospital foundation took ownership of the project from the Medical Ladies Auxiliary in 2006. Since that time, well over $100,000 has been raised to support various hospital projects, including medical equipment, waiting area renovations, a skilled nursing day room and employee tuition assistance.
Proceeds from this year’s project are being designated toward an ongoing Emergency Room renovation and expansion that will help accommodate a growing number of patients for the foreseeable future.
“The Foundation Board thought this year’s Tree of Love project would be a wonderful time to honor recently retired physicians,” SRMC Foundation President Johnny Pridgen said. “Selecting a Tree of Love honoree is about recognizing individuals who have left a mark on the hospital through their work, service, or volunteerism. As a community, I believe we are all proud of these doctors, and the Foundation Board is excited to have the pleasure of bestowing this honor on them.”
The Tree of Love is illuminated on the first Sunday in December, each light dedicated to the honor or memory of someone special and collectively representing gifts of caring and remembrance. The lighting ceremony will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, on the lawn next to the Woodside Professional Building.
Dr. John P. Surratt officially retired in September 2011 after more than three decades as the resident dermatologist for the community.
Working out of Sampson Regional’s Woodside Professional Building for 33 years, Surratt is believed to be the first dermatologist in the county and said it was very much a family practice.
His wife Amelia was in charge of the books for the business from the first day, a responsibility she maintained through the years. It was their shared life as children in rural communities — Surratt grew up in Rose Hill, Amelia just outside of Wallace — that brought them back to a small town.
“When we came to Clinton, we knew it wasn’t big but would be big enough to support a dermatologist. Not only were there no other dermatologists in Clinton, there weren’t many in the surrounding area. It didn’t take long to be busy.”
Surratt first started his medical career over 40 years ago, when he earned his degree from the UNC School of Medicine in 1971.
After two years studying internal medicine at the University of Florida, Surratt served a two-year stint in the Army, during which he weighed his options in medicine. Surratt ultimately decided on dermatology.
“Besides marrying my wife, it’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” he said.
That pursuit brought him back to UNC, where he attended the School of Dermatology from 1975-78. After that, the young couple were welcomed to Clinton by local internist Dr. William Owens and his wife Jesse, who took them under their wing. Surratt said he has loved life in a rural small town and with support from many, was able to live his dream.
“It’s been a fantastic run,” Surratt said upon his retirement. “As much as anything, I’ll miss seeing the people and taking care of them.”
Along with his dedicated employees, he credited wife of Amelia — the couple have been married for 46 years — with being the brains behind the operation, and a key to its success. The couple have two children, son Jonathan and daughter Ginger, who has three children.
“I have a wife who has a good business mind,” he said. “I like to see patients and be able to take care of patients, and not have to worry about the business side of it. My wife has helped with that. She’s also done the checking and banking for us the whole time we’ve been together. She’s been a good, good wife.”
Dr. Rufus “Mac” Herring Jr., a stalwart in pediatric care in Sampson, retired in May 2014 after 40 years at Clinton Medical Clinic.
When Herring started at the clinic in 1974, he was the only pediatrician here and one of just a few dozen in the eastern part of the state. It was an honor to provide care for the kids and the dedicated parents who loved them so much, he said.
“I feel like we have provided excellent pediatric and medical care at Clinton Medical Clinic,” said Herring upon his retirement. “It’s hard to leave them and it’s hard to leave my patients.”
Growing up, Herring knew the importance care providers had in the community. His father, Rufus “Mac” Herring Sr., was a pharmacist working at Register’s Drugs in downtown Clinton before ultimately serving as a pharmacist and owner/operator of Reynolds Drugs in Clinton.
Herring initially chose to follow in those footprints at UNC-Chapel Hill before going on to Bowman Gray School of Medicine, where he set his sights on family medicine. He signed up for an internship that consisted of a half year of pediatrics and half year of internal medicine.
“I did my six months of pediatrics and I liked it so much. I loved dealing with the children,” he said. “I enjoyed my interaction with children and families, and the fact that they basically, for the most part, got well.”
Following three years of pediatric residency, Herring spent two years in the Air Force. Coming back to Sampson after military life was a no-brainer. He was already married to wife Ann Herring and the couple’s families both lived in Clinton.
About a decade earlier, in the early 1960s, doctors John Nance and Bill Peak along with William Owens and Don Wells established Clinton Medical Clinic. They began to recruit several others, including Frank Leak, Don Copeland and others, in building the clinic’s foundation. Herring, who had known Nance and Peak his whole life, talked to Nance about coming home.
“We both grew up here,” he said of his wife. “It was just wonderful to come back.”
And when he got back in the summer of 1974, he immediately went to work and stayed busy around the clock, remaining on-call for the better part of his career.
“When I moved back home I was the only pediatrician in this area,” Herring said. “We provided primary care for this whole area, not just Sampson County. Just about any patient who came in sick and was under 20 years old they sent to me.”
Through all that, wife Ann was the “stabilizing force” of the family, looking after the kids, the finances, the shopping and everything else — and still found time to bring lunch to her husband just about every day. The couple have two sons, John and Neill, and five grandchildren.
When Herring got out of hospital work in 2010, the head OB nurse went back and tallied his patients. He had cared for well over 9,000 newborns at Sampson Regional.
“There are very few families in Sampson County that I hadn’t seen somebody in,” said Herring. “I’d do it all again. I would not do anything different.”
Dr. John L. Rouse, known to family and friends as Larry, joined Clinton Medical Clinic and the Sampson Regional medical staff in 1976.
Rouse retired after more than 30 years practicing as a family medicine doctor, moving on to honorary medical staff at SRMC in 2008 and practicing at the clinic for a while after that leading up to his official retirement.
He expressed his gratitude for the ability afforded him by the clinic and Sampson Regional to practice the full scope of family medicine, ranging from outpatient practice and nursing home visits to inpatient care for medical, pediatric and obstetric patients at the hospital.
“I am so pleased that I made the decision 40 years ago to come to Clinton and work at Clinton Medical Clinic and SRMC,” Rouse stated. “I feel privileged to have worked with the other honorees during my medical career.”
He attributed the strength of his career to his colleagues, including Nance, Peak, Leak, Owens and Herring, who were at Clinton Medical to help him get his career started those many years ago, and to Lee Pridgen and Jerry Lovell who were serving then as hospital administrator and chairman of the board of trustees, respectively.
“They will always be remembered for their great leadership,” he remarked.
Rouse’s most memorable moments occurred when he simply was able to help someone who had placed their trust in him, and said he misses the continued growth and learning gained through everyday practice.
While he also misses his golf buddies in Clinton, Rouse is experiencing the excitement of meeting new people in Southern Pines, N.C., where he and his wife Susan now reside. Together they enjoy golf, skiing, hiking and fitness activities.
Rouse has two children and two stepchildren, including Jeremy, a senior scientist in San Diego, Calif., and Joshua, who lives in Montana and works in the engineering and physics field for a Seattle-based consumer electronics company. Kate is completing her doctorate in clinical psychology in Brooklyn, N.Y., while Tyler runs a sustainable farm and teaches at a private law school in Jay, N.Y.
Rouse and his wife, Susan, have eight grandchildren, spread across the country.
Dr. Thomas J.C. Woods started practicing ophthalmology in 1981, joining the Sampson Regional Medical staff in September of that year. He retired in 2014 and now resides in Arkansas.
A 1966 graduate of W.B. Murrah High School in Jackson, Miss., Woods did his undergrad studies at the University of Mississippi, where he also graduated from the university’s School of Medicine. He went on to his medical internship at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tenn, in 1974-1975 and an ophthalmology residency at the University of Tennessee Center of the Health Sciences after that.
He was chief resident at UT from 1979-1980, during which time he married Joyce Minton Woods in 1979. He ultimately moved to Clinton and is believed to be the first ophthalmologist to practice in Sampson County, having established Woods Optical.
Among his community involvements, Woods has long been instrumental with the Lion’s Club, especially in the club’s outreach toward providing sight resources in the area.
“I have been a Lions Club member for almost 35 years. I was active in the Clinton Club as Lion of the Year, club President and being honored with a Melvin Jones Fellowship,” Woods stated. “I am a member of the University Heights Lions Club here in Arkansas and will be club president in 2017. We have an active vision screening program which I spearhead.”
Woods said he is grateful to have been able to provide his training and expertise to a medically underserved area for over 30 years.
“Due to all the changes that have occurred in medical practice, there is not much I miss,” Woods conceded. “I do miss my employees and the satisfaction of improving and saving sight. I do miss all the guys in the Thursday night poker group.”
Retirement does have its “wonderful” benefits, he attested, with the ability to travel and volunteer and not having a fixed schedule.
Woods has two sons — his older is an attorney in Memphis and the other younger lives in Jonesboro and does office work for an electronics company. He has one grandson, Henry, who just turned 5, and Woods said he spends as much time with him as possible.
While he doesn’t miss being on call at Sampson Regional, Woods said he is honored to have spent those many years at the hospital.
“I am honored to be included in the dedicated group of physicians that have tirelessly served Sampson County for the last 30-plus years,” said Woods. “I have fond memories of my time at Sampson Regional and do truly miss all the fine physicians, employees and patients.”
Pridgen said he is thankful for the Foundation’s ability to honor the efforts of those such as Surratt, Herring, Rouse and Woods while supporting a worthy cause.
“The Tree of Love is special because it gives us a chance to show gratitude to distinguished honorees,” the foundation president said, “but it also comes during a season of giving when so many people can honor or memorialize their loved ones and do so in support of a cause aimed at supporting our local hospital and improving healthcare in Sampson County.”
Amber Cava contributed to this story. Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.