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‘He delivered me’

Longtime Hartselle Hospital doctor reflects on HMC’s golden years

If you’re around Dr. Walter C. Duncan, there’s a good chance you’ll hear a familiar conversation.

It doesn’t matter if he’s in line at the grocery store or at church, he’ll run into someone that he delivered.

“People will come up to me in the checkout line and tell me that I delivered them,” Duncan said during a recent visit at his home in Hartselle. “Sometimes, they’ll be in their 60s and they’ll tell me that. It’s a pretty unusual feeling to get that.”

Duncan, 92, was one of Hartselle Medical Center’s prominent doctors during the golden age of Hartselle Hospital, which later named Hartselle Medical Center closed on Jan. 31.

However, he never wants to take any credit for the success for the hospital.

“It’s not anything that I did that made Hartselle Hospital such a great place, but it was all of the other doctors, the nurses, the staff and the patients that made Hartselle Hospital what it was,” Duncan said.

From the 1960s through the early 1990s, the local hospital was one of the top hospitals in North Alabama. It had an emergency department before other hospitals in this part of the state including Huntsville Hospital.

The hospital featured the latest technology for its time. Its doctors continued to learn as the medical field continued to change.

About 1,000 surgeries and other medical procedures were performed each month.

Duncan said the time that he spent practicing medicine was a unique time. Many times, he and other family doctors would perform surgeries at the hospital, something that probably wouldn’t happen today with the increased specialization of health care.

“When I received my medical degree in 1951, all of the specializations weren’t available to us,” Duncan said. “Because of that, we were grandfathered under a number of certifications. That meant we were able to do much more than what doctors can do today.”

While they didn’t have the specializations in health care as much, Duncan and other Hartselle doctors spent a larger percentage of their time learning about medicine.

“Medicine is constantly changing,” Duncan said. “Doctors are developing new techniques, new procedures and new medications all of the time. So as a doctor, you have to continue to keep learning all of the time.

“That includes reading all of the medical journals, attending conferences and developing relationships with other doctors and researchers to continue to keep up with what is changing,” Duncan added. “I’m not saying this to make me look good or better than anyone else because all of our doctors were exactly the same way as I was.”

Duncan, a native of Arkansas, first came to Decatur in 1952 to work in Decatur General Hospital and then came to Hartselle in 1955. He stayed with Hartselle Hospital until he retired in 1991.

During that time, Hartselle grew from a small building to its 150-bed facility.

Now Duncan still stays active in the medical field, as he is the medical director at Summerford Nursing Home. He still spends about one day a week with the nursing home staff.

Duncan said it was sad to see Hartselle Medical Center close in January.

“I was just sad for all of the people who worked there,” Duncan said. “I hope Huntsville hospital will be able to turn it into the outpatient facility they’ve talked about.”

But through all of it, Duncan said the hospital never lost sight of its relationship with the community and local residents.

“We had a great relationship among the doctors, nurses, janitors and the rest of the staff, and we always kept a high level of professionalism when we dealt with the public,” Duncan said. “The people are what made Hartselle Hospital what it was.

“We always preached to the staff to be professional in dealing with the public. That was they key to being successful.”