A reporter en route to interview Kerry Pennington, a family practice doctor in Warren, stopped first at Mollie's Diner for lunch. She told the lady behind the counter why she was in town, to meet Pennington. "Saved my wife's life," said a man two stools down. "My Whitney wouldn't be here if it weren't for him," a waitress added. Tales of quick diagnoses and emergency surgeries ensued. "He could be anywhere, making billions of dollars," the man said, "but he chose to come back home. We're blessed to have him."
The Best Doctors Inc. list for Arkansas doesn't extend to the hinterlands, recognizing physicians in only the largest cities. So the Times asked around, and came up with the name of Kerry Pennington, 50, former basketball player for Warren High School, former errand boy and cashier for a couple of groceries in town, a descendant of one of the first families in Bradley County, according to that southern county's lore, now living on the Indian trail that became the first road into town. A man who came back to Warren because he thought it would be a great place to raise kids (and he has, three daughters and a son) and be a doctor - a country doctor.
A graduate of the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Pennington got broad experience in family doctoring during his residency at Fort Worth County Hospital in Texas. There, under the direction of cardiologists, pediatricians, internists and fifth-year surgery residents from Baylor University Medical Center and other doctors who treated the wide-ranging needs of the county's residents, Pennington learned the skills he'd need to take care of patients in Warren, population 6,500. He came home in 1981 and took over the practice of his own family doctor, Merle Crow. He treats colds, delivers babies, sets broken arms, performs colonoscopies and endoscopies, makes house calls ("but we don't advertise that … the ER is better"). He and his nurse practitioner see some 900 patients a month, and he puts in about 72-75 hours a week. (It takes that, he says, to make a living - especially since so many of his patients are on Medicare, which he said pays 40 cents on the dollar.)
He could, in bigger cities, "work fewer hours for more money." But he likes the lifestyle of Warren, where his own therapy is bush-hogging the dozens of acres around his house. ("If it paid enough I'd do it for a living," he joked.) It's the town where he grew up the son of a butcher ("that's where I learned to do surgery, deboning meat," he likes to say), at the age of 8 riding his bike to work at a grocery store on Saturdays, moving to checker and stocker jobs at another as he grew older.
A common stigma, Pennington said, is that "the further south you are from Little Rock the lower your IQ must be." But he works in Warren, and not in a big city, because his kids could grow up "enjoying their grandparents," and to repay the town for the benefits - including a good education - he got growing up.
A reporter mentioned the kind words the people at Mollie's had for him, the praise of his diagnostic skills. "Diagnostic ability is very significant" in being a good country doctor, Pennington said. The eye can't see what the mind doesn't know, as the adage goes, and it takes "a broad base of knowledge" to take care of the problems his patients present him. Improvements in scanning technology also help him choose the best route of care, whether at Warren's hospital - Bradley City Medical Center - or at facilities that offer more services, in Pine Bluff, El Dorado and Little Rock. (It also helps, he said, to have a healthy "fear of failure.")
And though he claims not to be wildly religious - he goes to the Methodist church in town - Pennington sees the hand of God in his life and his successes.
"I think God opened doors for me to be able to do what I do. It's a calling. Guys do it because they're talented, because they're supposed to" help people. Sometimes, he said, "divine intervention" has helped him save a life. He cited a couple of cases - discovering a potentially fatal ruptured spleen in a patient on a Sunday night, when he broke with usual practice to make rounds; delivering by C-section an infant who's slowing heart rate he'd detected on the mother's already scheduled stress test. The baby girl's umbilical cord was wrapped three times around her neck.
What would he like to see change in his practice? "I wish we had a full-time ER," fully staffed. "I wish we had a general surgeon and an orthopedist - there'd be enough [patients] between us and Monticello" so his patients wouldn't have to travel for those needs.
Pennington also would like his Medicare patients in need of a specialist's care to more easily get treatment. He said he recently had to "beg" a gynecologist to see one of his patients who needed a surgical procedure, and had to send a woman with a severed arm all the way to Memphis for reattachment, because no hand surgeon in Little Rock could see her.
Warren's hospital has a benevolent fund - proceeds from bake sales and rummage sales and so forth - to help care for people who can't afford insurance. But it's not enough, and Pennington now believes that the time has come for government-assured universal health care.
"I never thought I'd say it," he said, but added that he's not alone. Privately, most of the other family doctors he knows agree, he said, but don't say so to avoid angering their colleagues who fear such care would reduce their salaries.
Single-payer insurance - meaning the government would be the insurer - would have to be funded at rates higher than Medicare, however, Pennington said. If he existed on Medicare reimbursement alone, "I couldn't stay in business."