When Dr. Stephen Gupton was coming into medicine, neurology was in its infancy.
There were no scans, no dye studies – none of the basic tests used now to make definitive diagnoses concerning diseases and disorders within the brain. Instead doctors relied on chest X-rays, a stethoscope, and skull.
“They treated everything – there was no specific specialty at that time,” said Dr. Robert Gaddy, a retired internist who worked closely with Gupton for the 40 years Gupton practiced in Raleigh. “We went mostly on the basis of the history, the symptoms, and the way the patient presented to us.”
Gupton, who died in November at age 81, saw countless families through the treatment of illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, strokes and aneurisms. Along the way, he helped build the field of neurology itself. His family said he was first neurologist to open a private practice in Raleigh.
The oldest of four boys, Gupton was born and raised in Rocky Mount, then went to college and medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He met his wife of 56 years, Helen, while in medical school. Together they decided he would go into neurology – it was new, exciting, and full of potential. And if people did not know what sort of medicine he practiced, they decided, he would tell them he was a brain doctor, said their daughter Deborah Van Zijl.
After working a few years in places such as Lexington, Ky., and Morganton, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte, Gupton moved his family to Raleigh in the mid-1960s, where he initially worked as one of two neurologists at Dorothea Dix Hospital. He was quickly encouraged by local doctors, including Dr. LeRoy Allen, the area’s first neurosurgeon, to establish a private practice. Wake Neurology Associates was soon formed, and for the first few years Gupton practiced alone, working in Wake Med, Raleigh Community and Rex hospitals.
His family can remember his dedication to his patients, the days he went into the office before dawn, came home after dinner, and then found himself called back to the hospital after he’d gone to bed.
“During the middle of the night, when the phone rang – he was always there to answer it,” remembered his son, Richard Gupton. “It was usually an emergency call from the hospital.
“One of his patients had been hurt. Even though he was exhausted from a long workday, he would rise from bed and travel to the hospital to care for his patients. That is just who he was.”
He did not discriminate when it came to accepting patients. His daughter, Diane Becton, worked in his office while in graduate school and can remember opening the door to find collard greens or homemade cakes sitting on the floor as payment from patients. He never seemed to mind, she said.
At the same time, he was able to make his wife and six children know they were the most important thing in his life.
Though he worked long hours once he was in private practice, he was there when they needed him. When Becton’s son jumped off the bed and cut his head badly enough to warrant a trip to the emergency department, Gupton was there – just as he bad been when his one of his daughters broke an arm.
And he was never more present with his family than when they were together at the beach. It was there he was able to really relax, whether he was fishing or simply watching the water.
“When he was off he was off,” Van Zijl said.
Gupton embraced clear priorities, Gaddy said:
“The number one priority he had was his family. No question about it. And the second priority he had was his patients.”
Patients spoke of feeling cared for as if they were members of his family. That level of caring, above all else, sums up Gupton’s legacy.
“He tried to strike a balance between being the best doctor he could and being the best father,” said his eldest son, Stephen Gupton III.
When asked why he chose medicine, his family cannot recall him giving any answer other than, “Because I want to help people.”