Marginal students applying to N.C. State in the 1960s had to interview before acceptance. If then-Dean of Admissions Kenneth Raab saw reason for optimism as he spoke to Garner High product Johnny Bagwell, he didn’t show it.
“Well, we’re going to let you start at North Carolina State. But I don’t think you’re going to graduate,” Raab said dismissively, according to Bagwell.
A little over a decade later, Dr. Johnny Bagwell would become Raab’s primary care physician.
“I took it as a challenge,” Bagwell said of the apparent slight.
The circular and small-world nature of the story sums up Bagwell, the man who started Garner Family Practice in 1979. He retired in June as a mainstay in the Garner medical community.
He came a long way without moving a long way. His house at River Ridge Golf Club, just outside the southeast border of Raleigh city limits, sits about a mile away from where he grew up. Aside from college, medical school at Wake Forest and his residency in Roanoke, Va., he hasn’t left the area.
“He’s a boy who came off the tobacco farm, went off to medical school, then came home and built a dynasty. He deserves every word of praise he gets,” said practice administrator Julia Wall, who has been at Garner Family Practice for 29 years.
Bagwell said in high school (class of 1966) he “was not the most studious person there was,” and had more interest in baseball and dates. But he left State with degrees in zoology and pre-med and a minor in chemistry. He also married his high school sweetheart, Betty. The two have four daughters.
He worked as a chemist during the two years of applying to Wake Forest (it took three tries to get in), and when he finished there in 1976 and his residency three years later, he returned to Garner.
Bagwell later asked Raab him if he remembered that day in Raab’s office.
“Yes, I do,” Raab told him.
“He was a patient until he passed. His family still is (at Garner Family Practice),” Betty said.
“The front line”
Bagwell chose primary care over being a specialist. Then, as now, the latter was more lucrative, but Bagwell considers himself a people person and values building relationships.
“I saw a variety of things every day and never knew what the next patient was going to come in with,” Bagwell said. “I liked being on the front line with the patient on their level.”
In medical school Bagwell said doctors were advised not to go back home to practice medicine. Aside from personalizing any losses, people would know any imperfections in your past and might not have the same respect, they’d warn.
“We defied that rule,” Bagwell said.
Patients included classmates, his first-grade teacher, his eighth-grade teacher, and a variety of other familiar faces. He also treated Bones McKinney after his retirement from coaching after two ACC titles at Wake Forest. Bagwell said the gregarious former UNC, N.C. State and NBA player would “darn near shut down the office” with jokes and stories.
Bagwell’s father and brother would become two of his toughest patients; the former died of lung cancer, the latter of leukemia.
He still sadly remembers 8-year-old Mary Ellen Atkinson, who collapsed on the playground at Vandora Springs Elementary in 1984. He rushed to the scene and helped with emergency care, but it wasn’t enough. He went home distraught. But he was impressed by her family, which visited him at his house to make sure he was all right.
“That’s part of what family practice is,” Betty said. “It’s the connection between the doctor and family, and that’s why Garner has been so special to us.”
While he enjoyed not knowing what the next patient might have, the mystery proved unwelcome when a he came down with his own mysterious health issue.
In 1998 he abruptly began to struggle with speaking. Local specialists couldn’t discern the problem. Finally, at Wake Forest, he was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder.
“When I try to talk my vocal cords spasm,” he said. “I saw a lot of patients. And when I first got this, I didn’t know what it was.”
While the rare condition doesn’t threaten his life, it did cause professional problems. He has a very noticeable hitch in his speech as his vocal cords spasm frequently. In person he’s not difficult to understand though he said some elderly patients struggled. The bigger issue became phone calls. Part of his job includes talking to emergency rooms, patients and other doctors, so he stepped aside.
He also wants to be sure his patients don’t become concerned.
“A lot of patients thought I had some kind of throat cancer. I just wanted it to be known that I don’t,” Bagwell said. “But that is the biggest reason I am retiring.”
He said he’s also retiring in part because of the changes to the field, with electronic records requirements and de-personalization of the profession weighing on him.
About six weeks into retirement, it’s still new to him but he’s adjusting. His 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild visit often; he says the family is very close.
He also plays golf, a hobby picked up later in life. In fact, he owns River Ridge. He bought the land back in 1980 when the land was farmed by N.C. State, and had it developed when the school consolidated closer to campus.
“I miss my patients, of course, I miss my practice, of course. And I feel a little bit of guilt because I feel like I ought to be getting up and going to work in the mornings,” Bagwell said.
“It’s getting less so.”