One of the most illustrious and important medical careers in Johnston County history came to an end Feb. 17 with the retirement of Dr. Woodrow Batten of Smithfield.
The 95-year-old helped found Johnston Memorial Hospital more than 60 years ago and continued to check in on patients in nursing homes and read EKGs and stress tests at the Smithfield hospital until he retired.
On his last day on the job, Batten held court in the lobby at Johnston Health, as hospital staff, locals and family threw him a retirement party, capping a 73-year medical career.
As cakes were cut and stories swapped, a procession of hospital workers past and present lined up to greet Batten. They called him a friend, an institution, a mentor and a legend.
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Batten sold his private practice in 2006, marking his first official retirement. But he continued to work at the hospital as a contract employee for the next decade, lending his expertise to the next generation of medical professionals working with the heart.
“I continued to work because I enjoyed my work,” Batten said. “I had been following my patients for so long, I didn’t want to move out and leave them.”
But Batten’s career was almost another town’s story. Born in Micro, he did his undergraduate work at Wake Forest when it was still a small college north of Raleigh. He went on to graduate from the first class of students to attend Bowman Gray Medical School in Winston-Salem.
After a residency at Baptist Hospital and an internship at Duke, Batten worked for a few months with an internist in Asheville. He had signed a lease on an office in Asheville where he would start his practice, but his heart and the powerbrokers of Johnston County lured him back to Smithfield in 1949.
“About that time, a couple good people still wanted us to have a larger and better hospital and more complete staff,” Batten said of talks to build a larger hospital in Smithfield.
He credited Elmore Earp and Carl Worley with persuading him to come back east.
“It was coming back home for me; it was coming back home for my wife,” Batten said. “I had a lot of respect and love for my family and friends here and my church. I just sort of wanted to get back here, be on the farm where I grew up.”
Johnston Memorial got a push from a federal program funding small hospitals, and Batten said Worley and Earp put a lot of the rest in place. Batten started working in Smithfield in 1949 and was a member of Johnston Memorial Hospital’s first medical staff, serving as the only internist and specializing in hearts.
On the planning committee that helped found the hospital, he drafted the policies that shaped how the hospital approached caring for a rural community. Over the next few decades, he helped start a cardiac intensive care unit at Johnston Memorial and led a effort to add mental health care.
Before Johnston Memorial opened, if patients needed care beyond their family doctor, those in the eastern part of the county traveled to Wilson and those in Smithfield or western Johnston traveled to Raleigh.
Batten said he was drawn to the heart by a series of good teachers, including Dr. Tinsley Harrison at Bowman Grey, who wrote one of the most widely taught textbooks on internal medicine. But his fascination with the mechanics and mysteries of the heart also came from losing a younger sister at 9 years old to congenital heart disease.
“I always wished I could do something to help her,” Batten said.
In a way he did. His daughter, Julia Batten, said she suffered from the same condition, but advancements in heart treatments helped take care of her, as did having a heart expert at home.
“They were able to take care of my heart and him being a heart specialist, it was pretty handy to have one in the house,” Julia said.
On hand for the retirement ceremony, Julia and her brothers, Gordon and Eric, said growing up with a busy father sometimes meant playing tennis at 10:30 at night.
“I remember so many nights him coming home at 11 after emergency room duty and 45 minutes later hearing the phone ringing and him going right back out,” Gordon said.
“But I knew if I ever needed him, he would drop things and come home,” Julia said.
Even at 95, hospital staff say Batten’s retirement came as something of a surprise. Johnston Health had recently renewed its contract with Batten to read EKGs and stress tests, but Batten said he is needed more at home. Now he says he will spend more time at home to care for his wife of more than 70 years, Mary Gordon, who has Alzheimer’s.
Batten was learning and teaching right up until his last day at the hospital. In the last few months, he became certified in Epic systems, a digital health records system. One of his coworkers, Amber Cook, 68 years his junior, said Batten always found the person in the medicine, not just the charts and the numbers.
“He’s one of the most humble, knowledgeable people in medicine and in the community in general,” Cook said. “He’s such a kind soul.”
The two trained for the software last year, Cook said, with Batten offering to trade his expertise for hers.
“He taught me a lot about the heart; I helped him with more technological stuff,” Cook said. “One thing he’s good at is treating a patient as a person. He has such a way of putting people at ease.”