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December 2013 marked the retirement of two Twin County Regional Healthcare (TCRH) physicians, Dr. James P. King Jr. of Twin County Ear, Nose and Throat; and Dr. Mark W. Mattson of Twin County Surgery.
The two doctors have dedicated more than 50 years of their lives to practicing medicine for patients in the Twin Counties and surrounding areas. They both spoke with The Gazette in December to share memories of the careers they built in the area.
Dr. James P. King Jr.
When Dr. King was asked about his particular field of medicine — ear, nose and throat, also known as otolaryngology — he said that he first became interested in the focus during his college internship.
“I had it narrowed down to two areas I liked. One was ear nose and throat, and the other was radiology,” he said.
King came from a long line of doctors. His father and grandfather practiced medicine, as well as his brother and, later, his oldest daughter. “I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter,” he said with a smile.
Although King’s position with TCRH dates back to 1983, his entire career dates back to the 1960s.
“I got my undergraduate degree at Roanoke College, and then went to medical school at the University of Virginia. Having finished there, I owed the Navy two years of active duty,” said King.
From 1963-1965, King served as a U.S. Navy medical officer in Rhode Island — the only ear, nose and throat doctor for 130,000 naval personnel..
“I had put in for overseas, but it was reserved for regular officers,” he told The Gazette. In November 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy put his station on high security alert.
“We were put on full red alert for two weeks. We didn’t know if we would get attacked or not,” he said.
In 1965, he was discharged from service, and he began practicing medicine in Roanoke until 1983, when he moved to Galax.
“My brother, who is a urologist in Radford, told me there was an opportunity here — at the time, there was no ear, nose and throat doctor here at all,” he said. “I had lived in this area all my life. I was raised in Radford, so [Galax] was right in my back yard.”
Coming from Roanoke, where his patient roster topped somewhere around 100,000, settling in a smaller area averaging 6,000 patients was a welcome comfort. “Since I came from a small town myself, I didn’t find [the change] that troublesome,” he said. “In Roanoke, we were running ragged. I was teaching and doing work with residents from UVA, and it was a madhouse. I was ready to slow it down a little.”
King was pleased to find that he could focus more on his patients by working for TCRH. “You’ve got to like it in medicine, you don’t want to make it a job,” he said, noting that the thrill of a medical career isn’t the paycheck, but the ability to take care of someone else.
“The patients I’ve seen here — we’ve all gotten along well together. I can say that I’ve gotten everything out of my career that I wanted to.”
King announced his retirement in September 2013, giving the hospital time to transition, and him time to break the news to his patients.
“It was a pleasure for me taking care of [my patients], and I want to thank them for letting me do that. They have been kind in their remarks to me, so I must have been doing something right,” he said.
After more than 50 years of practicing medicine, King plans to spend his retirement traveling with his wife, and spending quality time out on the golf course. “It’s been a nice practice. I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve had no complaints,” he said.
Dr. Mark W. Mattson
The idea of becoming a surgeon came early on in Mattson’s life. “Whenever I thought of doctors, I didn’t think of family practice — it was always surgery. It was always the mental picture that I had. It suited my personality,” he told The Gazette.
In college, Mattson went back and forth between marine biology and medicine. But the pull towards medicine grew stronger as he studied anatomy and physiology. “Medicine held more of a connection working with people,” he said.
Mattson has practiced medicine for 31 years, 21 of them working at Twin County Surgery.
Before settling in the Twin Counties, he spent plenty of time moving around other areas of the country. “I was born in Ohio, then I lived in Connecticut, New Jersey, went to high school in the St. Louis area, and went to college and medical school near Chicago,” he said.
He did his first two years of residency at Winston-Salem Baptist Hospital, then worked for three years in Norfolk. “I wanted to get back to North Carolina, so I looked for a job opening and ended up in Laurinburg... I worked there for 10 years. But things were changing a lot there. I was tired of the trauma cases and the heat... then I realized that when we went on vacation, we liked to come up to the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we looked for a place up there,” he said.
The decision to move to the area is not one he has ever regretted. “I have really enjoyed the last 21 years. It’s been good, with a friendly community.”
Although surgery is typically dramatized on television and movies, Mattson says that his general surgery practice has been relatively calm. “Not a lot of trauma, shootings or stabbings... mostly I’ve done abdominal surgery, breast surgery, hernia surgeries and endoscopy.”
Throughout his career, Mattson has adapted to a number of changes in medicine, particularly in how most surgeries have changed from when he started working with patients. “All procedures done in the past were more open. Now things are done with minimal incisions and are less invasive, which is called the laparoscopic approach — looking in with a scope, which is a lens arrangement connected to a video camera. Now we can make small, finger-sized incisions, which makes recovery faster and is less stress on the patient,” he said.
Continuing education, Mattson says, was an essential part of his career as technology improved for his patients. Another factor in his success, he says, was learning how to put his patients at ease.
Due to the requirement of informed consent, surgeons are forced to determine a fair balance between what a patient needs to hear, and what could be too much for them to handle. “I need to tell all of the potential complications, which can be scary, so I have to put in context and help the patients understand. It’s unfair to minimize what they are going to go through, but you certainly don’t want to scare them out of having something that, in your judgment, is essential or important for them.”
To feel out a patient’s knowledge of their condition, he begins consultations by asking the patient what they already know or have been told about their condition. “Some don’t even know why they are here, some have researched it on the internet — which has good and bad information — some are afraid of what they may be going through, and some are accepting and blase about it,” he said.
As his family grew over the years and medicine continued to change, Mattson finally decided that it was time to step down and enjoy a healthy and happy retirement. “I’ve got two grandsons now in Denver, Colo., that I want to be able to see more. And in the background of that is my family history and my own health history,” he said.
“My dad had a heart transplant after a couple of bypass operations, and he was at the point where he was going to announce his retirement when he had a heart attack and nearly died. I’ve had two bypass operations myself, one about seven years ago. I don’t want to put off and keep working figuring I’ve got more years to spend enjoying the grandkids and traveling and that sort of thing.”
Mattson plans a very active retirement. One goal is to do some mission work in Africa, educating medical graduates in surgery in a one-on-one setting with the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons. “I don’t like public speaking, standing in front of 20-30 people, but teaching in surgery is usually one-to-one, over-the-table, hands-on work. I’d like to be able to pass that on.”
Mattson also has a hobby of working with computers, and set up the networks for the hospital in 2009-2010 when it transitioned to electronic records. Although the system has changed since then, Mattson still has a strong understanding of records and will work part time with the hospital for the next year or so in that aspect.
He will also work some in computer repair and flat-screen TV repair.
Finally, he plans to spend plenty of time outdoors, continuing a shared hobby of mountain climbing with his son-in-law in Denver.
As he moves into the next chapter of his life, Mattson extended a thank-you to the staff he has worked with at TCRH. “The hospital has been very good. There were tough times but it was always a good place to practice.”