Dr. Mac Herring, a stalwart in pediatric care in Sampson County, has retired after 40 years at Clinton Medical Clinic, leaving a legacy of caring for countless children not just in this county but across the region.
Herring’s mid-May retirement saw the end of a career in which the Sampson native helped blaze a trail for children’s medical care in the community and across surrounding counties. When he started at Clinton Medical Clinic in 1974, Herring was the only pediatrician here and one of just a few dozen in the eastern part of North Carolina.
Through the years, he saw more patients than he can count — and saying goodbye to them has been tough.
“It absolutely is bittersweet,” said Herring. “I feel like we have provided excellent pediatric and medical care at Clinton Medical Clinic. We have an outstanding reputation. It’s hard to leave them and it’s hard to leave my patients. I’ve taken picture after picture the last two or three months. I’ve got a computer full of pictures. I’ve had some very nice cards from families and a lot of tears as we say goodbye the last time.”
It has been emotional to bring to a close what has been his life’s work, and begin a new chapter, Herring said.
As he took pictures with patients, Herring would recall stories over the years, remembering ailments and diagnoses those patients and their parents were able to get through together, and reminiscing about their lives beyond the clinic’s doors. He said he’ll remember all of them, especially the dedicated parents who cared so much for their kids.
It was an honor to assist in providing that care, he said.
“Practically my whole life has been a doctor, a pediatrician, and now I can’t do any of that anymore,” he said. “It’s hard to leave it.”
Growing up, Herring knew the importance care providers had in the community. His father,. Rufus McPhail Herring, Sr., known simply as Mac, was a pharmacist working at Register’s Drugs in downtown Clinton before ultimately serving as a pharmacist and owner/operator of Reynolds Drugs in Clinton.
As a teenager, Herring worked in the pharmacy for his father. He initially chose to follow in his father’s footprints at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“When I went to Carolina, I had intended to go into pharmacy. Jimmy Matthews (of Matthews Drug Store) and I were classmates, so we sat beside each other in freshman chemistry,” said Herring, who noted he decided to go down a different path. “I just decided I didn’t want to do that and thought medicine would be better.”
Herring went to Bowman Gray School of Medicine, where he set his sights on family medicine, signing up for an internship that consisted of a half year of pediatrics and a half year of internal medicine.
“I did my six months of pediatrics and I liked it so much I wanted to stay in pediatrics, but I was signed up to do internal medicine and they wouldn’t let you go out of your commitment,” said Herring. However, there was another student who wanted to stay in adult medicine, so the two were able to switch their six-month stints so Herring was able to stay put.
“I loved dealing with the children,” he said. “I enjoyed my interaction with children and families, and the fact that they basically, for the most part, got well.”
When Herring graduated from medical school, the country still had a draft system. Following three years of pediatric residency, Herring spent two years in the Air Force, where he was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
“Everyone got drafted,” Herring noted. “I finished my pediatric training at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem and went almost directly into the Air Force.”
He was part of the “Berry Plan,” which deferred doctors who were taking their residency so the military could benefit from their advanced education. With four others straight out of medical school, Herring said the experience prepared him for primary care practice in Clinton.
And coming back to Sampson was a no-brainer.
He was already married to wife Ann Herring and they had two sons, John McPhail Herring and Neill McPhail Herring. The couple’s families both lived in Clinton and, during his stint in the Air Force, Dr. Mac began to plan a return home.
Just a decade before that time, in the early 1960s, doctors John Nance and Bill Peak along with William Owens and Don Wells established Clinton Medical Clinic. They began to recruit several others, including Frank Leak, Don Copeland and others, in building the clinic’s foundation.
Herring, who had known Nance and Peak his whole life, often doing yard work for them, talked to Nance about coming home. He inquired as to whether a doctor concentrating solely in pediatrics could make it.
“I just kept talking to them and they encouraged me,” Herring recalled. “I had offers to stay in Winston-Salem at the medical school but I always wanted to come back home. Before my last year in the Air Force I had already signed the contract with them. I knew I had a place, I knew what I was going to do. Ann’s family was here. We both grew up here. It was just wonderful to come back.”
And when he got back in the summer of 1974, he immediately went to work and stayed busy around the clock.
“My last day in the Air Force was Aug. 2. I was seeing patients on Aug. 4,” he said. “When I moved back home I was the only pediatrician in this area. There was none in Duplin, none in Pender, I don’t think there was one in Harnett. There were some in Fayetteville, a couple in Goldsboro and a couple in Wilmington.”
Clinton Medical Clinic was a hub of activity, not just for patients in Sampson but for those who would come from miles around, Herring said.
“We provided primary care for this whole area, not just Sampson County. Just about any patient who came in sick and was under 20 years old they sent to me,” Herring attested.
He remembers the times at the clinic when it was “sick child after sick child,” many with “horrible illnesses” like bacterial meningitis that now are cured through vaccines. Technological advancements in the treatment of illnesses like pneumonia, asthma and infections have improved so much that many patients hospitalized for those ailments decades ago require little more than an out-patient visit.
“We worked hard, long hours and provided medical care for a good five or six counties around us,” he said. “We were busy, going to work early in the morning to do hospital rounds and working until late in the night doing charts after I had gone home to see my kids.”
Through all that, Ann Herring was the “stabilizing force” of the family, her husband said.
“She looked after the kids, she looked after the finances, the shopping, the errands … doing whatever needed to be done that I couldn’t get away to do,” he remarked. “She was very active in PTA in the schools, and she brought me lunch just about every day to the office.”
That was not lost on the community. Among all the cards Herring received upon announcing his retirement, one patient also sent one to Ann.
“I felt as if I need to thank you for all the years you have given your husband to the children and mothers of Sampson County,” she wrote. “I would imagine many times your plans were changed because he needed to be with a sick child. You have given up a part of your live to allow the children to receive such excellent medical care.”
The woman said a doctor in Chapel Hill told her once there was “only one Mac Herring,” who stood tall among the state’s physicians. Likewise, the patient wrote to his spouse, “I feel there is only one Ann. You have been so unselfish and giving.”
As he read the card, Herring broke down.
“That meant an awful lot to me that they recognized what role she played,” he said. “She has been exceedingly important to how I was able to practice medicine because I didn’t have to worry about what was going on. Many times we had plans and things were interrupted, but it’s been worth it.”
Herring said he leaves behind a staff at Clinton Medical Clinic that is rich in knowledge and deep in experience.
A trailblazer in the medical field, Nance imposed stringent requirements regarding continuing medical education and attaining proper certifications to stay with the clinic, before such mandates were enforced by the hospital and the state. “It was mandatory at our clinic,” Herring said. “Nance and Peak were special, far-sighted in the medical field at that time.”
And that bred a pride within the clinic’s physicians and staff, one that is still evident in the lack of turnover. Herring’s first nurse was Julia Willis and his second nurse, Patsy Gregory, was with him for the past 30 years. Many have that same kind of experience.
“Everybody in this group (of doctors) now, this is their first job. We give awards out for five-year service anniversaries — during that last one, I counted up, we had 755 years of service from our employees. Our employees are very loyal, very committed, very hard-working and extremely loyal to the physicians and the practice.”
Herring said he feels comfortable and confident leaving his patients with all the local pediatric providers, including Dr. Bill Carr, Dr. Ada Conway, Dr. Ricardo Baler, Ginger McCullen and Tanya Todd.
For a long period of time, Herring was on-call every day and every weekend to see patients in the clinic and at Sampson Regional Medical Center.
“There are very few families in Sampson County that I hadn’t seen somebody in,” said Herring. “When I got out of hospital work a couple years ago, in 2010, the head OB nurse went back and counted up — I had cared for 9,100-plus newborns at Sampson Regional.”
He made himself available all the time in the case of an emergency, whether he was technically on call or not. When Dr. Carr, another local boy, came back home, Herring said it was “heaven.” Not only did it mean he would only be on call every other weekend, it would bring an invaluable working relationship.
“We’ve had a super relationship through the years,” Herring attested. “We talked daily about patients. I’d say ‘Bill, come look at this rash’ or he’d say ‘Mac, come listen to this heart murmur’ — informal consults all the time, looking at x-rays and lab work. You deal with everything.”
And Herring said that is exactly what he will miss about the job — everything.
His children and “precious grandchildren,” (John’s) 10-year-old twins in Charlotte and (Neill’s) 12, 9 and 5 year old children in Mount Pleasant, S.C. can expect more visits now that Herring is retired, he said.
He will also be taking Ann to the beach more often, as well as working in the yard and shooting shotguns, rifles and pistols at the range — and competing in shotgun matches — as part of his beloved Coharie Shooting League. Maybe he’ll even take up golf again, something he has not done in some 20 years.
As for his career, it has been vastly rewarding, an experience that he would relive in an instant.
“I’d do it all again,” he said. “I would not do anything different.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.