In September 2003, when Hurricane Isabel brought ferocious winds and a 6-foot water surge into the coastal town of Belhaven, N.C. (pop. 1,968), the local hospital was forced to shut its doors. In response, Dr. Charles Boyette, 69, turned his home into a makeshift emergency room, treating anyone who needed help.
One such resident was Michi Smith, 71, who was injured during the hurricane. "He’s always there when I need him," says Smith, a longtime patient of Boyette.
In his 40 years as a selfless caregiver in Belhaven, Boyette has gone the extra mile on many occasions, including the time he removed himself from traction—with a ruptured disk—to deliver a baby and tend to a heart attack patient.
"He’s just a good doctor and a good person and always puts the patients first," says Elizabeth Wilkins, who has been Boyette’s office manager for 34 years. Wilkins recalls how the doctor went out of his way to tend to her arthritic mother and regularly dropped by their house to check on her.
Wilkins also remembers how the "good doctor" pays utility bills and makes funeral arrangements for those who can’t afford to; how he buys clothes for poor patients; how he sought out a new cat for a bereaved patient whose feline was run over by a car; and how he outfitted the Belhaven High School football team with uniforms when funds were scarce. Boyette says that helping residents in need is all part of the job, and he prefers to do it "without fanfare."
The doctor’s good deeds are far-reaching and applauded. They collectively sealed his designation as Country Doctor of the Year for 2003 by Staff Care, a temporary physician firm based in Irving, Texas. He more than met the requirements—a physician in a town smaller than 25,000 who goes far and above the normal routine of a doctor. The award caps a long list of accolades, including 1978 North Carolina Physician of the Year, 1988 Belhaven Jaycees Outstanding Public Servant of the Year, and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine’s Distinguished Service Award in 1996.
Boyette grew up in Chadbourn, N.C. (pop. 2,129), where he deplored the fact that the town didn’t have a doctor and "we had to take Dad, who had diabetes, and other family members several miles for help." That struggle had a lasting impact and set him on a path toward medicine. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then went on to earn a medical degree at UNC’s School of Medicine.
In 1964, after serving four years in the Navy, he was discharged and immediately headed for Belhaven after a friend implored him to settle there. At the time, the town had just one aging doctor, so Boyette set up a viable medical practice, which today serves nearly 100 patients daily and boasts three doctors and a staff of 25.
Although providing quality, comprehensive medical care is his primary goal, Boyette has looked after Belhaven’s municipal health as well, serving as mayor for nearly 30 years.
"I have always had an avid interest in community affairs and feel a responsibility to be involved," Boyette says. "My mayoral duties actually complement my responsibilities as a doctor."
Boyette has spurred layers of improvements that have revitalized the town. Besides saving Belhaven’s hospital from bankruptcy, he has been relentless in seeking funds for daycare centers, recreational facilities, a library, expanding the water treatment plant, scholarships for community college students and the elevation of 383 homes prone to flooding.
His energy, dedication and compassion have elicited praises echoed by Tim Johnson, Belhaven’s town manager since 1984.
"He’s the ultimate professional and businessman and not one to rest on his laurels," Johnson says. "He works 85 hours a week, he’s never on vacation, and he always tries to make things better. Belhaven is mighty lucky to have him."