Doctor shares Prescription for Compassion

Health, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on February 25, 2001

Sobs and wails resonate from exam room No. 1 as 6-year-old J.R. Merritt prepares to give a blood sample—involuntarily.

Fortunately, Tom Harward knows this drill well.

Harward, a physician’s assistant, simply pricks his own finger to prove it doesn’t hurt. Within minutes, he has his blood sample, and J.R. is on his way home with a balloon.

In an age of high-tech equipment, HMOs, and soaring medical costs, Belington, W.Va., is a step back into yesterday. Harward, known throughout the town of 2,000 as Dr. Tom, makes house calls nearly every day—greeting patients with warm hellos instead of knocks—in the mountains of this timber community, where no doctor has devoted full-time attention since the 1960s.

“This county would be lost without him,” says Steve Price, a school bus driver. “You can call him at home and on the weekend. I’ve never seen him turn anybody away.”

Dr. Tom, 60, graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1976. He moved to the hills of West Virginia two years later to indulge in the quiet life and was never lured back to the big city by the prospect of money or prestige. Instead, he and his wife, Kate, stayed in the mountains to raise 14 children, nine of whom are adopted. Harward would much rather help needy children than spend his earnings on luxuries.

“He doesn’t wear fancy clothes,” Price says. “He hasn’t been one to care about finances and stuff.”

But many of Dr. Tom’s patients worry daily about money. About 20 percent of them are indigent. Nearly 40 percent have no insurance.

Where Dr. Tom’s concerned, that’s of no matter. He’s not in the business of turning folks away from the Belington Clinic, a modest facility nestled inside a century-old red-brick school building just off Main Street.

“Everybody pays a couple bucks” on the sliding fee scale, he says. “How many of us have jobs where every day you can reach out and have a positive impact on peoples’ lives? That is really a rewarding thing.”

And Dr. Tom definitely has reached out. The walls of his office are papered with pictures of friends and family, as well as several accolades touting his credibility—including an award for the 1987 West Virginia Physician’s Assistant of the Year.

It’s not the awards that make him proud—it’s the programs he’s been able to bring to the community.

Adjacent to Dr. Tom’s clinic is the wellness center he opened in 1994 to provide preventative care for health problems prevalent in so many communities, such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It’s equipped with treadmills and other equipment, along with staff who answer patients’ questions about diet and exercise.

Just five minutes away is another Dr. Tom-inspired wellness center at Barbour County High School. Built in 1992, it was the first such facility in the state. Harward felt it was important to open a clinic on adolescents’ turf because they often are reluctant to seek health care or advice outside their comfort zone.

“It’s a tremendous advantage to live in the same community with your patients,” he says. “Most of the time people relate well to you. You are more human and fallible to them.”

Jack Carpenter, co-owner of the Mountain Laurel Inn, says Dr. Tom’s down-home touch made recovering from a heart attack just a little easier.

“Every time I’d call him, he’d come up there to the house,” he says.

Those relationships are perhaps the biggest advantage Dr. Tom has as a hometown medical practitioner. He takes care of the area’s children until they grow to have kids of their own. And he’s also there when it’s time to let go.

Caroline VanHouten will never forget the night Dr. Tom stopped by, only to find her elderly mother near death. Instead of being clinical and detached like many hospital doctors, VanHouten says Harward’s comforting words made the inevitable a little easier.

“He’s just special,” VanHouten says. “He’s always been there for our family.”

And family is exactly how Dr. Tom views his patients. Though his weekly work hours sometimes reach 70 or more, he’ll never complain.

“I’m never bored when I go to work. I love to go to work,” he says proudly. “This is my life.”