Father and son are just what the Delta ordered
By Gary Pettus
For previous generations, the bland and modest white-brick building on Belzoni’s Church Street dispensed everything from traveler’s checks to legal counsel, from credenzas to Cadillacs.
Dr. S. Carlton Gorton administers a routine checkup to Jordan Waller, 2, whose family members, including his mom Ashley Waller, have been patients of the Gortons for generations.
But, for the past four decades, it has delivered something people here can really use: checkups — for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar — in a corner of the state where everything seems to be getting higher except wages.
No longer a bank, law office, furniture store or car showroom, the office in downtown Belzoni reawakened in 1973 as a medical clinic under the resurrection of Dr. W. Mack Gorton five years after his graduation from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine.
More than 30 years later, another UMMC alumnus, Dr. S. Carlton Gorton, Class of 2004, teamed up with his father to tackle a slew of health menaces in one of the most medically-underserved regions in the country: the Delta.
“In the clinic, we see patients with heart attacks, strokes, fractured bones, bleeding ulcers,” said Carlton Gorton, 40. “Where else, even a big city, would anyone have the opportunity to see that, except in an ER?”
Not every med school grad would consider this an “opportunity.”
“You don’t get many doctors coming back to a small town,” said his father with an ironic grin. “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Truth is, the real offer came from higher up. “Belzoni is the place where I felt the Lord called me to work,” Carlton Gorton said. “This is my hometown.”
The father and son’s impact on their hometown and beyond was a revelation to Dr. Nicholas Whipple during his brief time in Belzoni.
“Dr. Mack is the Father of Medicine in Humphreys County,” said Whipple, 30, who worked with the Gortons during his fourth year of UMMC medical school in 2008 as a participant in the Rural Health Scholars Program.
“He has the energy and charisma of even the most excited first-year medical student.”
As for “Dr. Carlton”: “He was never too busy to teach me, entertain my elementary questions, or chat about the Ole Miss game from the previous Saturday,” Whipple said. “His love for the state was contagious.”
Unfortunately, love isn’t the only thing that has spread in the Delta.
Messages posted in the clinic’s busy waiting room underline the challenges there.
A flyer pinned to a wall offers tips on “coping with diabetes during Mississippi summers;” next to it is a poster that reads, “Did you know that Jackson has a higher rate of diabetes and cardiovascular disease than the national average? Ask your doctor to help you find out more.”
The doctors are trying.
About 75 miles north of the Capital City, the residents of Belzoni, population 2,235 and shrinking, proudly bill their town as the Catfish Capital of the World; but as part of the Delta, Humphreys County’s seat of government also shares the unofficial title of Obesity, Hypertension and Diabetes Hub of America.
“We’re all diabetics here,” said Mack Gorton, 70.
Among his diabetic regulars is Betty Duett, 74, of Belzoni, nicknamed “Little Sliver” because of her habit of sneaking slices of cake.
Her diabetic mother, Juanita Rainey, 94, is “Big Sliver.”
“My grandparents also had diabetes,” said Duett, who dropped by the clinic one afternoon to complain about persistent pain in her ankles.
“I’m not supposed to have even a sliver of dessert,” she said, “but sometimes Dr. Gorton catches me.”
“I’ll walk into a restaurant,” said Mack Gorton, “and she’ll try to hide her strawberry shortcake under a napkin.”
As physicians often do, the Gortons minister to patients prone to lapses. Quite a few don’t take their medications consistently, and Mack Gorton doesn’t know why.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “It’s not that they can’t afford it, since many are on Medicaid.”
Still, the bond between the two men and their patients is as conspicuous and old-fashioned as the massive, metal weight scale that towers in a waiting-room corner, salvaged from the pharmacy Mack Gorton’s father once ran. It’s a tangible reminder of a mostly bygone day when encounters between doctor and patient were more personal.
Many of the furnishings of the rambling, re-re-re-repurposed building foster familiarity between staff and patients, its interior rooms and hallways bristling with bulletin-board photos of family and friends, framed newspaper articles and a movie poster of “Bull Durham” (lab tech Jan Cline, a 38-year employee, is devoted to Kevin Costner).
As a nurse led one elderly woman past Mr. Costner and to an exam room, the patient demanded to see “the daddy man doctor.”
Another, middle-age woman being escorted in the hallway happened to pass the daddy man doctor himself, who asked her, “Are you doing OK?”
“Ah, no,” the woman said half-reproachfully. “I fell in the bathtub; my toe broke.”
Apparently, she was on her way to or from the “bank vault,” a claustrophobic space that once held much of Belzoni’s wealth. “That’s where the X-ray machine is now,” Mack Gorton said.
Inside this labyrinth, the doctors and their staff of 15 or so see about 50 to 60 patients regularly, but many more during flu season. “It was about 130 last time,” Mack Gorton said. “Everyone had the same symptoms; it was terrible.”
Some of their grateful convalescents supplement their co-pays.
“Lots of them bring us food,” said Carlton Gorton. “More probably to daddy … You enter his heart through his stomach.”
As a doctor-in-training, Whipple thrived in this family atmosphere.
“It was not uncommon for mother, aunt and grandmother to accompany a patient during routine visits,” said Whipple, a Tupelo native now in his third year of pediatric residency at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“And all made sure I was planning to attend the Belzoni Catfish Festival; they even put me on the local news that night.
“By the end of my month’s rotation, I knew the local preacher, mayor, and service station attendant by name. Where else but small-town Mississippi can a medical student have that experience?”
In this small town, Carlton Gorton’s own medical education began when he was still a boy and his father would put him to work at the hospital.
After his father sewed up a patient, young Carlton snipped off the excess thread.
“One time, we had somebody die on the table,” Mack Gorton said. “(Carlton) stood up on a stool and looked down at the patient. I don’t think he even knew what he was looking at.” Carlton Gorton was 3 or 4 at the time.
“I saw lots of dead bodies,” he said.
“I saw childbirth, too.”
These sights intrigued, rather than traumatized, the young boy destined to be a doctor.
“He didn’t know anything different,” Mack Gorton said. “My daddy was a pharmacist. So I was always around doctors, too.”
Like his own father, Mack Gorton grew up in the Belzoni area. He left to attend college, in Oxford, then medical school and a three-year residency in Jackson in Internal Medicine.
During his senior year at Ole Miss, he began dating the woman who would become his wife, Carolyn Carlton of Sumner, whose sister married Mack Gorton’s brother.
Mack and Carolyn Gorton would bring up two sons, including Mack Jr., now 44, and a nursing home director in Greenville.
“One of my cousins was a mortician, another was a pharmacist,” Mack Gorton said. “Doctor, pharmacist, nursing home director, mortician. The only thing we didn’t have was a florist.”
Following his residency, Mack Gorton came back home; on July 1, 1973, he opened the clinic where his younger son would one day join him.
“After college, I developed a close friendship with some of the men in our community while playing tennis,” Carlton Gorton said. “They ranged in age from about 35 to 70. That’s when I realized that Belzoni would be a great place to practice if I were to become a physician.
“Once I was accepted to med school, I planned from the beginning to return.”
He returned to a region where heart disease kills more people than anything else, accounting for more than one out of every four deaths in the Delta in 2010, say statistics from the Mississippi State Department of Health. Nearly 39 percent of adults reported having high blood pressure, and more than 42 percent reported having high cholesterol that year. Type 2 diabetes was the sixth leading cause of death, just above stroke.
Those figures are higher than those for the rest of Mississippi – one of the unhealthiest states in the country.
Why this is so goes way beyond an obvious answer: poverty, Carlton Gorton said. “It’s also lack of education, and more.”
Still, poverty has come down hard on Belzoni, which lost more than 16 percent of its population since 2000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The percentage of families whose incomes loiter below the poverty line shot up from 29.3 percent in 1999 to nearly 39 percent in 2010, compared to less than 17 percent for the state.
Rather than finding discouragement in these numbers, Carlton Gorton sounded pleased that he can make a difference in the place where he and his wife Mary Katherine chose to bring up their two children.
“I love the people here,” he said. “I enjoyed my time in training in Jackson, but the Delta needs physicians and more of them.
“I live three doors down from my parents. I have the opportunity to work with one of my best friends – my dad. Our staff is awesome; some have worked with Dad for more than 30 years.
“There are challenges wherever you live and work. But the difference between working in this clinic and at an ER is we can see the outcomes.”
Once of those “outcomes” is Narkia Lee. Battling diabetes and high cholesterol, he has been the Gortons’ patient for three years now, making the eight- or nine-mile drive from his home in Isola for checkups.
“They are the best doctors around,” said Lee, 37. “My blood pressure was out of whack; they got it back to normal. They’re the only ones who know what’s wrong with me and have helped me.”
More typical is the family of Ashley Waller, a young Humphreys County mom who brought in her son Jordan Waller, 2, for a routine exam.
“The Gortons have been our family doctors since the old days,” said Waller, as she held her 1-year-old daughter Ajaylyn in her lap.
“Daddy has taken care of her mother,” Carlton Gorton said.
“And my family on my daddy’s side,” Walter added, as Mack Gorton’s son lifted a stethoscope to her own son’s chest.