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Dr. Hunter retiring after decades of saving lives

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

It was possibly the most difficult decision of Dr. Jim Hunter’s life.

No, it didn’t deal with a life-or-death situation with one of his patients, nor his recent choice to retire.

It occurred when the 71-year-old Decatur native was a junior at Decatur High School and had to choose whether to go to Auburn or Vanderbilt for college.

“It was the only time in my life I was so stressed out I actually vomited all day long,” Dr. Hunter recalled Thursday, the eve of his final day of treating patients for 46 years — 33 in Decatur.

Caring for the sick obviously didn’t cause him the same kind of stress or he wouldn’t have stayed with it for parts of five decades. Perhaps it’s because he valued his patients’ health more than his own needs.

Dr. George Hansberry, a contemporary of Dr. Hunter’s before he retired two years ago, described Dr. Hunter as that type of physician.

“He was truly from the old school of medicine,” he said. “He always had time for his patients.”

Dr. Hunter would treat patients he knew couldn’t afford to pay — and not just once and send them away, but continue to keep them as patients, Hansberry said. His longest-returning patients also enjoyed a backdoor policy so they could show up without an appointment, Hansberry added.

Dr. Hunter said the key to being a good doctor is pairing knowledge of medicine with compassion, because without compassion a doctor can’t understand what the patient needs.

“One of the main things that people like is they want someone who will spend time with them, explain things to them and not act like you’re in a hurry all the time,” he said. “And when they need you, you need to be there.”

Dr. Hunter said in retirement the thing he will miss most is talking with his patients. As for the changes in medicine since he graduated from medical school in 1961, Dr. Hunter said it feels like he started in “the dark ages” compared to the treatments doctors have at their disposal today.

When he started, doctors could treat heart attack patients only by prescribing a drug and a month of bed rest.

“If you lived you lived. If your heart quit, you died,” he said. “Everyone knew how to diagnose a heart attack, but nobody knew what to do about it.”

He watched heart treatment grow from the first defibrillators arriving on the scene in the mid-1960s to modern heart-cath labs that can treat heart attack patients with a stent and send them home in a few days.

Though Dr. Hunter is an internal medicine specialist, he helped persuade Decatur General Hospital to acquire its first echocardiogram machine in the mid-1980s and even helped operate it until the hospital’s first cardiologist arrived.

He said he is most pleased that Decatur heart patients can now receive stents to treat clogged arteries without having to go to Huntsville or Birmingham, as was the case several years ago.

Until last winter, Dr. Hunter planned to work another four or five years, but the advancement of diabetes has robbed him of the stamina to work full time so he decided to stop.

He joked that sometimes he wonders what it would be like to be a dermatologist in Beverly Hills, but he said he looks back at his career with no regrets. That especially includes the day he decided to attend Vanderbilt instead of Auburn.

The path taken

At the time in 1953, engineering was all the rage, and Dr. Hunter said he was accepted to Auburn with that pursuit in mind. A relative, however, offered to help offset his expenses at Vandy as long as he chose a medical career. Close friends advised him to go both ways, making his choice more difficult.

The answer came, he said, when he realized he was hesitant about Vanderbilt because he worried he couldn’t make the grades. Rather than give in to fear, he said he accepted what looked like the tougher challenge.

“I feel like I’ve been right in the thick of it,” Dr. Hunter said, “and not missed out on the action.”

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