From Dr. William Gibson’s ridgetop home on 13th Street NW in Fort Payne, the old DeKalb General Hospital can be seen below as it sits in a sad state, dilapidated and literally crumbling. He hopes to see it demolished and feels little sentimental attachment to it despite it being his workplace for nearly 40 years and the birthplace for more than 1,000 babies he delivered before stopping in 1986 as the new hospital opened near Airport Road and Alabama Highway 35.
Wearing a protective facemask like he did so many times in the Emergency Room, Gibson reflected on a storied career and lessons of science that continue to resonate across the decades. Among the locals he personally brought into the Payne High School Principal Brian Jett.
He was born in Ramer, Tenn., near Memphis, and served as a rifleman in the U.S. Army during World War II. He recalls advancing into Germany, crawling around castles, fearful of raising his head for Nazi snipers to target. After the war, Gibson took advantage of the G.I. Bill to study medicine, fulfilling his dream to become a doctor.
“When I was six years old, I heard a baby crying, so I went next door and asked them where the baby came from,” Gibson said.
“The neighbor said the doctor brought it in his bag. I told her I didn’t believe that story and I would find out the truth.”
He began practicing medicine in Middleton, Tenn. in 1955, but the closest hospital was nearly an hour away. A chance encounter with a pharmaceutical salesman tipped him off about a doctor in Rainsville who was vacating his medical office and all of the equipment inside. The big draw, however, was DeKalb General, just eight years old, constructed on land donated by the late Robert E. Davis, Sr. Gibson moved to Sand Mountain in October 1958.
DeKalb General was made possible by the Hill-Burton act, a 1946 act of Congress that gave hospitals grants and loans for construction. In return, the facilities agree to provide a reasonable volume of services to people unable to pay.
“I remember there was a coffee shop in the hospital, and all of the doctors would gather there in the morning for coffee and to talk before going to their offices,” Gibson said. “I worked alongside Dr. Weatherly, Dr. Igou, Dr. Hotalen, Dr. Chitwood, Dr. Guest, Dr. Killian, the Isbell doctors and others. The hospital also had a nursing home inside it. The hospital grew while Clayton Smith was the administrator, and he did a great job before he moved away.”
Doctors commonly made house calls, but this ended when Medicare was signed into law in 1965 and the paperwork required for reimbursement became too cumbersome for weary physicians treating people at 2 a.m. Gibson lived so close to the hospital that it was easier to walk down the hill than to drive a car.
On one house call in the winter, Gibson arrived to find a woman giving birth at home while other women held up a quilt to give her privacy from a pack of men huddled around the only fireplace talking like it was just any other night. Years would pass before having your baby at home became the exception rather than the rule.
Ambulances weren’t a thing at the start, and Gibson said funeral homes would often offer patients transportation in hearses. Infections from bacteria like diphtheria and typhoid kept doctors mindful of the need to maintain a sanitary environment at the hospital. Although there was no such thing as an opioid epidemic then, doctors experienced their share of patients seeking a fix of demerol or morphine.
Gibson witnessed firsthand many advances in medicine, including miraculous vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, smallpox, rubella, chicken pox, pneumonia and meningitis. He said today he recommends everyone wear a mask to protect against spreading germs and get vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine becomes available.
He shares memories like gathering on the hospital roof with others to observe Sputnik as the Russian satellite circled above in the night sky in the fall of 1957. It would be many more years before technology like ultrasound scans would allow the doctors at DeKalb General to observe babies in the womb. He said parents often didn’t know the gender of their baby until he guided it into the world. Sadly, some did not survive, such as one baby that was born without a brain.
Gibson retired from delivering babies in 1986 when his insurance provider raised malpractice insurance by $20,000 due to him not performing cesarean deliveries. He said, “There was no way I could ever deliver enough babies to afford that.”
He retired from medicine altogether in 1995 and lives with his wife Marilyn. People they encounter tell him they wish he was still practicing.
“They say he was so kind and easygoing, and he showed that he cared,” she said.