Medicine Man

Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer | awarren@messenger-inquirer.com Dr. Wathen Medley, senior VP of Medical Affairs, is retiring in August from Owensboro Health. Medley started practicing medicine in Owensboro in 1969.

To hear Dr. Wathen Medley tell it, he's been on vacation the past 50-plus years.

The 82-year-old Owensboro physician says the last time he really worked, he was a teen rolling bourbon barrels with other members of the yard crew at Medley Distilling Co., his family's business.

Besides his trademark outfit — a sports coat, white shirt and Kentucky Colonel string tie — Medley is known for his sense of humor and easygoing personality.

On the first Wednesday of November 1969, Medley opened an Owensboro medical practice at the Doctors Building, 1001 Center St.

He continued to treat patients until 2013. By then, he already was working full time in administration at Owensboro Health.

In August, Medley, the senior vice president of medical affairs at OH, will retire.

"Medicine is his passion," said Tammy Marksberry, OH director of medical staff services. "He truly feels like he has been on vacation the whole time."

School, school and more school

Medley's younger years were spent in Owensboro, but he attended high school at the Kentucky Military Institute in Lyndon.

From there, he enrolled in military college at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1963, Medley graduated from Tulane Medical School and later that year accepted an internship in Dallas, Texas. When he talked about his internship, he quietly mentioned it was the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza.

After Dallas, Medley served two years as a flight surgeon for the U.S. Army in Okinawa. He accepted a residency in internal medicine at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia.

He left Owensboro after the eighth grade. By the time he finished his residency, there was one thing on his mind.

"I was determined to come back to Kentucky," Medley said.

His career in Owensboro had a large impact on regional health, said Greg Strahan, OH president and CEO.

"He is highly regarded as a physician and has touched the lives of many patients and families through the years," Strahan said. "At Owensboro Health, he is highly respected by his peers and the entire medical staff for his knowledge, wisdom and steady demeanor, even as the landscape of health care continues to change.

"He is always optimistic and good-natured, but he is also very focused on improving patient care and making Owensboro Health a great place to practice medicine. He is a leader that everyone listens to and learns from."

Kentucky Colonel ties

It's almost impossible to think about Medley without his signature string ties.

As it turns out, they are a family heirloom. In the 1950s, Medley Distillery gave them as gifts to retail liquor merchants.

In white letters, the center of the tie is stamped: Medley Bros. Distillery.

String ties typically are worn with the bow showing, but Medley follows his dad's lead. He tucks the bow under his shirt collar, leaving only the knot and two ends exposed.

A few years ago, Medley saw some of the distillery's string ties on sale at an antique store for $8 each. He didn't buy any because he had a drawer full of them at home.

And he wears one every day.

Health care changes

When Medley opened his solo practice in Owensboro 50 years ago, old doctors at the time feared Medicare would ruin medicine, Medley said.

"Medicine has really changed, as far as the financial structure and politics," he said.

And, of course, the computer era brought change to the medical profession. Medley never learned to type, so electronic medical records weren't his forte.

"He is from the era when you called people and talked to them," Marksberry said. "He doesn't do anything on a computer."

In fact, Medley tells everyone the computer in his office "is still charging," Marksberry said.

Medley still made house calls on occasion until the mid-1970s.

"I didn't make a lot of house calls," he said, "but I went to nursing homes a lot."

During much of his career, he was on call 24/7.

The future

OH has recruited Medley's replacement. Dr. Michael Kelley, a cardiologist, arrived earlier this month. He last worked at Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute in Nashville.

Kelley will spend the next few months getting to know OH and learning from Medley. The senior vice president of medical affairs leads the medical staff, which governs policies and rules relating to providers such as codes of conduct and how they are credentialed.

When asked how Medley plans to spend his retirement, he said:, "I'm a maintenance man at home. I have a lot to do."

Besides, he still has one patient who needs his care — his wife, Jeanette.

"I'm very thankful to the community and the hospital," Medley said. "The community and hospital have afforded me the opportunity to do what I want to do."

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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