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Retiring after 35 years, Dr. Charles Chaney formed lasting bonds with patients

December 14, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Dr. Charles Chaney retired from his Hagerstown practice Nov. 30. He said he plans to spend lots of time with his two granddaughters.
Photo by Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

He wanted to play center field for the New York Yankees, just like his childhood hero, Mickey Mantle.

A budding talent was there. So was the love of the game.

But around the age of 15, his batting eye disappeared, he said, "and I just couldn't hit the ball anymore."

So Dr. Charles Chaney thought maybe he would emulate his second hero — Bob Keadle, a Hagerstown physician.

He was in the ninth grade when he decided to pursue medicine. It's a decision his patients are glad he made.

For the past 35 years, Chaney has been a real-life Marcus Welby.

He has held the hands of ailing patients, provided comfort and compassion to individuals facing life-threatening diseases and explained complex health problems without the medical jargon.

He developed a relationship with many of the people who walked through his doors and had real conversations about their children and grandchildren, their hobbies and vacations.

Now, those conversations will be memories.

On Nov. 30, the Hagerstown surgeon retired.

"At the ripe old age of 67," he said, "I think it's time to do something else."

He even surrendered his medical license on Dec. 1, he noted, making a clean break so there would be no temptations to come back.

Instead, he plans to volunteer at two local elementary schools, where he will help with reading; and his church has already approached him about assuming a number of roles.

Mostly, he said, he envisions himself spending time with his two granddaughters, Caitlin, 12, and Madison, 9.

"They're my fishing buddies," he said with a smile. "And they both swim at the YMCA, where I officiate their meets. I want to be active in their lives."

Even though he had made the decision to retire and says it was the right one to make, it also was difficult.

"I did this for 35 years, four months and two weeks," he said. "I could probably add the minutes if you gave me some time."

During his career, Chaney estimates he saw about 30,000 patients.

"The hard part was saying good-bye to many of those patients," he said. "They cry, I cry. I do well until I start to talk about it. It's bittersweet. But I'm ready for it."

Chaney said he was raised east of Hagerstown on Robinwood Drive and graduated from North Hagerstown High School.

Following graduation, he attended Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., where he received a Bachelor of Arts in biology. He then attended the University of Maryland Medical School, where he earned his medical degree. He did his surgical residency and internship at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore and became certified with the Board of Surgeons.

"Then, I came home," Chaney said. "I was offered a fantastic opportunity to be an associate with Baltimore's busiest surgeon, but I wanted my children to be raised near their grandparents. So I came back to Hagerstown."

Chaney still remembers his first day at his new practice.

"I thought I had made a mistake," he said with a laugh. "My secretary had to give two weeks notice at her previous job, so I had no staff and answered the phone myself. The phone rang exactly two times. One was my mother, asking how I was doing. The other was my wife (Ann) wanting me to go to lunch."

"Obviously," he added, "things picked up steam after that."

Chaney said he always thought he would become a family physician.

"But as a student, you get exposed to all specialties and decide where you're most comfortable. I chose surgery."

The first operation he ever saw, he said, was to remove a gallbladder "and the surgeon took out his knife and made a long, 12-inch incision. I expected more precision and less blood. I almost passed out."

But he stuck with it, he added, "because I liked the detail and I also liked the possibility of eradicating disease."

For the first 20 years of his career, Chaney was a general surgeon. For the last 15 years, he focused primarily on breast cancer surgery.

While he has fond memories of many of his patients, it's the cancer patients, in particular, he said, who he truly got to know.

"When you go into the storm of a diagnosis of breast cancer, the doctor and patient form a trusting relationship," he said.  "You also will see the patient for a number of years because they will keep coming back for annual checkups, mammograms and such. The risk is always there for another tumor."

He even had one patient in Indonesia who returned to his office each year for follow-ups.

"Her brother was a doctor in this community and she had her breast cancer surgery performed here," he explained.  "She then came back — half way around the world — every year for her annual exams. I don't think that happens very often."

Chaney said he made the decision years ago "that this would be a patient-oriented practice. Either you learn compassion on your mother's knee or you don't."

That's why he felt it was important to hire office staff throughout the years who were kindhearted and helpful.

"Patients found comfort and caring here from the moment they walked through the door. They were always treated like family. It's been difficult for the past six months saying goodbye," he shared.

Chaney said his nurse of 34 years, Carol Beachy, "is embracing retirement" while his secretary, Denese Farris, will continue working and is currently "in the interviewing process."

He has been in the business enough years, Chaney said, that he has seen multiple generations of the same family.

"Thirty years ago, I operated on a 4-month-old baby who had a blocked stomach," he recalled. "Twenty-five years later, a man came in with a child who had a hernia. During our talk, he tells me that his mother said I repaired his stomach all those years ago."

Over the past few weeks, Chaney has arrived at his office on South Cleveland Avenue in Hagerstown, just as he has year after year. Framed diplomas still hang from the walls and family photographs line a desk.

But instead of being a doctor, he said, "I'm a staple puller."

Chaney has been removing staples from patients' files and scanning records — putting them on hard drive so they will be available if someone needs them.

When he turns out the lights and closes the door for the last time, no one will be taking his place, he said.

"I couldn't find anyone who would work for what I make," he said. "They're asking for salaries I can't make."

Keeping his patients in mind, though, he has identified five quality breast cancer practices where they could turn for help — one in Winchester, Va., one in Leesburg, Va., two in Frederick, Md., and one in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

He is hopeful that one of the doctors in Frederick will set up a practice in Hagerstown.

Chaney said he and his wife will be staying in the Hagerstown area, where their daughter also lives. They also have a son in California.

"Life goes on," he said. "This morning, I changed the oil in my car. There will be swim practices for the grandchildren. And I like to read. I average two books a week.  It's all the activities of daily living."

Chaney said he's ready to make the adjustment to retirement, but isn't so sure about his wife.

"When people ask her how she feels about my retirement, she usually says 50-50," he joked. "Wives have their own schedules and routines."


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