Longtime city pediatrician retires
BY CATHY DYSON
Darrell Burrell so wanted to thank Dr. Michael Childress for the care he’d given his children that the professor took the day off to attend the doctor’s reception.
Burrell recalled when his son, Bryce, 13, got pneumonia before his first birthday. He and his wife were new parents and sick with worry. Things got worse when the baby had to be hospitalized.
Childress faithfully visited Bryce daily, after long days at his practice in the Medical Center, off Princess Anne Street.
“That’s not what you’d expect,” Burrell said. “You’d think he would just let the hospital doctor do it.”
The Burrells lived in Fredericksburg at the time and later moved to Warrenton. They never considered picking a pediatrician closer to home, not when they recalled how Childress had been by their child’s side.
“That’s why we stuck with him,” Burrell said.
‘WHAT CHILDREN DO’
Childress closed his office on Friday Aug. 24 after 32 years of practice. “I guess he’s the last of the last,” said his office manager Terry Cooper, who believes he was the last pediatrician in the Fredericksburg area who practiced alone instead of as part of a group.
Childress, who just turned 66, is tall and thin, a soft-spoken runner who smiles easily and doesn’t notice the perpetual noise around him, not even bawling babies.
“That’s just what children do,” he said simply.
The Richmond native hadn’t planned to spend decades looking into little ears or examining rashes on little rears.
But when Childress was working on his doctorate in engineering at the University of California, he decided he no longer wanted to design parts for war machines.
He and his wife, Joyce, came back to Virginia and rented a home in Aylett, near Tappahannock, where they sold antiques. They were a 20-something couple surrounded by empty-nest parents in their 60s, and the Childresses were touched by the hospitality afforded them.
They saw how much the community missed its family doctor, who had died a few years earlier. Childress decided to go to medical school. He was 28 when he started classes at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.
After graduation, an associate put in a good word for him with Dr. John Painter, a well-known pediatrician who had taken care of children in Fredericksburg for almost 40 years.
Childress started with Painter in 1980 and began his own practice a few years later. Nurse Sonya Brooks joined him, and the two have worked side by side since.
“I’ve spent more time with her and Terry over the years than with my wife,” Childress said about his nurse and office manager. “They’ve been wonderful.”
‘IT’S LIKE FAMILY’
The staff arranged a reception for the doctor on Aug. 16 and invited patients to say goodbye and pick up their charts. Childress and his crew also helped patients find new pediatricians.
The atmosphere was more like that in a church foyer or community center than a doctor’s waiting room. People gave Childress cards and balloons, flowers and gift bags and lingered long after they’d had cake and punch.
Caleb Palmertree, 6, grinned as he handed the doctor a fruit arrangement with melons in the shape of flowers. His mother, Melissa, tried to hold back tears as she wondered who’d care for Caleb and his two younger siblings.
“I don’t know how I’m ever going to ” she said, stopping in mid-sentence. “I am so emotional.”
Three sisters with long black hair cuddled against Brooks, who wrapped all of them in a hug while their mother took pictures.
“The amazing thing is, they all love her, even though she’s the one who gives them their shots,” Childress said.
Evelyn Ford of Stafford, whose preteen daughters have seen Childress “since Day One,” was one of many who used the same word to describe the office.
“It’s like family when we come here,” she said. “My girls have never seen another doctor in their lives.”
Even 16-year-old John Pins of Spotsylvania County admitted he liked visiting the doctor, although it sometimes made him feel childish to sit alongside toddlers.
“When it comes right down to it, I don’t mind coming here,” he said. “I’m kinda sad to see him go. I don’t know if I can find somebody better than him.”
The reception was supposed to be about Childress, but he regularly turned the attention to those around him.
As he introduced his wife, he recounted details of his patients’ lives to her: who had traveled overseas or been to soccer camp, how this one’s grandfather was doing or where that one’s brother or sister had gone to school. Later, he humbly admitted that he and his staff pride themselves on being good listeners.
Nurse Brooks, especially, developed a knack for detecting, over the phone, whether symptoms were caused by colds or more serious problems. If a baby was fine during the day, but cried when put to bed at night, Brooks said it probably was an earache and suggested an appointment. But if the ailment sounded like a garden-variety cold, she passed along Childress’ advice, telling callers to let it run its course.
The doctor’s office has had a Spanish-speaking employee for 10 years, and Childress said he tried to give immigrants the same welcome that a community in France extended to his daughter, Marianna, who lives there with her family.
“You see the diversity of patients,” he said, looking around the waiting room.
‘IT’S JUST THE RIGHT TIME’
Childress has lost friends his age and seen others get some pretty bad diagnoses.
“It’s just the right time,” he said. “I’d like to have a few good years while I’m in good health.”
His daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren plan an extended visit, then he and his wife will gear up for the next family event: the wedding of their middle child, Florence, in November. The Childresses also have a son, Connor.
The doctor plans to do some woodworking and catch up on chores and the never-ending supply of fallen trees on the 10 acres he and his wife own in Stafford.
Childress won’t miss the paperwork involved with a practice or the ever-changing regulations and insurance demands.
But he’ll definitely miss the younger set.
“That’s going to be hard,” he said. “I’ve dealt with young people every day of my life.”
He and his wife, who have been married for 43 years, are now the same age as the couples who tapped into their youthfulness when they lived in Aylett.
“I haven’t found that young couple to adopt yet,” he said, smiling.
SIDEBAR: MORE ABOUT DR. CHILDRESS
Dr. Michael Childress doesn’t like to take medicine or prescribe it unnecessarily. That’s why he and his staff often suggested parents let bugs and common colds run their course. Often, symptoms would get better, worse or stay the same in a day or so, and “two out of three of those aren’t so bad,” he said.
Here are some other habits he formed over the years.
LONG DAYS: In the early years, Childress worked regular shifts at Mary Washington Hospital in addition to his practice. He tended to all the emergencies with children and attended births so he could give newborns their first checkups. He and his staff easily worked more than 80 hours a week, he said. He didn’t like the long hours, but did enjoy the camaraderie of being with other medical people. There were seven pediatricians in Fredericksburg then, and they all knew one another and most hospital employees.
NIGHT DUTY: In the late 1980s, as urgent care centers formed, Childress and other pediatricians worked together to open the Pediatric Evening Center. The doctors offered services from 6 to 8:30 p.m. every night of the year. Childress said they were already taking calls during those hours anyway, they might as well schedule appointments.
PET PEEVES: cellphones and dirt bikes. He doesn’t like the way phones have rung in a new era of rudeness and had signs in his office, asking people to turn them off. And dirt bikes and four-wheelers? They’re not toys, they’re powerful machines.
THE TALK: Childress tried to spend as much time as possible with teenagers, asking them about more than how they felt and what they ate. He was known for the “the talk” he gave about sex, drugs and peer pressure.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425