USA Today: Doctor Stuck by His Town After Deadly Tornado

December 27, 2011

By Michelle Healy, USA TODAY

December 22, 2011

When a devastating tornado ripped through the small rural towns of Hackleburg and Phil Campbell in Northwest Alabama in the spring, killing 28 people, community members pulled together and set about rebuilding. One of those at the center of that effort was Keith Morrow, a general family practitioner, and the only physician providing medical care in the two towns.

“We were just stunned,” says Morrow, as he describes picking through the rubble after the April 27 tornado destroyed 75% of Hackleburg (pop. 1,430) and one-third of Phil Campbell (pop. 1,091), including his two medical clinics. “You cry and then laugh … and then ask, ‘What do you do?’”

What he did was lead his 15-person staff to reopen the clinics under pitched tents and immediately begin caring for the community.

For his dedication, Morrow has been named the 2011 Country Doctor of the Year. The award, which honors a primary care physician who exemplifies the spirit of rural practitioners, is given by Staff Care, the largest physician staffing service in the USA, to physicians in communities of 30,000 or less.

“He has been the foundation upon which the community rests,” says Staff Care President Tom Boes.

Morrow could have “relocated to office space in nearby towns, but instead he insisted on remaining in the heart of these communities as he had for the past 25 years,” Keri Moody, director of Medical Staff Services at nearby Russellville Hospital, wrote in an e-mail. Christine Stewart, the hospital’s CEO, nominated Morrow for the award.

Moving would have been hard on patients, he says. “It was not the right thing to do. This is where I belong.”

Morrow, 55, who is married with grown kids and grandkids, grew up on a small family farm in Red Bay, Ala., 25 miles from where he now practices.

Linda Aderholt of Haleyville, Ala., has been a patient for 22 years. “No matter what time you need him, he’s there.”

He started the clinic in Phil Campbell months after finishing at the University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kansas City in 1985. The Hackleburg clinic opened in 1987.

A converted trailer is his current Hackleburg office, but rebuilding will be finished early next year. The rebuilt Phil Campbell clinic already is open.

As a small-town doctor, “you feel a little more responsible” for your patients, Morrow says. “You can’t say, ‘We’re closed, go across the street.’ There’s no urgent care center. The bond between patients and physician is different here.”