April 16, 2012

Many caregivers have shaped the history of CAMC. It is always special when we are able to reconnect with someone who has had an impact on the hospital that we know today. Dr. James Spencer is an otolaryngologist who came to Charleston more than 60 years ago and practiced in the area for many years.

Spencer came to practice medicine in Charleston in 1948. He graduated from medical school at Wake Forest in three years and completed a residency in Philadelphia. His connection to West Virginia and his subsequent move to Charleston happened in a very interesting way.

“Charleston is my wife’s hometown. When I was in my residency, her father came to Philadelphia to have surgery by my attending physician. That was how I met her and then began the process of establishing in Charleston,” Spencer said.

Spencer obtained privileges to practice at Charleston General Hospital when he came to town. “I was trained in otolaryngology, bronchoesophagology and laryngology. No one was doing all of that work when I got here. Right away, I became very busy, doing general ENT work, doing procedures to remove foreign bodies from the esophagus and lungs, therapy and tonsillectomies. I performed the first laryngectomy at Charleston General, and I believe the first one in the state.”

Spencer brought all of his own equipment when he set up his practice at the hospital. “I was able to establish a bronchoscopic operating room at Charleston General. I had a special cart that had everything ready and sanitized so that I could take it with me,” he said.

A few years after he started practicing here, Spencer was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He was stationed in Japan for almost two years. When he returned, he continued to practice general ENT, doing laryngectomies and treating voice problems and vocal nodules.

He transitioned to Charleston Memorial Hospital and became interested in treating hearing loss. “When I did my residency, hearing aids were just being developed, and I had some experience at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital doing aural rehab,” he said.

Spencer took a course from a physician in Texas and worked to establish a hearing center in Charleston.

“It was a trend for hospitals to have hearing centers, and I thought every hospital with more than 300 beds should have one. I got approval and a room assigned to start one at Memorial Hospital,” he said.

After establishing his own office in downtown Charleston, Spencer began working with children from different clinics and schools, examining their ears. “In some of the clinics where I went, I’d say that 90 percent of them had some kind of ear disease and drainage,” he said.

“I started seeing children in the schools in Wayne County. I traveled there with my instruments and set up in the Wayne County Health Department. They would bring one busload of children in the morning and one in the afternoon. We turned up a lot of cases there,” Spencer said.

In addition, he traveled to Point Pleasant, Marlinton and Boone County, and did most of this work on a volunteer basis.

One of Spencer’s goals during his practice was to become a member of the American Triological Society. “I had to write a thesis and decided to write about cancer of the larynx. The American Cancer Society had just developed the first clinical staging system for cancer, and I was then able to specify the grade of my cases, which had never been done before. The paper was accepted, and I became a member.”

Spencer also received specialized training in otology from Dr. Howard House in Los Angeles. “He was a very well-known and outstanding otologist. I was one of the first people to work with him, and it was his goal to have a fellowship of people who trained with him,” he said.

With his variety of experiences and active practice, Spencer remembers being very busy. “From the first day, I was very busy. I enjoyed medicine because it doesn’t stay the same: it’s advancing all the time,” he said. “I was given a lot of support by the physicians here. My experience with CAMC has been a great experience in all of its stages.”

Many of Spencer’s patients remember him as well. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t run into someone who says that they remember me for taking their tonsils out.”

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