On Thanksgiving, Dr. Sammy Sells won’t be on call, at least from the medical community.
Retiring this month, he’s busy right now closing up his office at the Northside Professional building. As a bonus to his retirement, the new owners’ buy out offer was just too good to refuse, he advised.
While his original idea was to sublet his office, the new owners had other designs on the new building, he said. “I couldn’t see after almost 43 years, starting all over again, at a different location.”
Still, by law, medical records have to be kept for 10 years. They will be transferred to another practice within the strictest and confidential way possible, Dr. Sells assures.
Drs. Charles Stimpson and Pamela Denmlow, who have also been in the same building with Dr. Sells, are reportedly moving to another office complex in Shelbyville. Dr. Sells’ medical assistant, Kelly Cochrane, will be moving as well. Despite the vital use of computers in his office these days, there still has to be a paper trail with medical records. Though he doesn’t have to keep older records, they have to go somewhere, he said. They must be in storage and accessible. They have to be kept in a secure location.
“There are just so many things we never envisioned . . . we would have to do,” said Dr. Sells while sitting in his office, which is getting to be quite empty.
With all the red tape involved in keeping a physician’s license, regulations, etc., he just believes it is time to close up shop. In time, he may do some consulting work, he shared.
There are some patients who have been with Dr. Sells for over 40 years. “I’m going to miss them,” he said in his doctorly voice just recently from his office.
He sent a letter to his patients but he also called the long-timers and let them know about his retirement. “We had some who came by who just wanted to tell me how much they appreciated me taking care of them. But also, being their friend too, that long . . . . A lot of them did cry a little bit.”
Being a family physician is a more complicated process these days, Dr. Sammy, now 70ish, admits. As well, he’s had to spend a lot of time away from his family, like a lot of doctors. And if he learned anything from practicing as a family physician during COVID-19, life can be short.
He wants to enjoy some quality family time.
Doctor during COVID
The long-time physician was blessed not to have COVID-19; he took the shots. Actually, he said he’s never been a sick individual. “For one thing, I’m so exposed to so much.”
Still, he added, “The last 40 years of practice, training, whatever, did not prepare me for COVID the last 3 years. We’ve been just trying to learn things, treat it . . . .”
Doctoring and insurance
Medical insurance is a big bone of contingency for this long-time physician. He has experienced over the years how the term, “affordable care,” is a “misnomer.” The high deductibles and out of pocket expenses are troubling to this long-time community physician.
And, it’s near impossible for the average patient to understand healthcare. “Even if somebody explains it to you, they leave out a lot of the health points you need to know. Unfortunately, you find out after the fact.”
And he advises not to get him started on Medicare and what it covers, or really does not cover, for patients. “There are just too many things that should be covered and they’re not.”
In the 1990s, the long-time physician actually pulled out of the Medicare program, specifically when the Reduction Act came into play. Bottom line; he refused to sign documents with clauses that stated if he made a mistake on his billing, he would be fined or subject to jail time of 5 years and fined thousands.
“If the insurance company didn’t make a profit that year on Medicare premiums, then me, as a provider, would be subject to paying back every dime of which I had been paid. Why would I sign that? Why would anybody sign that?”
His own mom was on Medicare. He said her benefits had been cut at that time too. Now, for this family man, that really hit home. “To this day, it’s still cut out.”
Doctors have stopped participating, he knows for sure. And, there are things just not covered with Medicare in 2022—much which he believes should be when it comes to complete patient care.
The sign out front of his office still includes family medicine, but over the years, Dr. Sells has enjoyed working in occupational medicine and with industrial health services. He said he’s proud of what his practice has accomplished in industrial health services, but it certainly kept him busy.
The Northside building history
Having spent his early career here, he’s been in a few local locations. Dr. Sammy has been at the North Side Professional building 28 years. The building was designed and built by Jere Carr in 2004—way before Highway 231 North became a 4-lane.
He sought to purchase the land from an estate whose matriarch lived in Columbia. The family owned the 200 plus home next door to the current professional building and another 170 acres. “Really, I wanted like 4 acres to build the building. So we ended up buying right at 17 acres.”
Just what a doctor needs, more property taxes, he said with a smile.
Then, half the land was in the City and half was in the County. So Dr. Sells had to go before Shelbyville City Council and have it annexed into the City. That happened, right on the 2-lane, hectic road.
Times soon changed.
“It was quite a few years after we built this, that they finally finished 231. We didn’t think they were ever going to finish.”
But as local history now reveals, the state finally finished the highway. Now the traffic is much worse, but he feels his office was in a good location all these years to serve the community.
That was his primary goal.
Do it again?
Dr. Sells grew up here, attending First United Methodist Church and graduating from (Shelbyville) Central High School in 1967. After 55 years, some of his former classmates still go on trips together.
Dr. Sammy, who finished graduate school at the University of Memphis, was in line as curator of the Memphis Zoo. That is the truth, not a joke. “I really considered doing that, then got into medical school.”
He was into the University of Tennessee Medical School upon his first attempt in the late 1970s. He started med school in 1976. He had graduate work at the University of Memphis.
He practiced one year at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, but other than that, his medical experience was with folks right here.
He had worked in the Erlanger Hospital emergency room, putting in for 6 months a shift of 72 hours on and 12 hours off. “You think I could catch up on rest in 12?”
Starting his local work around 1980, Dr. Sells gave up hospital work 20 years ago.
One of the reasons was due to his occupational, he didn’t have time to do much else, along with his practice. He was doing on-site work and was on call at most local industries.
Some of those things might have changed his mind about medicine, had he known then. “Most of those . . . how insurance companies dominated the market.”Over time, state and federal government got involved in medicine.
He could write a book, no doubt, perhaps more than one on the subject.
Since, he’s seen it all. In the past, he was on call to cover everything, in addition to his private practice. “I have seen so much . . . never anticipated seeing so much.”
Who is going to fill his shoes?
The sad news is, Dr. Sells realizes there is a lack of family physicians here in Bedford County. He said reports suggests that many doctors do not want to work on current short-term contracts. Then if mid-level providers are hired locally, for whatever reasons, they eventually move to larger cities to practice.
Great employees, physician life
Beside every good doctor, he said, is a great staff. He said his is no exception.
“If it weren’t for the nurses and office staff, I couldn’t function. We have to learn to manage our time . . . learn priorities too. It’s not easy. Not everybody can manage their time. It’s not just something you learn overnight.”
One of his best office staff folks—the one who allowed him the time for patient care—was wife, Shedra. He owes her a lot and now he hopes they can do some traveling, now.
A lot of his friends and patients, though, know where to find him, he says with a smile. He’s a self-proclaimed fidget, so he will stay active.
While he played golf, as lot of doctors do, he said he’s too impatient. He has been a runner for 45 years. He and Shedra can be seen walking the office parking lot together these days.
Her response to his retirement, “What am I going to do with you?”
His oldest son lives in Tullahoma and has 3 kids. His oldest daughter lives in Tullahoma and is a nurse practitioner; she has a 6-year-old. His youngest daughter is an attorney in healthcare law for Metro-Davidson County.
His daughter’s education and similar life interest comes in handy, he says. Dr. Sammy says in jest that she admits the hardest part of her job is dealing with the, well, cantankerous doctors.
The doc’s last, official day at the office was Nov. 10. This week’s he’s on vacation and without a schedule—except for the one Shedra provides, that is. The doc laughs. But he said now after a life-time of serving the medical community, it is time for his family.
“Shedra said in response, ‘I think you’ve had enough fun.’”
Since the children were grown, Shedra has served as his financial/business manager for the office. She’s done a good job, he recently advised, of keeping up with paying the bills, etc. They’ve been in a non-stop business for Bedford County and the area. He respects the work she’s accomplished.
“If I had to deal with what she’s had to deal with, I wouldn’t have had time to practice medicine. She’s hung in there with me, quite a few years.”