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Kornegays provide medical care to rural eastern North Carolina

By Kathryn Kennedy

Somewhere in eastern North Carolina, there’s a Kornegay on call.

It started with Hervy Kornegay Sr., a Duplin County native who finished medical school at Wake Forest University in 1957, returned to his hometown and opened the Mount Olive Family Medicine Center. Though never officially a Pirate, he now boasts an honorary degree and owns as much purple and gold as black and gold.

There’s a good reason. He raised up his own Pirate Nation.

Five of Kornegay’s seven children are ECU graduates, with four sons following their undergraduate tenure with a degree from the Brody School of Medicine.

First there was Hervy Kornegay Jr. ’90 ’94, who works today as an emergency doctor at Wayne County Memorial. Ten years later, Chad Kornegay ’01 ’05 followed his older brother to ECU and then Brody. Chad is a hospitalist at Vidant Duplin in Kenansville.

Just one year behind in school, Todd Kornegay ’02, ’06 is practicing in Wilmington. It’s a more urban environment than where his brothers work, but his work in primary care as part of the New Hanover Medical Group is rich with the values of rural family medicine.

The Kornegay family includes, front row left to right, Chad Kornegay '01 '05,  Deborah Price Kornegay '71 '76 '81, and Hervy Kornegay Sr.; and in the back row left to right, Hervy Kornegay Jr. '90 '94, Todd Kornegay '02 '06 and Jon Kornegay '04 '08.

Jon Kornegay, ’04 ’08 is generally considered most competitive of the brothers. Can you blame him? He had Chad and Todd bossing him around as his chief residents during medical school at Brody and now technically works for—though mostly with—Chad at Vidant Duplin.

They’re a big, close family. And as you might expect, talk at Kornegay family gatherings often turns to medicine.

“We probably talk about medicine much more than we should,” Hervy Jr. admits. “My dad will call sometimes and ask for a consult, which is quite comical because he usually knows the answer. I think he’s testing us.”

But each also say there was no grand plan for the family to follow in dad’s footsteps.

“There was no pressure (to go into medicine),” Hervy Sr. insists. “It was each their own choice.”

After all, youngest son Paul Kornegay ’06 ’08 liked East Carolina so much he decided to stay on as an instructor in the Department of Mathematics.

However, the Kornegay doctors were certainly shaped by the same influences: early exposure to family medicine in a rural area and the mission of ECU’s Brody School of Medicine.

After the N.C. Legislature appropriated the funds to get an ECU medical school up and running 40 years ago, its members set forth a three-fold mission. Brody was to increase the supply of primary care physicians to serve the state, to improve the health status of citizens in eastern North Carolina and to enhance the access of minority and disadvantaged students to a medical education.

That second mandate is paramount to the four young doctors practicing varied versions of primary care in the region that raised them. Primary care is the umbrella term for those practicing family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology.

“I don’t know anyone else who has four (children who are Brody graduates),” Hervy Sr. says, smiling. “It’s quite a story, if I say so myself.”

Todd Kornegay visits with a patient.


Poster boys for rural medicine

On the sideline of a practice field at North Duplin High School, Jon Kornegay is eyeing and questioning a young football player. Taylen Lewis, a senior defensive tackle, wears number 58 for the Rebels. He’s got a big game coming up Friday night and has been experiencing back pain.

After a brief examination, Jon pulls out his cell phone and punches in a number.

“What’s your mama’s name?” he asks Taylen. When he gets the woman on the phone, he delivers the diagnosis.

“It’s going to be a game-time decision and we’ll see how he does,” Jon tells her. “But if I’m not there and it starts hurting, he’s gotta come out.”

This isn’t Jon’s day job, but it’s one of the reasons he loves practicing medicine in a rural area—the bonds you build with patients and the community. Jon attended North Duplin himself, playing basketball and baseball as a teen. He’s happy to give back by acting as the school’s team doctor.

“It’s easy for a lot of people to leave and never come back,” Jon explains. “But for us, the experiences I had here in the community and at this high school…helped lead to the successes I was able to have in life.”

“If you really want to get involved and get to know people in the community,” he adds, “I think doing primary care in a rural setting is the place to go.”

All the Kornegays believe in giving back with time and talent, which reflects the university’s motto, Servire, but also something they say is present at Brody.

“Service was emphasized a lot at Brody,” Jon says. “I was helping out here at North Duplin.…A lot of (my peers) were heading up clinics even as first or second years.”

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Video by Cliff Hollis and Jay Clark

Jon and his brother Chad—hospitalists at Vidant Duplin—also volunteer regularly by speaking to medical students at Brody. Jon says they do their best to educate students on the differences between practicing in a large hospital versus their 101-bed unit with fewer resources.

“A lot of times I’ll present cases I’ve had at Duplin and ask, ‘What would you do?’” Jon says. “(The med students) say, ‘I’ll order a hematology consult.’ Well, we don’t have a hematologist. We don’t have a cardiologist there but two days a week right now.

“We don’t do catheterizations at Duplin; we don’t do dialysis at Duplin. The big thing for us is diagnosing those patients and making sure we’re getting them out when we need to. It’s important to know what you know, but it’s more important to know what you don’t know.”

At least he has his brother to lean on. A portrait of the pair smiles down on Duplin County from a billboard standing between Beulaville and Kenansville. They are the only two doctors serving as hospitalists at Vidant Duplin, meaning they work full time at that facility rather than in clinics.

“When you’re in the hospital you take care of patients who are much sicker,” Chad explains. “It’s more stressful, but it’s more rewarding.”

The quietest of the group, Chad was inspired by the way his father practiced medicine, but also by the challenge of the field.

“Medicine is always changing, so it’s never the same thing,” Chad says. “Things get updated, things get outdated. You get to make a connection with people and their families in times when they’re sick. And most of the time you get to make people better, which is nice.

“When I went to med school, I wanted to practice in eastern North Carolina. And I felt the place that would prepare me best for that was Brody. It was a great experience. They select really excellent people to get in med school, and so you really get through it as a group.”

The sense of community he experienced at Brody has replicated itself at Duplin, where a small staff must work closely to provide the best care for patients.

“I know all the names of the nurses I work with. The doctors I work with, I have their cell phone numbers. You form those kind of relationships.”

“You can have a lot more influence at the smaller hospitals,” Chad continues. “So when I come to work, I feel like I’m making a difference. I’m not just running an assembly line of patients in and patients out.”

Hervy Kornegay Jr. and daughter Brittney
City practice, small town values

Wilmington is only 60 miles outside Duplin County, but in terms of medical access, the urban area is worlds away.

New Hanover County has more than 23 physicians per 10,000 people, according to 2011 data from ECU’s Center for Health Systems Research and Development. Compare that to 5.5 per 10,000 in Duplin or 3.9 per 10,000 in Pender County, just north of New Hanover.

Nonetheless, Todd Kornegay says he’s meeting a specific need in health care.

“Most counties in North Carolina are underserved counties…when you look at primary care. There’s still a great shortage of primary care doctors…in the country.”

Data presented to the UNC Board of Governors last year confirms that assertion. Interest in practicing primary care has declined among North Carolina medical school graduates, which parallels a national trend. ECU graduates are the exception.

“I wanted to do something where I could be a jack of all trades,” Todd explains of his decision to specialize in internal medicine. “I do a little bit of dermatology, a little bit of cardiology, treat a lot of hypertension and diabetes. But we see orthopedics, too.

“I see adolescents and adults, 15 and up, pretty much all the way through (life). Most of what I do is disease management, preventative care-type stuff. But we have people come in with heart attacks, big lacerations on their face or broken arms. What I do encompasses a lot. I’m the first place people go with most of their problems.”

Todd followed Chad to Brody because he wanted to stay in the East, and he also wanted a medical education focused on that brand of medicine.

Chad Kornegay

“Nobody (at Brody) ever says, ‘You must go into primary care.’ But the mission is communicated to the students in a very subtle way and I think that’s why they’re so effective at putting graduates into primary care.”

Todd says it’s his responsibility to represent Pirate Nation in the New Hanover Medical Group—a practice full of Tar Heels, he laments. ECU paraphernalia covers Todd’s office: a baseball cap, a panoramic photo of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and his framed degrees, of course.

“We’re hardcore ECU,” Todd says of himself and his brothers. “If anybody bleeds purple, we bleed purple.”

He also describes the need to prove the rigor of their education to people from other North Carolina universities.

“Medical school was a whirl. The first couple of months were the worst because you didn’t know where you stack up against the rest of the class. Everybody looked smart and sounded smart and I don’t always sound so smart. We got our first set of exams back…and I realized that I stacked up just fine against those other students and my undergraduate training had been worthwhile.”

Hervy Jr., Todd and Jon all majored in biology as undergraduates. Chad earned degrees in biochemistry and math.

“We feel like our (undergraduate) training is as good as training we could have gotten anywhere,” Todd says. “We’re proud of ECU.”

Todd practices like he’s in a small town, where you’re bound to run into patients in church or at the grocery store—wherever your day takes you.

“I wanted to build long-term relationships with some of my patients. Seeing my dad as an example, some patients he’s seen for 50 or 60 years and some families for four generations. That was what made it more worthwhile than just an eight to five sort of job.”

In Wilmington, Todd frequents the establish­ments owned by his patients, including Bon Appetit restaurant on Carolina Beach Highway.
“This guy’s my squeeze,” owner Eugene Costa declares proudly when Todd arrives for lunch. “My whole family’s squeeze. I’ve got his number in my phone.”

When the second of Todd’s two children was born in 2013, Todd says Costa backed up his catering truck to the hospital and brought in box after box full of food.

As Todd talks, a woman in fatigues comes in to pick up a takeout order. “He’s my doctor, too,” she tells Costa. Todd waves.
Jon Kornegay examines a patient.

“I’ve got it made,” he says, grinning.

A lifelong calling

The young Hervy Kornegay Jr. had no doubts. He was going to be a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to go into medicine when I was in the second grade,” Hervy Jr. recalls. “I used to carry a first aid kit to school.

“(Medicine) is all that I grew up with. I went to the office with my dad, made house calls with my dad. I started going on EMS calls when I was 13 or 14. There’s a photo of me helping him bandage a leg. That’s the first time I remember working with a patient.”

As the first Kornegay son to choose East Carolina, he saw ECU as the best fit for his life goals. After four years in Greenville, he applied for early acceptance to Brody—something his brothers would also do in the years to come.

“I always planned to come back home,” Hervy Jr. says. “My brothers and I are all proud that we’re able to fulfill the mission of the school, and that’s to help people in eastern North Carolina. My dad came back home, I came back home and all my brothers are practicing in eastern North Carolina.”

He agrees with Todd that the ideals of service to underserved areas and the importance of primary care were instilled throughout the Brody curriculum.

“As a medical student, they put us in clinics and hospitals in eastern North Carolina,” Hervy Jr. recalls. “Sometimes they weren’t the nicest or fanciest clinics, but you felt like you were taking care of people the way they deserved to be taken care of.

“I think East Carolina University in general has been here for eastern North Carolina. As you go to school there, you embrace that.”

Hervy considered following his father into family practice but felt a greater pull from emergency medicine. “He ruined me early on taking me on all those EMS calls,” Hervy says of his father.

However, his job at the hospital is not too far removed, at times, from primary care.

“Unfortunately, we have a large population without primary care physicians so we do a lot of primary care in the emergency department. We take care of everything from colds and congestion to what people more (often) think about when they think about the emergency department—people in wrecks and with heart attacks and strokes. It can run the whole gamut in one shift.”

Hervy Jr. says there is greater access to primary care in Wayne County than counties farther east—it had 15 physicians per 10,000 people according to the 2011 data — but there exists “a large uninsured population that does not have primary care.”

“We see complications from their untreated high blood pressure and diabetes, and we deal with it,” he says.

Hervy Jr.’s oldest daughter, Brittney Kornegay, is a freshman at ECU. And though she’s also studying biology, she has her eye on a different area of the Health Sciences Campus—the newly founded School of Dental Medicine.

“I think you have to like your job,” Hervy Jr. says. “I think you have to like where you live. We think people in eastern North Carolina are good people and are nice and they’re very appreciative. At the end of the day, you have to feel good about what you’ve done. And I think (practicing medicine) gives you that opportunity.”

first year medical cla_opt
First-year medical students at East Carolina University in a classroom with Chancellor Leo W. Jenkins and Dr. Wallace R. Wooles.
Inaugural class of medical school honored

In 1972, when he and his classmates made up the first group of East Carolina University medical students, Dr. Douglas Privette said they knew they had to excel. “We worked very hard,” he said.

“We worked very hard,” he said. “We basically studied just about continuously, except maybe Friday and Saturday night. We had regular tests. You were forced to keep up."
Privette was one of 20 in the program, after which students transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill. It was the first step toward ECU having its own medical school.

“We knew we were sort of under a microscope, under the gun to make sure we weren’t behind when we got to UNC,” he said.

The program helped fulfill the vision of Dr. Leo Jenkins, chancellor of the newly named East Carolina University, to build a medical school in Greenville. The first class was honored in November by the ECU Medical & Health Sciences Foundation.

In 1965, a year after Jenkins began his campaign for a medical school, the N.C. General Assembly authorized East Carolina to establish a school and provided planning funds for its development.

The first ECU medical faculty members started work in 1970, under the leadership of Dr. Wallace Wooles, a pharmacologist and the first dean. The following year, the General Assembly appropriated operating funds to allow enrollment in the one-year program.

In 1972, those first 20 students arrived, followed by two more classes of 20 each, all North Carolinians, in 1973 and 1974.
med school groundbreak_opt
Groundbreaking ceremony of the Medical Sciences Building of the East Carolina University School of Medicine. Left to right: Dr. William Laupus, Gov. Jim Hunt, Dr. Leo Jenkins and Chancellor Thomas Brewer.

Oh, what an exciting time to be starting a medical school,” said Dr. Lynis Dohm, a physiologist and one of the original ECU medical faculty members who still works as a diabetes researcher at the school. “The first-year class was just excited to be here. They were all good students and worked hard."

Dr. Hubert Burden, a professor of anatomy and another original faculty member, described the one-year program as a compromise, a chance for ECU to show it could operate a successful medical school

“Considering the politics of those days, I think it was important for our people to go to Chapel Hill and show they were just as good as any recruited at Chapel Hill and better in many cases,” said Burden, who still teaches part-time. “Everybody was under the microscope, and I think everyone passed the test.”

Classes were held on Main Campus in what is now the Howell Science Complex, a room specially refurbished for the medical students. Burden taught anatomy in a double-wide trailer near Christenbury Gym.

Originally, university and state leaders intended that ECU would grow to a two-year program, with expansion to a full four-year program later.

But in late 1974, plans changed. The next year, upon recommendation of the UNC Board of Governors, the General Assembly appropriated $43 million for construction of facilities and implementation of a four-year medical school at ECU. The charter class of 28 students enrolled in 1977. The school received full accreditation in February 1981, and the first class graduated that spring.

Today, the Brody School of Medicine at ECU enrolls 80 students with each class.

Privette (left) retired from patient care in 2008 and now works as an administrator with the East Carolina Heart Institute at Vidant Medical Center. He’s also a board member of the ECU medical foundation.

The son of a Baptist minister from Havelock with a biology degree from ECU, Privette fit the demographic East Carolina was aiming for: North Carolinians who wanted to stay in the state, preferably in the region, to practice. He and his classmates knew they had to do their best to make the school successful.

Once in Chapel Hill, however, they experienced a different, learn-at-your-own-pace environment.

All of a sudden, we didn’t have weekly exams,” he said. Instead, students were given self-instruction packets to study on their own if they preferred. “It was so much more relaxing."

After completing medical school and a residency at N.C. Memorial Hospital, Privette completed a fellowship in cardiology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, then returned to Greenville to open his practice.

For the first few years, he also served as an ECU clinical assistant professor, with students rotating through his practice for a month at a time.

Privette said he, probably like most graduates of UNC, is proud of his medical alma mater. But ECU holds a special place, too. (His daughter and son-in-law have medical degrees from ECU.)

We are lucky we got into medical school,” he said. “We were lucky ECU was starting its medical school the year we were starting. If ECU had not had its medical school, it’s conceivable I would not be a physician now. All 20 members of the class feel the same way. We were at the right place at the right time.”

Today, the class members have spread north to Ohio, south to Florida and west to the Rocky Mountains and have impressive accomplishments. For example, Dr. Sheldon Michael Retchin is a national expert in health policy and health care delivery. He is senior vice president for health sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System and chief executive of the VCU Health System.

It is just fascinating to be here at a time when the school has clearly come into its own, and the earliest graduates are displaying all of the high qualities of the profession, in leadership and service, that were imagined so many years ago,” said Dr. Paul Cunningham, dean of the medical school.

- Doug Boyd

Members of the first
one-year medical class

Marjorie Barnwell Carr

Paul Douglas Barry

John Jacob Brantley II

Leon Douglas Davis

James Williams DeTorre

Ronald William Gerbe

George Daniel Jacobs

David Malcolm Larsen

Kenneth David Lempert

David Blair Neeland

James Sheridan Parsons

Douglas Craig Privette

Sheldon Michael Retchin

Robert Scott Shapiro

Thomas Lee Speros

Fronis Ray Thigpen

John William Uribe

George Waterhouse

Ray Allen Wertheim

Richard Lee Wing