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Physician ends 61-year practice
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Dr. Philip Sprinkle (Contributed photo)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

When I sat down with Dr. Philip M. Sprinkle recently, I realized that it was the first time I had ever seen him without his head mirror.

Sprinkle recently announced his retirement after 61 years of practicing medicine. A 1953 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Sprinkle has received countless honors as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor, or ENT) and has long been an institution in Martinsville.

“I never wanted to do anything else but be a doctor, from the time I was 6 or 7 years old,” he said. “My father used to talk about what fine men were in medicine. I said, ‘Well, I’d like to be a fine man, so I’ll try it.’”

He chose to become an ear, nose and throat doctor, he said, because there was a shortage of ENTs at the time.

“That was where I could do the most good,” he said.

Although he specializes in otolaryngology, Sprinkle said that when he was coming through medical school, “you had to learn a little bit about everything, even though you didn’t use it every day.”

I can vouch for the fact that Dr. Sprinkle knows a little bit about everything. He was my de facto general practitioner from the time I was a child right up to his retirement.

Like anyone, I don’t relish going to the doctor, but I always enjoyed going to see Dr. Sprinkle. His waiting room at his practice on Hospital Drive featured a map of the world that took up one entire wall, and the other walls were covered with pictures of Sprinkle shaking hands with various dignitaries, including several U.S. presidents.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are pictures of Dr. Sprinkle shaking hands with the Pope or the Dalai Lama floating around somewhere.

When the nurse called me into the examining room, it was never a long wait before Dr. Sprinkle would come in, and no matter what the issue was that had driven me to his office, he would crack a joke or two, and I would immediately feel comfortable.

“You always try to put your patient at ease,” he said.

The average visit to Dr. Sprinkle would take place in two halves. In the first half, he would diagnose my problem, recommend a solution, and either write a prescription or — more likely — give me some free samples. The second half would be spent with the two of us just sitting around talking and telling stories.

And Dr. Sprinkle has stories.

Over the years, I learned about topics as diverse as the history of modern medicine and the rise of the movie theater industry in the 1920s. I also heard a number of great jokes, many of which remain in my regular rotation.

There are so many Dr. Sprinkle stories that it’s hard to pick just one, but there is one that stands out in my mind.

One summer, when I was visiting family in Norfolk, I noticed that it hurt to swallow. If I ate or drank anything, I felt a terrible pain in my throat, and as time went on it got worse and worse.

I went to an urgent care physician in Norfolk — a young fellow — and he told me that I had something called an aphthous ulcer in my throat.

It was the worst he had ever seen, he said. He actually called some med school students into the room to observe it, telling them they “would never see anything like this in a textbook,” which made me feel a bit like the Elephant Man.

All he could do, he said, was give me some antibiotic pills.

One week passed, and then two. The pills did nothing. I was in agony.

I called up Dr. Sprinkle.

When he walked into the examining room, he looked in my mouth through his ever-present head mirror, nodded knowingly, and sat down on his little wheeled stool.

“Ben,” he said, “you’ve got two options. The first option is, I can give you some stronger antibiotics, and this thing will clear up in two or three weeks.”

I groaned. I couldn’t take another two or three weeks of this pain.

“The second option,” he said, “will probably clear up your problem immediately, but it’s going to hurt like hell.”

“Let’s do that one,” I said without hesitation.

Dr. Sprinkle took a long cotton swab and placed a couple of drops of silver nitrate on the end.

Silver nitrate, by the way, both disinfects and cauterizes a wound.

I opened my mouth wide per the doctor’s instructions, and he carefully poked the ulcer with the cotton swab.

I don’t know what kind of sound I made, but I’m sure it was unflattering at best. It felt like someone had fired a .22 rifle into my open mouth.

And then ... relief.

After two weeks of non-stop agony, the pain was gone.

No disrespect to the young urgent care doctor in Norfolk, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t know the silver nitrate trick.

I’ve always considered Dr. Sprinkle a friend as well as a fine doctor. Over the years, we traded movie recommendations and reading suggestions, and he even wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I applied for college.

Several of my friends and family members also are patients of Dr. Sprinkle, and whenever his name would come up, the constant refrain would be, “I just don’t know what I’ll do when Dr. Sprinkle retires.”

I asked Dr. Sprinkle how many of his patients begged him to come back to work when he announced his retirement.

“A modest number,” he said modestly. I suspect the number is quite high.

Enjoy your retirement, Dr. Sprinkle. After 61 years, you’ve earned it.


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