Country doc, 89, will fix what ails you, $15 at a time

Country doc, 89, will fix what ails you, $15 at a time

June 23rd, 2013 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Dr. Byron Harbolt talks about his medical practice Thursday in his Beersheba Springs exam room.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

For 53 years, Grundy County folks looking for healing have turned off Highway 56 in Altamont, Tenn., and headed up a winding road in the woods.

They've parked in front of a small, cinderblock office, with a simple black sign hanging above the door: "Dr. Byron Harbolt."

And inside, they have always been able to have bones set, cuts stitched, babies delivered, fevers relieved -- for next to nothing.

Not much has changed inside the Cathedral Canyon Clinic since Harbolt founded it in 1960.

The shelves are stuffed with hundreds of old patient files. The tiny office's tile floor, lamps, scales and eye charts look like they could be from the Kennedy era. Computers are absent.

Harbolt's philosophies haven't changed much over the years, either. He has always treated patients without insurance. And in an era in which hospitals, insurance companies and doctors clamor about skyrocketing medical costs, he still manages to keep his prices to a bare minimum.

Often, patients will leave paying just $15 for an office call, medications and maybe some injections.

"I've always been that way," said Harbolt, 89. "I put a little extra energy into doing something for the patients rather than seeing how much money I can get out of 'em."

Everyone on the mountain knows who Dr. Harbolt is. He can't go into a Walmart in Manchester -- or in McMinnville or Jasper -- without someone thanking him for treating them.

Many times they'll say they were born out there at his clinic.

In an old ledger, he's kept track of every baby he's delivered -- usually with the help of his wife, a nurse who counted every finger and toe as soon as a baby was born. The ledger holds more than 1,500 births, but he estimates he delivered about 1,000 more before he started keeping track.

He's had people drive from as far as the Atlanta area to have their babies there or to be treated by their trusted doctor.

Harbolt hasn't delivered a baby in more than a decade, but still sees about a dozen patients a day.

In many ways, he said, the sicknesses he's seen recently are the same ones he's seen in every decade. Plenty of high blood pressure and hypertension. He's seen an increase in Type 2 diabetes.

Harbolt has never struggled with any of these typical maladies. He has never tasted meat. He shuns dairy. He has urged patient after patient to go and do likewise -- though he knows it's a tough sell. People like their meat too much.

"People say 'You don't know what you're missing' Frankly, I do -- I'm missing cancer and heart disease and diabetes."

The walls in Harbolt's examination room are covered with awards and plaques thanking him for his long service to the region. There has been more substantive gratitude, too: When his car was stolen and destroyed several years ago, it took just 12 days for residents to raise enough money to buy him a new Chevrolet -- the car he still drives.

But Harbolt never took on the practice for the accolades, he says. He just wanted to help people who needed it.

"I believe we're accountable to God for our actions," he explained simply.

He admires President Barack Obama for instituting health reform. The whole industry is out of hand, Harbolt says. But he doesn't think the law will solve the problem at the root of all the dysfunction: Greed.

For now, he plans to continue his six-day work weeks and try to heal whatever patients drive up the winding road seeking help. He knows he'll need to retire at some point, but he doesn't feel his work is done yet.

"I've always said one of the hardest things to do would be to retire," he said. "I would still hate to wake up in the morning and not have anything to do."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.