Profession and passion come together at retirement

By Wayne Bryan Published January 19, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Retired family doctor and published author Sam Taggart saw his last patient at his Benton office in December. His next book, about the history of public health in Arkansas, will be released Friday in Little Rock. The Hot Springs resident said he is adjusting to retirement but plans to write another book about disease and medicine in Arkansas over the next four years.

As you might expect from a novelist and playwright, Sam Taggart is a storyteller. A recently retired physician, he has a story that he said explains a retired person’s concept of time.

“Walking down the road, I passed a farmer holding a pig up to an apple tree so the animal could eat the apples growing on the limb,” Taggart began. “I asked him why he didn’t wait until the apples fell to the ground and the pig could eat them by himself. The farmer looked at me and replied, ‘What’s time to a pig?’”

Taggart said being retired has changed his thoughts about time and a lot of other things. From 1977 until December 2013, he practiced medicine at Family Practice Associates in Benton. For the past several years, he spent only three days a week seeing patients. It is the connection with those patients that he said has surprised him the most.

“I am in that interesting phase of retirement when you rearrange your life,” Taggart said. “I never realized how much time I spent thinking of my patients, but within a few weeks, all those thoughts disappeared, and it seemed odd not to be thinking about one person or another.”

While he is making those changes, Taggart said, he is also a creature of habit.

“I have for years gotten up at 5 a.m. and gotten things done,” he said. “Even now, it’s a habit to have lunch with my friends, so I still go to Benton three days a week.”

Taggart said being a doctor was more than a profession; it was part of who he was. Yet, he said, it was not a career he had ever thought about until he was an adult.

“I would tell people I wanted to be a marine biologist. I lived on a rice farm, and I was interested in what lived in the water. I liked science, and my friends in FFA talked about hydroponic gardening and things like that, but I don’t think I was serious about it.”

It took a long war and some fear to move the young Taggart to a new career.

“I left home at 19 because my sister was going to college, and I knew my folks could not pay for mine,” he said. “But I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I was at Arkansas State University, focused on staying in school, and I realized I love learning.”

Already interested in science, his classes led him to think about medicine.

“In high school it would not have been realistic for me to even dream of going to medical school,” Taggart said. “By the time I was in the later years of college, I said, ‘I can do that,’ and so I did go on to become a doctor.”

Having been on an ROTC scholarship in college, after medical school, he spent a couple of years in the Army. He returned to Arkansas in 1976 and began to practice medicine in Smackover.

“I decided I didn’t want to spend my career there, and I moved to Benton in 1977,” Taggart said.

Over the years, he became a patient listener as a doctor, Taggart said, and he used those same skills as a close observer of life, combining information and imagination, as a writer.

“One of my books was based on a rumor around Saline County,” Taggart said. “I meet regularly with a group of friends in Benton, and we were talking about Bauxite and the mines and all that went on during World War II. Someone said they had heard a rumor that there had been a German spy at the plant.”

In 2009, Taggart published With a Heavy Heart: Confessions of an Unwilling Spy. Taggart used real places, events and even a real person in his fiction story. The hero of the book is the spy who is forced to help the Nazis because they were holding his mother in a concentration camp.

His earlier book, We All Hear Voices, sold several thousand copies and won the author a national award from the Independent Book Publishers Association in 2010. The novel, set in Gum Ridge, Ark., is based on Taggart’s hometown of Augusta in the Arkansas Delta.

Someday, Taggart said, he wants to publish a prequel to Voices. Those earlier stories have been turned into a play, Nobody’s Business, written by Taggart, and it was first produced at the Royal Theatre in Benton in August 2012.

“I am still working on the novel based on the play,” he said. “I will be going back to the story, but I am not sure I will keep the name.”

Taggart’s latest book, Public Health: Evolution of Health and Disease in Arkansas, will be released later this week. The book is very different from his other books, he said.

“I was asked a year ago to write a book about public health in Arkansas to honor the 100th anniversary of the Arkansas Board of Public Health, now called the Arkansas Department of Public Health,” he said. “I worked on it for about 70 hours a week from February until July, and then came the editing process.”

The book is not about the Health Department, Taggart said, but is about diseases that had an impact on people’s lives in Arkansas and the tools used to fight those ailments.

“I looked at the problems and the tools used to deal with them,” he said. “We talked about yellow fever, polio and how they impacted the population. There was the Spanish flu that killed 7,000 people in Arkansas, three times the number of Arkansans killed by battles during World War I.”

The book covers the years of the Great Depression and how droughts, floods and poverty affected the public health in the state and how doctors, the Arkansas Legislature and society made things better or worse.

Taggart said the real heroes of the book are women.

“First and foremost are the public-health nurses,” he said, “those ladies in blue who came to the school and tested our hearing and gave out the polio vaccine or gave us shots against other diseases.”

The author said he also points out the contributions of various women’s organizations in Arkansas.

“[The organizations] first asked for public-health nurses, opened hospitals and kept schools open and started libraries,” Taggart said. “There were individual women who took a stand and changed the way the state fought disease.”

While the new book is more than 58,000 words, he said it is only an outline for the larger work he wants to do over the next four years.

My son and I want to go back to 11,000 B.C.E. in the book and see the how the people who lived in Arkansas then modified their diets and what happened when DeSoto and other European explorers came here, bringing their diseases,” Taggart said. “We want to follow the waves of diseases from Africa and Europe as they spread through the people over time.”

It is a big task, but then Taggart believes he now has the time.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be contacted at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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