After 35 Years of Practicing Pediatrics in Falls Church, Dr. Carl Salsbury Hung Up His Stethoscope at the End of Last Year
Wear a helmet when riding a bike, exercise and eat your vegetables. The years gone by may be many, but Dr. Carl Salsbury, the beloved local pediatrician and community activist, has the same advice to the children he "treats now" as he had when he began his career in Falls Church 35 years ago.
Dr. Salsbury officially celebrated his retirement on December 31st of last year at a party in his honor, attended by the many friends and admiring co-workers that he has encountered during his many years practicing pediatrics in Falls Church and the surrounding areas. And while the doctor may be leaving full-time medical practice, he will have left behind a profound legacy that includes teaching some of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s first sexual education classes in the 1980’s, founding one of the nation’s largest groups of pediatric doctors, Capitol Area Pediatrics, as well as the thanks and admiration of thousands of area parents and children who have been helped by his dedication and commitment to their health and well being.
Dr. Salsbury and his wife, Ellen, came to the area in 1970 when he opened his first local practice, and began living in Falls Church city in 1975. They have been here ever since.
“We immediately fell in love with the area and the people,” says Ellen.
He opened his practice at 313 Park Avenue, where it stayed until 2005 when it was relocated to a larger location at 407 N. Washington Street. The move was a welcome change, but also bittersweet; the office had been a second home to many who worked there over the years.
Surprisingly, Dr. Salsbury’s satisfying and lengthy career sprung from one choice as an undergraduate at Duke University.
“At first, I planned on going into dentistry,” says Dr. Salsbury. “The money was good, and there were no night hours.” After some scrutiny however, he discovered that dentistry required that one be deft with one’s hands — not one of his strongest abilities.
“My handwriting can attest to that,” he quips.
After deciding that dentistry may be a misstep, he declared his pre-med intentions and, after graduating Duke, entered the medical profession in earnest at the Medical College of Virginia. There he took up an interest in pediatrics.
“I quickly realized that pediatric practice was more enjoyable than looking at x-ray films all day or working on patients who are sedated,” he says.
His next move would be to Atlanta, Ga., where he would begin his residency at Grady Hospital in the inner city. It would also where he would meet his wife Ellen, a student and southern belle at the University of Georgia. She has been at his side ever since, supporting him not only in the role of doctor, but also in his community activism, and as a mother to their two sons, Robert and Daniel.
She followed him everywhere he went, including Wichita Falls, Texas during the Vietnam War, where he worked at a rural pediatric practice on a military base.
“I cried for months,” she says of the time spent in the tiny town near Lubbock. “It wasn’t what I was used to.”
But eventually, the couple found their way back to Virginia, where they have built a lasting legacy in the community through participation in local government, outreach programs, and of course, treating what the doctor estimates to be tens of thousands of patients.
Countless citizens have also been grateful for the time Dr. Salsbury has spent outside the walls of his office. The doctor and his wife have not shied away from the public eye in any way, active not only in local politics, but also in community arts and the effort to revive the Falls Church downtown area. He also makes a point to fundraise for and donate to “Mothers of Asthmatics,” his charity of choice.
Dr. Salsbury has served many roles, including band booster club president while his sons were in high school, and volunteering to manage concession stands at football and basketball games, even after working full days at his practice.
While the days at his practice were sometimes long and the patients many, they were also filled with a humor that only children can provide.
The memory of a particularly spunky four year old still brings laughter to the doctor after many years. It is not uncommon for children, especially the youngest, to come into the doctor screaming and crying, but this young girl just would not let up. So much so that Dr. Salsbury could not properly hear what her ailment was from her mother.
“Finally, her mother just looked at her and said ‘What are you screaming about anyway?’ The little girl just yelled out ‘Dr. Salsbury’s chair is on my foot!’ I looked down and sure enough … ” he recalls.
The doctor’s career was full of these moments. He said in his retirement address, “Each week another humorous incident has occurred, and each day I have seen children and parents that I have loved.”
Often these moments occurred during the most sober of times–while making serious diagnoses or in the middle of politically charged health clashes, such as the early development stages of public school sex education in the mid-80’s. Falls Church was one of the first areas in the nation to begin such a program, and Dr. Salsbury felt privileged to be the physician chosen to explain the controversial subject to area fifth-graders, despite the impassioned debate between the medical community and parents and church groups.
He has kept stacks of these letters from students thanking him for his classroom visits. They are reminders of the beginning of a new era in education that is still debated today. But Dr. Salsbury is just as sure now as he was then that he made the right decision to teach the classes and he stands by his choice — as he stands by most all of his contentious positions, whether they have been medical or political.
With the wellbeing of the children he cared for in mind, Dr. Salsbury has been willing to offer sometimes unpopular advice. He recollects an instance in the mid-1980’s that caused him to commence a one-man mission to end the playing of contact football at area high schools. In 1986, a player from Stonewall Jackson High School died after sustaining a hit that ruptured his spleen.
“Ellen told me, ‘If you feel that strongly, you should make a presentation,’” Dr. Salsbury says. “The American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends against the sport.”
He brought his concerns to a city council meeting. He was not welcomed with open arms.
“The word got around that I was going. When I went to the council chambers, one side was absolutely full … the other side was absolutely empty. And they said, ‘Dr. Salsbury, that’s your side.’”
Needless to say, football is still being played in the area.
Despite a few unpopular stances in his public life, the doctor can enjoy the respect of a community where he’s seen many of his patients grow up to have children of their own and entrust those young lives to him as well. The confidence of a community has helped a man who made a career decision at 18-years-old to be able to look back on his life with what he says is “true satisfaction.”
The practice that Salsbury helped to found will continue in the capable hands of a younger generation. According to Dr. Salsbury, he has full confidence that Dr. Phyllis Waxman and Dr. Amy Oh-Tan among other doctors and nurses will run the practice with the same focus on patient care as he had 35 years ago — even as the health care industry becomes ever more complicated and contentious.
In commemoration of his retirement, the doctor says he plans to join many of his close friends on the golf course and on the beach, as well as continue to give his other hobbies of photography and sailing much more attention. He also declared he still plans to see patients at the local office, but only if his colleagues find themselves “very, very, very busy.”
Oh, and the good doctor still wishes to remind you to turn your I-Pod down — and to please eat those vegetables.