“Do everything you can do and learn everything you can learn,” Dr. William Esham says. “That’s what I tell young doctors and young people in general.” When Dr. “Bill” Esham hangs up his lab coat at the end of December, he will retire from a decades-long urology practice helping thousands of people in the Portsmouth area and surrounding counties. The advice he now gives worked well for him starting out as a young physician in the early ‘70s.
A son of long-time Vanceburg, Ky., physician Elwood Esham and his wife, Ruth, Bill spent the last part of high school and his college years in private religious schools (“It was my mother’s last attempt to set me straight,” he jokes). He began his medical career after undergraduate studies at Andrews University in Michigan and medical school at the University of Louisville. He served his country as a U.S. Coast Guard Flight Surgeon before practicing in Alabama, where he worked as a family doctor. Burning the midnight oil, he did everything, including delivering babies, and followed his own advice to do as much as he could and learn as much as he could.
Along the way, he also married a young nurse, Marika, originally from Austria, and they would have two children. “I got a ‘67 Mustang convertible a few weeks before we got married,” he jokes. “I told her I’d keep her as long as I had the car.”
His older brother, Richard, was also a practicing physician in Alabama, but Bill decided to return to his roots, and joined the practice in Vanceburg with his father’s successor, Dr. Cliff Jennings. He worked in general practice in his hometown until 1976, when he happened to be looking at specialty practice possibilities while talking with some of his former classmates at the Kentucky Medical Association in Louisville.
“I had a real interest in orthopedics,” he admits, “but in Louisville I was encouraged to apply for an opening there in a urology program. It was a small staff, but several of the people had been classmates or associates of mine from my medical school days and they knew my work ethic.”
Four years later he returned to the Portsmouth area, joined the practice of local urologists Don Appleton and John Walker, and began a 27-year span of caring for the urology needs of area residents. While brother Richard still practices in Alabama, his brother George is also a practicing physician at Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth. His sister, Faith Esham, is a world-famous operatic soprano and an adjunct professor at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, New Jersey. Their mother, Ruth, is still a resident of the area.
Over the years Bill has seen many new approaches and advances in his field. “There have been many refinements,” he says. “Probably the most significant thing was the development of shock wave lithotripsy, in which kidney stones can be shattered non-surgically. Prior to that, we had to cut the patient open to get stones out.”
He cites surgical refinements such as laparoscopic nephrectomy (kidney removal) and endoscopic improvements as critically important, in which smaller, less invasive wounds are needed to perform operations.
“We see a lot more prostate cancer now because we have much better ways to detect it early,” he says. “The difference now is, when I started practice, 75 percent of prostate patients in my office had inoperable cancer. Now 90 percent of prostate patients have treatable conditions because of earlier detection.”
When not caring for others, Bill has found time for his love of the outdoors through fishing, golf, farming and hunting. While plenty of photographs and some impressive trophies show his achievements, the centerpiece of his outdoor experiences is a seven-foot Alaskan grizzly now posed and mounted on a rock in his office. She brings more than a few wide eyes among visitors.
Today Bill and Marika’s children, Kristina and Bill E., are a pediatrician and a cardiac anesthesiologist, respectively, and he has two granddaughters. He doesn’t plan to slow down when his practice closes, looking forward to his traditional outdoor interests and possibly a few new ones.
“I want to thank everyone for trusting me to care for them over the years,” he says. “It has been the greatest honor, to be entrusted to help people, and I’ve made many friends and close colleagues along this journey.”