Best foot forward

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The researcher, the politico, the runner, the singer. Among the four personalities in practice at Augusta's oldest podiatry office is the retired 83-year-old founder, who often cruises the hallways at Augusta Foot and Ankle Group on Laney-Walker Boulevard.

"I left on medical reasons 16 years ago; couldn't stand going up and down those halls 80 times a day, standing in the ER for hours a day," Dr. Morton Wittenberg said.

He now spends most of his professional time seeing prisoners at Augusta State Medical Prison. That's only twice a week and doesn't require a lot of running.

"All I do is sit on my butt and consult," Dr. Wittenberg said.

He also refers patients for surgery to Dr. Kile Kinney, the senior partner in the group, who led the practice after Dr. Wittenberg's sudden departure.

"He's a good surgeon and my friend and my first partner," Dr. Wittenberg said. "We still have a good working relationship."

Dr. Kinney views the elder doctor as his mentor, the man who taught him how to run a practice, a skill that's not taught in medical school.

He left Memphis, Tenn., for Augusta in July 1978 after completing his residency.

"The guy before me, we went to school together, and he was with Dr. Wittenberg," Dr. Kinney said. "He told me to come down here and kill a year and learn how to practice."

Drs. Mary Ottinger and Kent Kronowski joined in 1984. Dr. Thomas Smith merged his practice with the group a decade ago.

The majority of running a practice concerns the "same old same old" of paying bills, signing the payroll checks and fussing with the insurance companies, Dr. Kinney said.

"In this environment it is going to be interesting to see if anyone is going to keep their head above water," he said.

Dr. Kinney is the politico, involved in the politics of medicine, traveling to Washington, D.C., annually with his professional association to lobby lawmakers.

Dr. Ottinger is the singer, involved in her church choir when she's not working.

Dr. Kronowski is the runner. He has run the Boston Marathon twice, and it was his interest in sports medicine that drew him to the profession.

That leaves the researcher, Dr. Smith, who is the most traveled of the partners, delivering speeches in his work on foot and ankle surgery to his peers around the globe.

"They are all unique in (their) own way," said Dan Banks, the office's manager. "Kinney knows every little thing that is going on in the practice."

The rest of the doctors back his decisions, Mr. Banks said.

"You can call him the CEO and CFO," Dr. Ottinger said.

The doctors are spread across four counties with a supporting staff of 20 people. Dr. Kronowski covers a Columbia County office. Dr. Smith travels to Burke and Jefferson counties.

"What makes everything bad now is the amount of paperwork, the silly stuff," Dr. Kinney said of regulations, the challenge of running a practice. "And none of it helps patients. Have you been to the doctor lately? Did you get your stack of junk that you could throw away?"

Another challenge is declining incomes; a lot of that has to do with more government-insured patients who pay less.

"When I started, 20 percent of the business was Medicare; now it is closer to 60 percent of the patients. We don't make any money on Medicare," Dr. Kinney said. "The population is aging. Fort Gordon brings in a ton of retirees to this area."

It was the military that got their founder in the business in the first place.

Mort

Dr. Wittenberg remembers the opening date of the podiatric practice like his wedding anniversary: Aug. 28, 1951.

It was 440 square feet in the corner of 1126 Greene St., next to the bus station, a building that doesn't exist now. The space was meant to become a liquor store, but didn't because of a church across the street.

Dr. Wittenberg got into podiatric medicine after World War II. The Philadelphia-born high school dropout served in the Navy during the war.

"We operated out of Recife, Brazil. We went looking for German raiders and sank them. The Germans had ships they disguised as merchant ships, but they were carrying ammo and fuel for the subs that were operating in the Atlantic," he said.

He had a job in the fire room. It was 130 degrees on the cool side of the furnace.

After the war, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to continue his education. He had always had an interest in medicine, but it was a friend who got him interested in podiatry.

He settled on Augusta essentially because it ended his tour of Georgia in the summer of 1951.

"I didn't want to go back to Philadelphia. We were either going to go west or south. That was where the growth of the country was going to be. I wasn't particularly set on coming to Augusta; we were just driving around Georgia. This was the last place we visited after visiting a lot of other cities," Dr. Wittenberg said. "It's 100 degrees in July in a non-air-conditioned car, coming up from Macon. I said to my wife, if this town has a paved main street, we're going to stay here. I'm tired of looking."

He said he doesn't regret the decision. It has been a great place to rear children. He and his wife, Bernice "Boots," brought up three of them and now have three grandchildren.

Dr. Wittenberg remained on Greene Street for three years before moving the office to Harper Street as part of the migration of doctors to that area.

In 1967, he opened the office where it sits today, on Laney-Walker Boulevard.

"I like Japanese design, so I had a Japanese curve bridge going in, Shoji panels that slide," he said.

Renovations have since removed that original style.

Dr. Wittenberg left the practice to Dr. Kinney in 1993.

"I was having terrible trouble with my back and hips," he said. "The neurosurgeon said quit working or you're going to be in a wheelchair in a year. I came back and said I got to quit. I was already 65. I was already planning to slow down a bit."

The 83-year-old former Augusta City Council member has slowed down to working for the Medical College of Georgia every Wednesday at Augusta State Medical Prison.

"The Lord will have me stop when it is time," he said.

He likes his part-time job at the prison.

"A lot of them have been banged up because they've been shot," Dr. Wittenberg said. "Diabetes is a huge part of our practice; the prisoner system has a lot of those. Most prisoners are easy to get along with. They are appreciative and they don't give me a hard time.

"Every once in a while you run into a nut, but then you run into nuts in private practice, too."

Kile

Dr. Kinney has the distinction of being the only native Southerner in the practice.

The Durham, N.C.-born podiatrist almost became a veterinarian. On the weekends from high school through college at North Carolina State University, he worked for a vet.

"Back then, everybody worked. If you were a kid and had no job, you had no money," Dr. Kinney said. "I started working at 16 and hadn't stopped."

Working for a vet's office had its fun moments -- vaccinating lions when the circus came to town -- but he changed his attitude when a vet caught a disease from a sheep and died.

"I got enough injuries in that," Dr. Kinney said. "I'm not talking about a cut. Kicked. Bit. When you get hit by a horse or something big, it could be fatal."

Podiatry was introduced to him by a fraternity brother, who was following the advice of others entering the medical specialty. Instead of working for a veterinarian during a summer, Kile Kinney went to work for a podiatrist as an unpaid intern.

"This guy had it made. He worked 8:30 to 5 four days a week and 8:30 to 1 one day a week. And his call was almost nothing," he said. "If you have a 60-hour week around here, you consider yourself lucky."

He went to podiatry school in Philadelphia, at a school that's now part of the Temple University system.

He did his one-year residency in Memphis. Although he had several offers to stay there to practice, the city was too wild for his tastes. Still, it was a center of medicine for that region.

"Back then, it was nothing for people to drive 100 miles to see the doctor. That was normal," he said.

A soon-to-depart associate of Dr. Wittenberg in Augusta who had also done residency with Dr. Kinney invited him to join Dr. Wittenberg in 1978 to "learn how to practice."

The easy part is treating patients, he said. The business side is the hard part.

"You saw a little bit in your senior year (of residency), and then you went into practice. Nobody trained you to do anything," he said. "How are you going to do anything unless you work for somebody? You can be the best doctor in town and go broke."

When Dr. Wittenberg left the practice in the mid-1990s, the transition was an easy one, albeit sudden:

"Things were rolling along really good and the next thing you know, he has trouble walking," Dr. Kinney said.

Dr. Kinney took over as the senior doctor and took the political reins, too.

He calls regulations the "silly stuff," but they often are on the agenda of his meetings in Washington, D.C., for the American Podiatric Medical Association.

He has been the president a few times. He's a delegate to the national meeting and attends functions on insurance and Medicare.

"Anything that has to do with the state, I go. It's the same two of us for the last 20 years," Dr. Kinney said. The other is Wes Daniels in Gainesville, the executive director of the Georgia Podiatric Medical Association.

"Wes is older than I am. We've got to get some of these young guys," Dr. Kinney said. "It is hard to get someone to do it."

When not on the hunt for patients or politicians, Dr. Kinney is in the bush hunting for wild animals.

"If I had my choice, I would hunt and not work," he said with a smile. He has hunted throughout North America and has a couple trips to Africa and Spain under his belt.

"Hunting prices have gotten ridiculous. We used to hunt for $5,000 to $6,000, and it was great. Now they're $20,000 for the same hunt," he said. "When the average Joe can't afford to go, it is a dead sport."

Years ago, deer season opened Aug. 15 in Aiken County.

"I took off that day and was out there hunting all day long," he said. "I'd leave here, hop in a bug suit and get in a stand every day."

His hunting days have diminished in recent years because there are few places he hasn't hunted and because those countries aren't safe places to travel.

Mr. Banks, the office manager, said Dr. Kinney is a computer geek.

"My children wanted a computer," Mr. Banks said. "I'm an analog man in a digital world. He came to my house and set it up on a Sunday, spent about six hours at my house, and Christmas was two days away."

It is all self-taught: "He's the type that reads the instructions."

Dr. Kinney said he won't retire for 10 more years.

"I've got my daughter starting college this year. Five years to get out of college and then five years for me to slow down to get ready to quit," he said. That would make him 70.

Tom, Mary, Kent

The Augusta practice is separated into two buildings; about a decade ago, it spilled across the alley to a former dentist's office.

With more patients' rooms, the three newer doctors work out of the expansion. The original office has the surgical suite.

"She pretty much runs the office over there," Mr. Banks said of Dr. Ottinger. "I do a lot of what I have to do here, but she does a lot of the hands-on over there for us with the employees."

The North Dakota native reached Augusta through a connection with Dr. Wittenberg. Her residency director at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa Bay, Fla., knew him.

"He got me a spot up here with the intention of staying for a year," she said. That was 25 years ago.

She said she's never been a political person, unlike Dr. Kinney.

"It has been an advantage to have someone with their finger on the pulse of what is going on," she said.

Dr. Ottinger sees about 25 patients a day.

Coming from a family of chiropractors, she knew she wanted a career in medicine but wasn't interested in becoming a chiropractor. She didn't want to be in a hospital all day or work in a specialty that required a lot of late-night calls. Podiatry fit.

"It is a combo of internal medicine -- there's some dermatology, structural orthopedic, shoes and inserts work," she said. "Augusta was a nice size for me. It is too hot in the summer, but OK otherwise."

She doesn't return to North Dakota for winter anymore. Nor does she ski, but that's because she tore up a knee doing it.

When she's not at the office, she works in her garden and sings in the church choir.

Dr. Kronowski joined the practice the same year she did, in 1984. The 53-year-old New Jersey native reached town on a lark almost.

He was doing his hospital training in Milwaukee and had warmed his car at lunchtime so it would start when he needed to go home for the evening. Hoping for someplace warmer, he called on a job advertisement for a position in Augusta.

He shares the podiatric school alma mater with Dr. Wittenberg and Dr. Kinney. His interest in podiatry stems from his interests in sports medicine and running.

Dr. Kronowski's latest marathon was in February in Birmingham, Ala. Before that, it was a decade ago in Atlanta.

He has combated his own injuries over the years, including ligaments in his foot in 2008.

Dr. Kronowski has run the Boston Marathon twice but tries to steer clear of such large crowds. There are no other runners in his family, but he shares a love of skating with a daughter.

There is no figure skating for Dr. Kronowski, but hockey, weekly in an Augusta men's league. He plays forward.

"When they put me on defense, I go up to the goalie and say, you're going to get a workout. ... Backward skating. ... I'm either going down or they're going by me," he said.

No one is busier than Dr. Smith. He schedules 40 patients a day.

"I never sit down. Lunch in the car," he said.

Dr. Smith has been in practice in Augusta for 25 years and decided to merge with Dr. Kinney to reduce overhead costs.

He spends one day a week at Jefferson Hospital in Louisville and another day at Burke Medical Center in Waynesboro. Surgeries are done at lunchtime.

"They are busy little practices, and we've been there a long time," Dr. Smith said.

He travels to lecture on his research into foot and ankle surgery. He will go to California, Texas and Florida this year to speak to his peers.

The Pennsylvania-born doctor came south when his father was moved to Athens, Ga., by Westinghouse. He did his residency in Atlanta.

He said he is a good fit with Drs. Kinney and Wittenberg.

"They've both been involved in state and national politics, as I have," Dr. Smith said. "We have a similar philosophy of practice that helps the practice stay together. We come from a common purpose."

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

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williamhitt
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williamhitt 05/18/09 - 07:09 pm
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Glad to hear about Dr

Glad to hear about Dr Wittenberg. He operated on my big toes in 1954. Later I went to MCG and over the years have removed many ingrown toe nails as I learned watching him. Thank you Dr. Mort. William A. Hitt, M.D.

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