As a freshman at Vanderbilt in the 60s, he fell ill with pneumonia. That lengthy recovery meant lost classes and therefore a year off between college and acceptance into medical school. So with a chemistry degree under his belt, he headed to Tuscaloosa and grad school, armed with a teaching fellowship.
“I met my wife that year, so in the end, it was a good year,” says Folmar. Now more than 40 years later, he’s still with his wife, Miriam, in Alabama. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.
That stability of home and hearth began as a childhood desire for Folmar. Growing up in a solid, blue-collar neighborhood in Montgomery, Folmar’s parents divorced when he was 11 years old, leaving him and his two younger sisters alone with his mother, a second-grade teacher.
“I had to help support the family starting in junior high when I delivered papers,” Folmar says. But in his search for male role models, his eye landed on a distant cousin, who was a white-haired, elderly doctor. “I think my first impression was of him caring for the ladies when they swooned.”
That security and ability to care for others, along with how the doctor raised his children, stuck with Folmar. “Even in junior high, I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be in medicine,” Folmar says.
In 1972, Folmar graduated from UAB School of Medicine. After completing his residency and serving as chief medical resident at the University of Alabama Hospitals and Clinics, Folmar started his first position as an internist with Simon-Williamson Clinic in Birmingham. He stayed there for the next 29 years.
“I’m not one to move around,” Folmar says. “It was a group practice with good chemistry. Most of the physicians stayed there for their entire career, and that continues today.”
Then in 2004, his wife took over some family land management duties where she grew up outside of Troy, Alabama. “We were driving twice a week to Pike County,” Folmar says.
So within a year, Folmar left Simon-Williamson and started a practice in a small town near Troy called Brundidge, population 2,500. The town had been without a doctor for more than two years. “It was a culture shock going from a group practice of 35 physicians to being the only doctor in town,” Folmar says.
The rural practice meant resurrecting old skills. “It had been 29 years since I’d done any laceration repair. It came back pretty quickly though,” Folmar says. “There was a lot of undiagnosed disease, simple fractures, simple burns. It’s an agricultural area, so there’s farm injuries.” Anything too serious was sent to the ER eight miles away.
Another surprise to Folmar was the role the town doctor plays in small town society. “I arrived on the Fourth of July weekend, and I was introduced at their town celebration.” A few months later, he and his nurses were asked to be in the fall festival parade. “You wouldn’t do that in Birmingham,” Folmar says.
“Taking care of a population that had been without medical care was emotionally and spiritually fulfilling. It was almost a calling — that filling of a community’s need,” Folmar says, who was 59 at the time. “To me it was a fulfilling chapter in my life at a time when many are ready to retire.”
Five years later, he sold the practice, and he and Miriam returned to Birmingham in 2010. Folmar decided yet again on a new professional experience. He accepted a position at MedHelp, an established urgent care group with two Birmingham locations and 12 physicians on staff.
“When I came back to Birmingham, I was 65 and not emotionally ready to put my stethoscope down,” Folmar says. He works 12-hour shifts for three days a week. “For where I am in my career, it’s perfect because of the hours and the population.
“The thing about urgent care is that it’s an evolving specialty,” Folmar says. “It takes a big load off of emergency rooms, and it’s filling a real need for people right now. A lot of young people don’t want a regular doctor and don’t care who they see, as long as they get medical care.”
Over his forty years of practicing in three very diverse settings, Folmar sees medicine being forced down another changing path. “It’s getting harder and harder to make your overhead, so there’s a migration toward hospitals hiring physicians. We’re not going to be professionals anymore, but employees.”
He says one piece of advice still holds true, though, for physicians. “The patient is the center of your world. If you want a satisfying career as a doctor, know that it’s about delivering good medical care, not about money. If you deliver good medical care, the payment’s in that.”