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Navy veteran drops anchor in Lenoir

News-Topic - 11/29/2018

Nov. 28--His eyes focused, Dr. Timothy Clenney strides into his office, sits down, and speaks into a translation device, transcribing rapid-fire, methodical notes on a patient's condition. A woman in scrubs comes in: A patient's blood pressure is unusually high. Clenney rushes out again, his neat, navy-colored scrubs swishing as he passes.

Clenney is Caldwell UNC Health Care's new otolaryngologist, a doctor who deals with conditions of the ear, nose and throat. A powerhouse of energy contained in a towering frame, Clenney speaks quickly, and with a frank sort of friendliness.

After decades in the Navy and extensive national and international travel, Clenney and his wife, Cindy, chose to move to Caldwell County in September. Clenney had never heard of Lenoir before applying to work at Robbins Medical Park, but after visiting, he felt drawn in by the friendliness of local residents. He met Mayor Joe Gibbons. He was invited to Helping Hands Clinic's annual fundraiser. He felt people went out of their way to be kind to him.

"I had never heard of Lenoir. I looked it up, read about it a little bit, and I thought, 'Wow, this is what I want.' A little, small town, less traffic problems." he said. "Coming here promised me a better life."

Clenney is originally from southern California. He said his childhood there was marked by occasional trips to his local public library. He walked or rode his bike on these trips, spurred on by an urgent sense of curiosity. His parents never attended college, and there were few books at home.

Those early trips helped plant in him a blossoming interest in science, but when he turned 18 in 1980, Clenney still wasn't sure how he wanted to spend his life. It was then, driven in part by a fog of uncertainty, that he joined the Navy. Then Navy officials asked him what he wanted to become.

"I said I was primarily interested in doing something like electronics, ... that kind of science, that kind of direction. They said, well they didn't have any openings for that, and they asked me, did I want to be a corpsman? That's basically a medic in the Navy," he said.

It was as a corpsman, observing doctors as they interacted with patients, that Clenney realized he wanted to do what they were doing. Those years were the beginning of a career that Clenney describes as "a schizophrenia of different avenues, of interests that I've had."

While in the Navy he became a surgical technician and spent long days on the job in Jacksonville, Florida, but also moonlighting as a college student working towards his associate in arts degree. He was the first in his family to go to college.

"I went to night school in junior college," he said. "It was exhausting. ... I worked all day long in the operating room. I'd get off at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and I'd have to be to a night class at 5."

The Navy transferred him to Puerto Rico, where at age 23 he assisted an oral surgeon, who became a trusted mentor.

He later enrolled at the University of South Florida as a pre-med student, graduating in 1988 and beginning medical school at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

But Clenney didn't immediately become an ear, nose and throat doctor. Instead, he trained to be a Navy undersea medical officer, eventually serving at the Navy's explosive ordnance training school -- "those are the guys who disarm bombs for a living."

An interest in primary care and the relationships that family doctors form with patients inspired him to go into family medicine, delivering babies, among other responsibilities. He did that from 1998 to 2005, and it was during that time he realized that he had wanted to be an ear, nose and throat doctor.

"I contacted the training program and asked if I could apply, and here I was 42 or 43 years old, and they said I could," he said.

At the time, he was a commander in the Navy. In 2012, he returned to the to the undersea medicine community, selling his home in Virginia and moving to Hawaii to become medical advisor to the admiral in control of all the submarines in the Navy's Pacific fleet. The job took him all over the Pacific, and it was a spiral upward -- He circled back to a community he knew and loved, but this time, he had much more responsibility.

"Sometimes I'd have to make a decision to take a sick person off a submarine in the middle of the night. ... If I had to have them surface a submarine to take someone off a submarine, that submarine now could not be the secret submarine that's out on the ocean, because now it's on the surface, ... and satellites and stuff would know it had come up," he said.

Clenney retired from the Navy in August 2015. He spent three years in practice at a large health system in Tacoma, Washington, and in September, the job opening at Robbins Medical Park drew him and his wife to Caldwell County.

"We really missed our kids -- one lives in Virginia, one lives down in Tampa," he said. "Then just one day, I got an email ... from a UNC recruiter -- asked if I was interested in North Carolina."

He accepted an invitation to visit Lenoir. When he did, he liked what he saw.

"There's friendly people everywhere you go, but I just find overall that people are so nice here," he said. "I want to be a resource here. I want to be something that helps the people of this community so I can be part of the community myself."

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.


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