What began as a small, grassroots effort to provide medical services to Hillsborough residents is now a state-of-the-art family practice.

On Friday, Oct. 19 Orange Family Medical Group, including current and former physicians and board members, gathered to celebrate 40 years of service and growth.

All who gathered, including a few elected town officials, shared a meal and reminisced on the community-focused nature of the practice.

“It’s good to pause in the middle of chaos and crazy schedules just to reflect on and think about where we’ve come from and where we’re going and kind of sharpen our vision for the future,” said Orange Family Medical Group Medical Director Dr. Anita Skariah.

Many milestones were honored, including Dr. Jonathan Klein’s 30th year of service at Orange Family Medical Group.

In 2013, Orange Family Medical Group, located at 210 S Cameron St. in Hillsborough, became a member of UNC Physicians Network formerly Triangle Physicians Network. This alliance allows them to offer expanded services, including an on-site social worker, registered dietician, and advanced equipment.

The formation

In the mid-1970s, a small group of physicians recognized the growth potential for Hillsborough and the need for medical services in Hillsborough, establishing a nonprofit that would be the foundation to Orange Family Medical Group. At the time, Dr. Robert Murphy was the sole practitioner in town, functioning out of what is now Clements Funeral Home on N Churton Street. 

“The board members had this inspiration somehow, swimming upstream is probably one way to put it,” Dr. Arthur Axelbank said. “There was really not a lot of money, but they managed to figure out a way to do it.”

To fund the practice, the group hosted barbecue events, knocked on doors throughout neighborhoods, and canvassed local churches and companies for donations. 

“They even auctioned a bull to help raise funds,” Skariah said, receiving laughter. 

In 1978, the group recruited Dr. Murphy and dermatologist Dr. John Reid.

The former Governor James Hunt attending the ribbon cutting ceremony as the center opened its doors, beginning with just two physicians. 

At that time, the population of Hillsborough was roughly 3,019. Now, the population is over 6,000 people. 

The practice now has five physicians, seven mid-level providers and a dedicated care team that offer personalized quality care. 

The last 40 years

As Hillsborough grew, so did the group and their services. 

Skariah reminded attendees of the current events happening at the time of the groups formation.

In the ‘70s, the president was Jimmy Carter, North Carolina’s governor was James Hunt, the cost of gas was just 63 cent per gallon, and the price of a stamp was 13 cents. 

Attendees nodded their head at the era’s popular movies, such as “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Star Wars.”

In 1981, Dr. Axelbank was hired. He was a “bright, young, bushy-bearded man” with long hair – someone who matched those trends of the time, Skariah said. 

“I remember my interview right here in the conference room,” Dr. Axelbank shared. “Ken Collins was smoking a big cigar. I’ll always remember that,” he laughed. 

Coming from New York City, small town Hillsborough was a stark difference. The town worked its charm, and Dr. Axelbank and his family have called Hillsborough “home” ever since.

Soon thereafter, in 1988, Dr. Axelbank hired Dr. Klein. 

Speaking in front of celebration attendees, Dr. Axelbank shared his immense gratitude for Dr. Klein.

“Hiring you was one of the best things I ever did,” he said. “I wrote down three words to describe you: consistency, clinical excellence, and role model.”

Dr. Klein first completed medical school at SUNY, went to through the Public Health Service Masters Program at John Hopkins University, and then attended Duke University for Family Practice Residency. 

“Not many people know that he is a record breaking and world record holding competitive Master Swimmer,” Skariah said. “He’s competed against the creme de la creme of the swim world. He continues to inspire us with his talent in medicine and sports.” 

Dedication to excellence

On days when snow prevented physicians from coming into work, the team found alternatives so they could continue medical services. 

Dr. Axelbank lived close enough to walk. Elaine Sizemore, a physician at the time, would have her husband Tom, a retired State Trooper, take her out in his car with chains for traction in the snow. Along the way, they would drive by and pick up another physician.

The three of them would run the clinic on snow days.

“We could be open on those desolate snow days. Most patients didn’t even come,” Dr. Axelbank laughed. “But that was very precious to me. It was just a handful of times we did it, but it was an example of the dedication that was brought to this [practice].”

In 1989, the practice decided to go private. They continued to expand, offering radiology services on-site, care at the local jail, care at the nursing facility, and was one of the first groups to move to electronic medical records.

In 1998, the team opened an urgent care with extended hours, seven days a week that continues today.

“We may not be funded the same way we started 40 years ago, but we continue the passion and vision of this group,” Skariah said, “to allow the citizens of this community to remain in good health and fulfill their own personal callings and destinies.”

“In this climate, a idea was birthed, a spark if you will,” she continued. “That remains strong 40 years later: Orange Family Medical.”