Prior to the retired Anniston cardiologist’s death Thursday morning, arrangements had been made for his remains to be delivered to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for research on the bone marrow cancer that took his life — the final act of a physician who dedicated more than 50 years to improving the medical care in his community.
“He hoped that by studying him, it would help in some way toward developing a cure,” said Sarrell’s wife, Lela. “It’s his one last contribution to medicine.”
Sarrell died at his home at age 87.
Sarrell practiced internal medicine, specializing in cardiology, in Anniston from 1954 until he retired at age 75. However, Sarrell did far more than just serve his patients. He was instrumental in expanding various medical services in the area, such as establishing the first catheterization lab at Regional Medical Center in 1972. A cath lab is a type of examination lab used to diagnose heart problems in patients.
Sarrell also established the intensive care unit at RMC.
“Every time there was a new technology for improving health care, Warren would learn about it and try to get it here,” said Dr. Robert Lokey of Anniston, who practiced internal medicine with Sarrell for 32 years. “He was a pioneer.”
Lokey said Sarrell’s main goal in life was to help others.
“He was a consummate physician and he cared about people and his whole life was spent trying to make people’s lives better,” Lokey said.
Sarrell is also credited with helping found what is now known as the Sarrell Dental Clinic. The Anniston-based clinic, established in 2005, now has 14 facilities across Alabama and is the main provider in the state of dental care for low-income children on Medicaid.
“His initiative and determination to help the less fortunate have blossomed into the largest dental practice of any type in Alabama and is often cited as the national model for improved access to care for underserved children,” said Jeff Parker, CEO of Sarrell Dental. “Because of his care, concern and foresight, Dr. Warren Sarrell will be remembered by the hundreds of thousands of children who have visited the practices that bear his name.”
Parker said Sarrell was a common man who never forgot his roots, even as he accomplished great things.
“I will miss him every day, but we are all more determined than ever to continue to carry on his legacy,” Parker said.
Bruce Cunningham of Jacksonville was the principal dentist involved with establishing the clinic with Sarrell.
“He was a prince of a fellow ... he was very focused and committed to dental health, which was very odd for a cardiologist,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said there was a great underserved population in the area that needed proper dental care when the clinic was founded.
“At the time, we had a lot of children needing dental care but not enough providers who would see them,” Cunningham said. “Our goal was to provide that care.”
Lela Sarrell said her husband of 42 years was a kind man who was always a dedicated worker.
“He was very motivated,” she said. “And he was somewhat aggressive when he wanted to get his ideas across.”
Sarrell was born Oct. 16, 1924, in Rockwood, Tenn. and moved to Anniston in 1954. A graduate of Cornell University in 1948, Sarrell also served in World War II and the Korean War. Other accomplishments include serving as the chief medical resident at Emory University in 1953, serving as president of the Alabama Heart Association and as a member of the local Kiwanis Club.
George Smith became Sarrell’s accountant after the latter moved to Anniston and the two quickly became friends.
“He was a guy that understood life and who was a very devoted, directed person about his profession,” Smith said. “And he was a guy you could depend on.”
Smith said he and Sarrell used to travel on many fishing trips together. Sarrell’s wife had similar experiences.
“The most time we spent together was on traveling — and I’m a fishing girl too,” Lela Sarrell said. “If he were here he’d tell you he was my guide and I caught the fish.”
J.E. Ingram became a lifelong friend while he operated Wikle Drug Store in Anniston. Ingram said Sarrell was a great family man who also did much for the community.
“He touched my life with the life he lived,” Ingram said. “He’s going to be greatly missed by the community.”
Sarrell is survived by six children. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Martha Gene Pope Sarrell, who died in 1967.
A memorial service for Sarrell has not yet been set.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3531. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.