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Life comes full circle: Kate Cloutier retires

“Taking care of three generations of families, people see me and think New Richmond Clinic — that those go hand in hand. I take great pride in that. I consider all of them family and they consider me family.” (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

Kate Cloutier, clinical services manager for Westfields Hospital and Clinic, on Friday, March 4, will walk through the front door at the clinic, past the information desk, through the reception area and down the hall to her office just like she has since the day she graduated from WITC in 1975.

She’ll spend her day, in essence, mentoring 27 CMAs (certified medical assistants) and LPNs (licensed practical nurses) sharing from a lifetime of invaluable experience.

She’ll more than likely greet patients whose family members she has cared for, for more than three generations.

There is a good chance she’ll hug and be hugged by patients and staff including a few doctors whose ties she’s straightened and schedules she has arranged for most of their careers.

And there will be tears because a career defined by relationships built on trust and friendship has earned the respect of so many for so long.

At the end of that day, Kate will walk out that same front door for the last time retiring a legacy of care and compassion exactly 40 years after it started at that very same clinic.

Kathryn “Kate” Marie Cloutier was born April 15, 1956, at Westfields Hospital.

The fourth of six siblings raised on a farm in Deer Park, she likes to remind people that’s the same day President Lincoln died, the Titanic sank and taxes are due. But fate had a completely different future in mind for Cloutier.

If it were not for Carmen the Nurse, a frequent guest on the black and white TV show “Axel’s Treehouse,” who knows what path Cloutier’s life might have taken.

“I wanted to be Carmen the Nurse. That was my influence and it stuck. She wore white with the cool nurse hat and Axel seemed to kind of like her. She was kind of flirtatious so she kind of fit my style pretty well. I just always knew I wanted to be in the medical field,” Cloutier said.

When a representative from WITC spoke during career day at her high school in Amery, Cloutier saw an opportunity and enrolled in the medical assistants program.

“Hey, I figured I could help out at the farm in the evenings and still go to school,” recalled Cloutier.

She got her foot in the door at the hospital when volunteered to file charts after school and she still had time to get home and help milk the cows. It paid off when the hospital offered her a job as a medical assistant starting the day after she graduated from WITC in May 1975.

“I graduated on a Thursday night and went to work the next day, Friday. I was single living in my parent’s basement, working at the hospital during the day and bar tending at Deer’s Bar on the weekends,” Cloutier said.

Little did Cloutier realize she’d spend the next 40 years shaping the role of medical assistants at the hospital and even the face of the hospital itself.

“Working as a medical assistant meant hands on, grooming patients, taking vitals, drawing blood, taking urine tests. They taught us to be an office assistant for a medical office that had those kinds of services. We were also taught how to do accounting and bookkeeping because you could be doing that job as well, making appointments and writing letters. It has evolved since then to be less about accounting and that kind of thing and more focused on patient care,” Cloutier explained.

The hospital had recently moved its operations out of a house on 4th Street to a location previously occupied by the county fair with help from funds raised by The Knights of Columbus.

Cloutier started at $1.75 per-hour. She points out that traditionally nurses get paid better but they have to work shifts and weekends. It’s a trade-off. Today a medical assistant makes $15 to $16 per-hour.

“I was hired to be Dr. Joseph Powell’s assistant. We worked together for 14 years. Over the years, it worked out that he ended up going to Haiti on mission work several times which happened at the same time that I had both of my children,” Cloutier said.

You don’t stay at one job for your whole career without building the kinds of relationships that provide you with opportunities to continue learning and expanding your knowledge and skills.

Over the course of her career at the clinic, Cloutier has worked elbow-to-elbow with many of the doctors considered to be the founding fathers by generations of New Richmond families, including doctors Neal Melby and Bruce Hanson.

She also forged valuable working relationships through the years with administrators Jim Miller and Mike Stein, both of whom she credits with encouraging her to continue learning and pushing her to be her best.

“Jim Miller was one of our first administrators. He talked me into going to management classes. Mike Stein was a great teacher. He really was a mentor to me. He was very humble, always standing in the background pushing me forward saying, ‘She did all the work, I just guided her.’ Without his hand on my back guiding me, I wouldn’t have made the decisions I made,” Cloutier said.

Institutions like the clinic can reflect the personality and values of the community it serves. The impression it makes affects its reputation. Forty years ago, the clinic served a community considerably smaller than the one it serves today.

You could say it was more knowable, a characteristic Cloutier embraced as essential to the standard of care she helped establish and one she has tried to impart to the staff she supervises.

“I’ve seen my patients have children. I have seen those children grow up and now I’m taking care of their children. Taking care of three generations of families, people see me and think New Richmond Clinic — that those go hand-in-hand. I take great pride in that. I consider all of them family and they consider me family. That’s an important part of what’s kept me at this so long.”

One big change today is that patients have more choices. As New Richmond continues to grow, the profile of patients continue to change.

Not every new family comes from a small town where a sense of familiarity is important. Now choices can be made online based on the reviews of complete strangers.

Cloutier acknowledges the challenge to communicate a balance between the pure medical merits of the clinic and a sense of familiarity and trust played a role in her decision to retire now.

“That’s not all bad, it’s just different. People are going to shop around. My dad always said, ‘You can’t eat atmosphere in a restaurant so why does it matter?’ But if the floor’s dirty and the kitchen is a mess, you’re not going to eat there again. If the hospital looks old and rundown, people won’t come here because they can go down the street. Used to be your community hospital was the only choice you had. You have more choices today,” Cloutier said.

A change in health care philosophy impacting expectations about what is expected of a medical assistant also has Cloutier thinking it is the right time to move on.

“The new word is ‘critical thinking skills.’ I’ve always called it common sense. Today, a lot of times common sense is not so common. It used to be when you didn’t know the answer, you needed to know where and how to find it. Today you are expected to just know the answer and that’s it,” Cloutier said.

One of the most difficult changes for Cloutier was changing sides of the desk to become manager of clinical services. Midway into her career, Cloutier went back to school at WITC to earn her certificate in supervisory management.

Her new skills meant that she would now be managing people in the same positions she used to serve in. It also meant giving up her more intimate working relationships with doctors to manage schedules from a wider perspective.

“They kept telling me to give up my doctor work, well that’s what I loved doing most. But I finally got to the point where I was doing three days of management and two days of doctoring. Eventually I went to no nursing responsibilities and stuck with just the scheduling. My career evolved again and became fulfilling in a different way.” recalled Cloutier.

For someone who has considered her career “to be her purpose in life,” working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m weekly and dealing with emails and doctor’s requests on weekends for 40 years, what’s next for Cloutier?

“I have my first grandbaby due in April, so I’ll be heading out to San Diego for more than five days for a change, without having to be on my computer, and savoring my time with them. Sadly, I have a sister with breast cancer right now so I’ll be able to sit with her through her chemo appointments. And I also have a daughter getting engaged to be married, so I’ll have a wedding to plan.”

As one door closes and another opens, Cloutier reflected on what made her 40 years so memorable.

“It’s the people that made it worthwhile, the job was good and bad.

“I will miss my co-workers, my friends. I’ll miss them terribly.

“There have not been as many special times, as special people and I absolutely loved it!”