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Practicing the art of medicine: Dr. David Olson retires

Dr. Olson's success can be measured by role he has played in the lives of generations of families in New Richmond. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

New Richmond

It would be fitting if she slipped her hand into his and together they walked one last time through the waiting room, past the concierge's and through the doors into the embrace of an early spring evening and the unfamiliar air of freedom. They would no doubt appreciate the irony of such a movie-like ending to careers that have been anything but free. Careers of service rarely are.

For Dr. David Olson and his wife Lisa, the great gift just beyond the door is time — time to catch their breath, to linger without guilt or regret, to travel, or not, to spend days not beholding to schedules and commitments, to putter about the boat and garden, to stay over on Monday or even Tuesday or Wednesday, to not be subject to the clock or the calendar, to retire...

Doctor David Olson is a storyteller.

"(Dr.) Fred Riegel is an interesting guy. Before we had defibrillators, they brought in a guy up in St. Croix. He'd had a heart attack. Dr. Riegel reportedly took the wires out of the wall and hit him with AC current. He tried the theory out and saved his life," said Dr. Olson.

Dr. Riegel delivered David Olson. David grew up in St. Croix Falls where he still has family. He went to UW Eau Claire where he intended to major in biology with the intention of becoming a lab technician. Good grades prompted professors to encourage David to consider a career in medicine and a new path emerged.

"It was the encouragement, that, 'you could do this,' that I could do this," recalled Olson.

During his first year in medical school at UW Madison, Olson came home to St. Croix Falls to gain experience working with doctors in the local clinic. Life had come full circle for Olson as he started to realize what his vision of medicine was going to be.

"I wanted to be in a small town and take care of people," Olson remembered.

It was the late seventies and the practice of medicine had been evolving for some time. The early days of General Practitioners, GP's, had been passed by in favor of specializing, cardiologist, radiologist, heart surgeon, brain surgeon. The idea of family medicine as a practice unto itself with its own board certification was a novel one, one that appealed to Olson.

"In 1977-78, the family practice residency was relatively new. I was in one of the first handfuls of graduates from the family practice residency program. But because it was new, there was a lot of silent pressure, "You should go be a real doctor, be a specialist," said Olson.

Olson did not relent. He relished the role of the family physician.

"A good family doctor is in charge of his patient's care. Today, with as complicated as it can be with so many specialists, you're kind of the director. You've got to get the woodwinds talking to the brass and make sure the percussion comes in at the right time," said Olson.

While working in a clinic set up by the medical school in the small community of Verona, Olson crossed paths with Dr. Bruce Hanson, who was a couple years ahead of him in school.

Olson confided that he wanted to work in a small town, just not his old hometown. Hanson convinced him to give New Richmond a shot and so began Dr. Olson's career at the New Richmond Clinic.

At that time, the clinic was located in what is now the Associated Eye Building. Holy Family, the hospital in town, was owned and operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Olson joined a group of independent physicians that more or less made up the founding fathers of medicine in New Richmond. That group included doctors James Craig, Joseph Powell, Louis Weisbrod, Colin Drury, Bruce Hanson and Neal Melby.

A good portion of Olson's practice initially focused on geriatric care. Assisted care facilities like the Deerfield were not yet popular. That meant exercising the long forgotten art of the house call.

"We still had a lot of geriatrics. Those were still the days of families taking care of elders at home. But we had Maple Manor over here and the county health center, which was three floors or wards at that time, over there, so we went to all of those places. I made house calls on Thursday afternoons," said Olson.

He may not have realized at the time, but the social nature of those house calls was forming the principal tenet that would become central to Olson's understanding of medicine, the essential role listening to and building relationships with patients played in healing.

"There was one lady up on Dakota St., she was quite elderly. I saw her almost every Thursday. She would say, 'Can you come doctor?' I'd be talking with her, and half the time she would call me doctor, 'Well what do you think about this doctor?' but then, in the next sentence she would say, 'So I should be doing this father?' I used to think, 'Wow, I just got a promotion,'" recounted Olson.

"Having a family practice is all about building those relationships with people, especially as they get older," said Olson.

Olson is not just a storyteller, he is a part of many, many stories. The success of his practice can be measured by the role he has played in the lives of generations of families in New Richmond.

Inevitably one of the benefits of so much experience, 35 years practicing medicine, is perspective. Early on, broad exposure and wider responsibility were an important teachers.

"When I started, you did your own deliveries, you worked in the emergency room and you took calls for the clinic and the nursing home. It was a one-stop shop and you were it. When you were on call, if your name was on the schedule, whatever hit the fan was yours," said Olson.

Today, the pace at which the role of technology has continued to impact the practice of medicine is impressive, and it can be overwhelming. Olson remembers a time when the "art" of medicine was equally important.

"Not only were there no computers, there wasn't even a dictated note. "Annual exam, normal," that used to be the chart. There used to be a lot more clinical diagnosis without technology in those days. To be a good doctor, you became, by necessity, a better diagnostician," said Olson.

Again it comes back to people for Olson and knowing your patient. Olson applauds the advantages afforded by technology, but for him, medicine can never be solely about the instruments, a lesson he frequently shares with young doctors.

"If you want to feel good about what you do, you've got to get it from your patients. You're not going to get it from your computer and you're not going to get it from the meetings you go to where they look at your patient satisfaction scores and quality scores and every other score they keep track of. You have to get it from your patients — that's what it's all about," said Olson.

But it has become more difficult to do that because the business of medicine has required more and more documentation on a doctor's part.

"For every one hour you spend seeing patients, you spend two hours on paperwork and documentation," said Olson.

Agencies are constantly looking over a physician's shoulder. Liability is expensive. Technology costs money. Does it all take a toll?

"I think universally, anyone would tell you 'yes.' There's so little time and patients complain about that. There are places where there is pressure on physicians to see so many patients a day, but I've seen that here," said Olson, "I talk more than I treat, probably too much, but my greatest enjoyment is to talk to people about their work. I've learned so much from truck drivers and engineers."

Olson would tell you an essential consequence of working in a small practice in a small community is that your colleagues become your mentors.

"The thing about practicing medicine in a small town is mentoring is the support you receive from your colleagues. It's knowing you are not alone in your practice. If it's 2 a.m. in the morning in the emergency room, it's knowing you can rely on your colleague because you're not at Regions with 20 other doctors. There's no one single mentor here, it's really all of us and it's not just physicians, it's nursing staff, anesthesiology staff, and administration. We're all in this together, to provide care," said Olson.

Though Olson learned much about medicine from his colleagues, he credits a handful of forward thinking administrators for educating him about the business side of medicine. Their commitment to providing a good quality service and keeping it in the community is something he feels the community should be proud of.

"What's been accomplished on the campus has been phenomenal and that all started with Jean Needham. She was instrumental in moving the doctors over here, working out the economics and politics, getting this part of the hospital built and getting the cancer center going. I've been very fortunate to work with dedicated people for years that have put their hearts and souls into this family. The people that really were the founders, Don Michaels, Jean Needham, the hospital board and the sisters, all of those leaders were my mentors. They taught me what was important," said Olson.

Keeping patients as the focus of effective health care has been the trademark of Olson's approach to medicine. Handing down that legacy to the next generation of caregivers is essential.

"As everything has grown, I think there is a strong, albeit corporate, flavor that it still boils down to your relationship with your patient. Health Partners gets it. Sometimes it's a little hard to see when you are part of a big corporation, but they listen, they realize that we are still a community, a family, and we still want a good primary care background. Hopefully we can continue to hire physicians that first and foremost want to have relationships with patients."

Ahead lies time, a well deserved chance to spend more time with Lisa, with friends and family, with three grandchildren, time to fish and snowmobile, or to just watch the snow fall.

"It's eye opening when you start to think about it. Day to day it's just the routine and the rush, routine and the rush, and then you realize you've really had some special times with a lot of people," said Olson.

The storyteller knows his story is nearing a pivotal change. The import of how so many people have entrusted him with their stories is starting to set in.

"When you're just working day to day, you don't think about all the things that people share with you, how special that relationship was, until you sit down with someone who you've been seeing since they were 17 and the tears come. I think about all the wonderful people that I have met, now friends, they started as patients. We've gone through some stuff, some fun stuff, some hard stuff, painful stuff, and I have shared that with them as closely as any family member, it's really important. That's a big deal."

The community is invited to a public celebration in recognition of Dr. Olson's 36 years of service, Thursday, March 30, beginning at 4 p.m. at Ready Randy's Banquet Hall.