Gary "Doc" Robinson arrived in New York Mills nearly 30 years ago and bucked the trend at the time when it came to physicians and a revolving door at the community hospital.
After working 27 years as a small-town doctor in New York Mills and Perham, Robinson recently made the decision to step away from medicine. A retirement open house will take place Jan. 22 at MeritCare Clinic in NY Mills.
Robinson, a Minnesota native, came out of medical school wanting to work in a rural community. Fortunately for him and the community Robinson found what he was looking for in New York Mills and became the town's only doctor in 1982.
Prior to Robinson, NY Mills had trouble finding a physician who would stick around. Robinson was looking for a small-town hospital to set up his practice.
It turned out to be a good match. In his 27 years practicing medicine, Robinson touched the lives of countless families in the New York Mills area.
Moving to NY Mills was one thing, staying here was another and Robinson is proud of what he did in serving the community.
"The biggest thing I did in this town was I stuck to it," Robinson said. "The community, the clinic and staff grew around me. I stayed here and toughed it out."
Robinson was all about patient care. He liked to spend time with the people who came and saw him, educating them as he provided care. Anybody who has gone to "Doc" has seen the sketches he uses to explain ailments or medications. He'll talk stomach pain one minute and transition smoothly into a story about that week's favorite fly-fishing hole.
Doc's retirement party
On Friday, Jan. 22 the communities of NY Mills and Perham have a chance to visit with Robinson during his retirement party at NYM MeritCare Clinic, 3:30-5 p.m.
Diane Duchene worked in NY Mills as Robinson's nurse for 27 years, and says it's difficult to see a man who has been so important to the community retire.
"I have so much respect for that man," Duchene said. "He always put his patients first."
Duchene, who still works at the clinic in Mills, said many people ask how Doc is doing since he officially retired last May. They share personal stories of how he cared for them or a family member. Duchene worked alongside him for all those years, through the old hospital closing and understaffed clinic to the marriage with MeritCare.
Duchene was working at the hospital when Robinson arrived and now she's here to see him off.
"We were kind of a partnership and I knew exactly what he wanted," Duchene said. "He had a close relationship with the community. He knew all of his patients; not only his patients, but their extended families too."
The respect is mutual.
"Diane was the nurse trying to keep the clinic going through all kinds of doctors before I got here," Robinson recalls. "I didn't develop a practice here... Diane and I developed the practice."
The two had such a good working relationship that Doc's wife, Pam Robinson, affectionately calls Diane his "daytime wife." Pam and Gary met in 1994 and they married in 1995. If Pam needed to track her husband down she had to go through Diane.
"I met Diane before I even met Gary's kids. I had to call her to get his schedule," Pam said.
Through all the years working together, Diane has kept a scrapbook for Doc. For those know him, this is certainly not something he would have done himself.
How he got here
A former Navy hospital corpsman, Doc Robinson worked as an operating room technician at the U.S. Navy Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, and at DaNang during the Vietnam War.
He did his undergraduate studies in Bemidji, went to medical school at the University of Minnesota, and did his residency in Lansing, Mich.
Knowing he wanted to eventually set up practice in a small town, Robinson went to Lansing to experience rural medicine. After two years in Michigan, Robinson looked to set up a satellite clinic in small-town Minnesota. Then, in 1982, he landed in NY Mills-or that's when NY Mills landed him, depending on how you look at things.
"I think we found each other," Robinson said in a 1986 newspaper article. "It seemed like I was destined to practice here or some place like this. It was real easy for me to fit into town. I just wanted to work."
Robinson learned what rural medicine was all about with the NYM hospital. He was on call 365 days with his general practice, assisting with surgeries and delivering a few babies before the hospital closed in 1983.
Medicine was going through a huge change at that time, Robinson recalls. Small hospitals like NY Mills were closing and larger clinics wanted to expand to the rural areas. Perham Hospital was struggling as well and in 1984, Robinson and the Perham doctors joined what would later become MeritCare Clinic.
The clinic remained in NY Mills, as did the hospital in Perham. With MeritCare involved, Robinson feels things changed for the better. The hospital had already closed in Mills and to have the support from a larger group became very important to the clinic.
When it came to things like new lab regulations, Medicare, computerization, X-ray equipment, etc. MeritCare had the resources to handle many of the administrative duties while Robinson and his staff concentrated on patient care.
Patient care came first
Throughout his career, Doc Robinson was all about the patients. He could do without the business side of running a practice, and preferred written documentation to fumbling with a computer program.
"I figure my job was to practice hard and let things take care of around me," he said.
Doc adhered to the family practice philosophy.
"I liked taking care of kids and old people; delivering babies to making nursing home rounds. That's what I got here and it was amazing," Robinson said.
"I would take care of grandma and deliver grandchild. I got to see the town change. It was amazing."
New York Mills residents Dan and Bonnie Welter, who raised three daughters, often tell the story of when Doc Robinson delivered their oldest, Nicole. Most know her by the nickname "Munch." She was the first baby Doc Robinson delivered in New York Mills, and Doc told Bonnie and Dan that he would retire when Nicole had her first baby.
When reminded of that story Doc laughed and even takes credit for the nickname.
"I think I said something like, 'look at that cute little Munchkin'."
Robinson did end up retiring before Nicole started her own family, but it's that kind of connection to the families in this community that made Robinson such a well-respected physician.
Doc was the guy with the long hair and bandana around his head. In a time when the community saw many doctors come and quickly go, Robinson looked liked he was more suited for Woodstock than practicing medicine in New York Mills.
He developed relationships with his patients and this small Finnish community. The 70-hour work weeks and commitment to rural medicine didn't go unnoticed. He was named 1986 Minnesota Family Physician of the Year. The honor was particularly special since it began with 40 letters of nomination by his patients.
Robinson said in a NY Mills Herald article at the time the honor was "humbling... my feeling is that the award came from my patients and the town and that makes it a very precious award."
That year he was also the Grand Marshal of the Kesha Juhla Parade in New York Mills.
Road to retirement
With his eyesight beginning to fail and to deal with other personal issues, Robinson closed his practice in NY Mills two years ago. He stayed on with MeritCare and worked walk-in and urgent care at Perham Memorial Hospital.
Robinson was struggling with personal problems, some associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time in Vietnam. He wrestled with the change in how he practiced medicine after leaving the clinic in Mills and moving to full time in Perham. The long-term care of people was missing. Patients were in and out with less personal care.
"It became dissatisfying and frustrating because of my eyesight limitations, and I lost the family practice philosophy," he said.
In May of 2009, Doc Robinson took a leave of absence to "tend to himself," before fully retiring.
"It really dawned on me how hard I worked," Robinson recalled of his 8, 10, 16-hour days at the clinic, as well as call time in Perham, over his career.
At 62 years old he's embracing retirement by spending more time on his passion of fly-fishing, traveling with Pam to see family, enjoying the outdoors and working on himself.
Through it all his philosophy on medicine and what his career brought him remains simple: "The rewards came from taking care of patients."