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Friends, Not Just Patients

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Rural health care in Sanders County's west end

    “The people here have given me as much joy and support as anyone could have expected. I consider them friends, not just patients,” she said.

    For 15 years Johns-Kooy worked as a nurse with Group Health in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington in 1993 as a Physician’s Assistant. Experience in emergency room and acute care, as well as facing the demands of a solo practice, were marvelous preparations for the tasks that have faced her in here. It was Al Shear, a friend and classmate at UW, who persuaded her to come to this area when she least expected to make such a move. Shear staffs the clinic in Hot Springs at the other end of the county.

    When the west end position came up, he suggested she apply. Johns-Kooy’s initial reply was, “I don’t think so,” but she ended up checking it out, going to Plains for an interview, and was offered the job. She has no regrets about having taken it.

    Heron’s clinic was located in the Kindergarten classroom of the old elementary school, which was closed in the 1980s, and was the longest running of the three clinics. Noxon’s clinic opened in 1996, first in a small space in the Senior Center, then in a vacant teacherage. The residents of Trout Creek soon after opened what may have been one of the best small clinics to be found anywhere, but the challenge of paying the bills overcame them and it was closed last spring.

    In order to continue providing health care to the people who had come to count on its availability in the west end, community meetings were initiated by hospital staff to find a solution. Right away, a building at Bull River junction was identified as a perfect place to relocate the clinic. Administrators were agreeable to consolidating the clinics, but they also wanted a commitment from residents that the facility and services would be used and adequately funded. Dillion and Geri Lee accepted that challenge and became the driving force behind an effort to create a hospital district for Heron and Noxon, which could then be a source of revenue from a small mill levy on property taxes.

    Dillion especially took the task to heart and visited hundreds of people in a petition drive aimed at getting the issue on the ballot last spring. Geri noted that while he was out gathering signatures, he was not turned down once. The measure to create the district passed by a two-to-one margin. Trout Creek was not included because at the time of the petition drive the future of its clinic was uncertain. Now that it has closed, people there have a choice of going to Thompson Falls or Bull River, which are equal distances from this community.

    Volunteers spent weeks remodeling the building that has variously served as an auto parts store, real estate office, gift shop and deli. It is now a beautiful health care facility located five miles west of the Noxon Bridge and six miles east of the turnoff to Heron. Johns-Kooy will be there five days a week and is joined by Medical Assistant Bobbie Bennett, who was just hired Sept. 10 to the position.

    Bennett came to the valley two years ago with her husband, D.L. “Bubba” Bennett, after spending ten years in Alaska working as an EMT with a local fire department. There, she discovered she liked scuba diving and served on the dive rescue team. Since coming here, she has worked seasonally on an engine crew fighting forest fires and alternately at Lawyer’s Nursery near Plains. Her role at the Bull River Clinic is to “do a little of everything; whatever Karin or Geri Lee needs me to do to help.” She assists with the patients, performs lab work and will answer the phones when Geri is not around.

    Geri Lee has been the receptionist for the west end clinics for six years and worked at all three. Perhaps more than anyone, she is thrilled with the new facility and encourages the people of the area to make use of it, and particularly not to wait until they are sick.

    “Preventative medicine, that’s the important thing,” she said. “Come in for check-ups and have preventative health care done to establish a baseline. Then we know this is what you are when you are well, and this is what you are when you are ill. There’s a mindset somewhere that says don’t go to the doctor ’til you are sick.” But she says that’s the wrong way to go about taking care of one’s health. If your doctor knows what you’re like when you’re healthy, she contends, then the doctor can more efficiently nurse you back to that level of health when you’re sick.

    The Bull River Clinic will offer a full range of family medical services, from pediatrics to gerontology, covering the full age span of the area’s residents. A physical therapist will be on hand one day each week, and twice a month Dr. Dean French, MD will be at the clinic. In addition, a home health specialist – Suzette Gaetz – will be available as well.

    To celebrate the opening of the Bull River Clinic, an open house is slated for Saturday, September 29 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time. This will be an opportunity for everyone to see the facility and meet the staff. Because of the commitment of Clark Fork Valley Hospital and the support of the people of Noxon and Heron, the future of health care in Sanders County’s rural west end is brighter than ever. To schedule an appointment, call 406-847-2100. The clinic’s hours are Monday through Friday 9:00-12:00 and 1:30 to 5:00.

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Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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