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Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Dr. William Palmer, 75, poses for a picture outside his office on Bartlett Regional Hospital campus on Tuesday. Dr. Palmer is retiring after 40 years working in Juneau.

Long-time surgeon retires after 40 years serving Juneau

Dr. William Palmer came to Juneau in 1973 and retires at age 75

Posted: May 22, 2013 - 7:11am

He began with a story.

An elderly neighbor is in need of more firewood. Unbeknownst to him, a neighbor much younger than he has already gone out to begin chopping and splitting wood. The young neighbor would anonymously leave the wood in his neighbor’s backyard, never once asking for credit.

“But that’s not on the Main Street almost anywhere in America today,” Dr. William Palmer told me on a recently overcast morning in his office at the Juneau Medical Center. The case for Juneau: that sense of community is still felt today.

This week, after serving the community and seeing to the well-being of his neighbors as a general surgeon for more than 40 years, Palmer is retiring.

Palmer, 75, in a crop of neatly groomed grey hair, recounted that story as I sat down in his office that was half together and half packed away — picture frames on the floor, seemingly prodigious sheaths of paper covered his desk.

After receiving his graduate degree from Stanford University in 1967, he went on to complete a six-year residency at the University of Colorado before moving here.

Palmer came to Juneau with his wife Marie in 1973 after seeking positions at hospitals in Palmer and Anchorage. The couple headed North in their Volkswagen with their possessions in tow. They had sent the majority of what they owned to Anchorage figuring that they’d one day reach Palmer Valley. They never would.

He did like most transplants and made a pact with his wife saying they’d stick it through for a few years. One decade turned into another and slowly into two more.

When he met with Dr. Gary Hedges, the surgeon here at the time, the closest census quoted the population at about 13,556. Hedges was the only surgeon in town.

“There had been another general surgeon who had been trained and left town for a variety of reasons,” Palmer said. “Gary had been the only surgeon here for four months. So he’d had four months of that and was going … it was tough.”

Hedges had an office in the old St. Ann’s Hospital that served Juneau until the late 1960s.

“And they had that (St. Ann’s Hospital) for 20 years, what is the SEARHC clinic now,” he said, and it has grown considerably in the years since he began practicing in Juneau. “It was really a transformative time.”

When Hedges retired, Palmer took over.

“Hedges just gave me his office. He turned it all—the staff, the clinic—it was all up and running and functional and of course his patient population was used to coming in and seeing him.”

Moving to Juneau offered a wide palette from which Palmer could train and practice across disciplines he wouldn’t have otherwise encountered in other parts of the country.

“We had exposure to neurological things. I assisted the ophthalmologist here doing cataracts,” he said. He also gained experience in cardiology and hyperbaric chambers through working beside the late Dr. Henry Akiyama “You had an opportunity to do things you couldn’t elsewhere. So it was exciting in that regard.”

Upon his departure he will be missed dearly, both by physicians and patients.

“For my taste, Juneau is a wonderful, wonderful fit. I think that all of Alaska is very parochial. And that was the impression I got when I went around the state the first time,” he said leaning back and getting comfortable in his chair, a picture of his dog Gracie perched on the mantle behind him. “But for a small community like this, the things that are here are just astounding.”

Palmer will stay in Juneau a little while longer before moving down South to be closer to his children and grandchildren. What does he plan on doing in his retirement?

“I don’t know, come see me in five years. I very much enjoy being alive. I’m very glad I landed on this planet for this brief period. I just think it’s fascinating to be alive. I think people are fascinating.”

As for Juneau, “we’ll leave our hearts up here, that’s for sure,” Palmer said. “I just love this place.”

• Contact reporter Kenneth Rosen at 523-2250 or at kenneth.rosen@juneauempire.com.

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