From country doctors to slew of specialists

Retirements change the face of Juneau's medical community

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2000

Back in the 1960s, Juneau could count the number of physicians practicing in the capital city on two hands. And the two hands of every doctor in town were busy -- almost all the time.

``Looking back, I don't know how we did it. There wasn't anyone covering the emergency room, no ER doctors. We were on call, sometimes every night,'' said Dr. Gary Hedges, a recently retired general surgeon who practiced in Juneau for more than 30 years.

As several older physicians retire, Juneau's medical community is changing from the country doctor of yesteryear to the world of medical specialists -- 80 of whom are currently on staff at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

``There's been a dramatic change within the last 10 years,'' said Dr. Gregory Dostal, chief of the medical staff at Bartlett. ``These doctors (that are retiring) did everything for this town. They really gave beyond the call of duty to this community.''

For Hedges, who grew up in Juneau and whose first patient was his high school math teacher, being the only surgeon in town was all in a day's work.

``I spent one-third of my time on fractures and the rest on general surgery. I was the only surgeon for only a short time,'' he said.

When orthopedic surgeon Dr. Len Ceder moved to town in 1980, he shared duties with Hedges and three other surgeons.

``We rotated being on call. Every other night we were on call, which I think was an improvement from years before,'' said Ceder, who retired in January.

``There aren't many small communities with the medical facilities that Juneau has to offer. Our isolation has worked for us that we have a really well-equipped facility that can deal with a vast majority of problems that small communities typically can't handle,'' he added.

Although the community has grown significantly over the years, Ceder does not feel the doctor-patient intimacy has been lost.

``You still go into a store and say hello to each other. The evolution has been slow enough that people can keep up with it,'' he said.

For Dr. Ken Moss, a pediatrician who retired last August after practicing in Juneau for 31 years, the changes in the medical community are all for the better.

``Juneau has gained a lot in skills and services such as air transportation and telephone teleconferencing,'' said Moss, the only pediatrician in town for several years.

``The town has grown but it's still pretty small, much better (for doctor-patient) relationships than other places,'' Moss said.

The pediatrician retired to Montana to be closer to his wife's elderly parents. During his tenure in Juneau, it was not unusual for Moss to work with three generations of children within the same family.

``It's a very good feeling to be a longitudinal pediatrician,'' he said. ``I miss Alaska a lot.''

Although the medical field has changed dramatically over the years, the type of problems residents encounter are still the same.

``I guess what is unique to being a doctor here are the bear maulings,'' said Hedges, who handled five such cases in his career.

``There was a fellow who took a skiff over to Admiralty Island to hunt. He probably smelled like the deer he took and a bear waylaid him and chewed him up pretty bad. It took him three days to get back to town because of the weather. But we fixed him up and he did fine. Unfortunately, he wound up drowning several years later in another bad storm,'' Hedges said.

Hedges has a lifetime of stories about Juneau but he has no plans to write a book. The recently retired doctor plans to spend his time on personal projects that took a back seat to his medical career for decades.

``I'm going to do a lot more fishing and work on my cabin in Tenakee,'' he said.

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