Doctor's retirement leaves Atwater without a clinic: Community loss
hen Dr. Stephen Olsen closes his 30-year career as a solo-practice family physician this spring, the doors of the Atwater clinic will also close.
Olsen, 60, is retiring.
The small but cheery clinic where Olsen has worked for his entire career will close May 1.
For the first time since the town's 1,000 residents can remember, Atwater will not have a physician to tend to the town's sick children, parents and especially the elderly that make up a majority of Olsen's patients.
"You do feel a little bit of guilt that way," said Olsen, a tall lanky man with an easy smile and gentle demeanor.
He's retiring to spend time on his hobbies -- reading, gardening and being outdoors. His hope is to one day provide medical care or education in a third-world country.
But emotions tumble out as he talks about the relationships and friendships he's developed with his community of patients and how he'll miss that when the clinic closes.
"I do feel some loss of all these years and people I know," he said. "I will be sad. There will be tears."
Being the town's caretaker has been "a big part of my life," he said.
Not doing that anymore "will be difficult."
The clinic's closure will also be difficult for the community.
"It's going to be a little bit of a shock, especially for the older people," said Mayor Bruce Baker. "That's going to be a little bit tough for them."
Attempts to recruit a doctor have been made by the Affiliated Community Medical Center, which operates the clinic, and the Atwater Economic Development Association, which owns the clinic building.
Besides working with ACMC to find a doctor, Atwater has contacted clinics in Paynesville and Litchfield to forge a partnership. Even having a part-time physician in Atwater a couple days a week would help "take the sting off so everyone didn't have to scurry off and find a new doctor," said Baker.
So far there's been no takers.
"There's just nobody that wants to branch out and take in a community of a thousand people," said Baker. "So now you've got 1,000 people trying to find a new doctor."
Atwater residents will have to travel elsewhere, like Willmar, Litchfield, New London or Paynesville to see a physician.
A shortage of family physicians has made it difficult for even larger rural towns to find enough doctors and many doctors already have full loads and aren't accepting new patients.
Olsen said he worries that Atwater residents will be negatively affected when the clinic closes. "I do think a lot of people will suffer a little bit in terms of their health because of access issues, especially the elderly," said Olsen.
"It's going to be a real change for the community," he said.
The clinic and Olsen "meant everything" to Atwater, said Freeman. "It's going to be hard -- so hard -- to have no one."
Elderly residents have "depended on Dr. Olsen for so long and they know how he does things," said Freeman.
Connie Feig, who oversees Atwater's Living at Home Block Nurse Program, said Olsen has been instrumental in keeping Atwater's senior citizens at home in Atwater.
"His compassion and willingness to make home visits with our elders has been a true blessing for our community," said Feig. "He is a good friend to all here."
Fresh out of residency and with black bag in hand, Olsen said he made his first house call the first week he accepted the job in 1978 to be Atwater's only doctor. He made his most recent house call was about a month ago.
Feig said elderly residents who feel comfortable driving in Atwater may not want to take on the challenge of driving elsewhere to visit a doctor.
Senior citizens who were independent will now have to ask for help, said Feig.
She has 11 volunteers lined up to help drive elderly residents to neighboring towns for medical visits after the Atwater clinic closes.
"Our program will be geared up," she said. "People step up to the plate. It's what people do."
Mary Benson, a long-time patient and friend of Olsen, had her regular check-up earlier this month. She and her children have complicated medical histories that Olsen knows without even looking at their files.
"We felt blessed to have a good and nice doctor so close at hand," said Benson.
She is now looking for a new physician.
"I'm a little bit scared," she said. "Because Dr. Olsen, after all these years, knows all the weird things that can happen to me with medicines."
With a good-natured laugh Benson said she's "determined to go to someone who won't retire before I die, so I'm going to pick someone who's young and understanding."
Goldie Smith, Atwater's city clerk and a patient of Olsen, can look out her office window to see the clinic. She'll miss being able to walk across the street for her appointments.
"And when kids get sick in school you can just pop into Dr. Olsen over there," Smith said. Now families will have to drive to another town to see a different doctor.
"The convenience is lost," she said. "And the long-time fellowship you had with Dr. Olsen."
"He's like one of the family," said Baker. When Baker's mother died, Dr. Olsen was with the family in their home.
Although Olsen is the only physician at the clinic, he doesn't work alone.
Registered nurse Peg Gimse has worked at the Atwater clinic for 29 years and receptionist Barb Freeman has worked there for 20 years.
The team makes sure everyone who needs care receives it, said Benson.
"It's like they're on the gerbil wheel all day long because people just call and they try to get you in to meet everyone's needs," Benson said.
"There's always a busy schedule," said Olsen. "Whoever comes in, basically will usually get seen. I have a hard time saying no."
"There was a lot of people to take care of. He was booked up solid every day," said Baker. "The people really do enjoy Doc Olsen and he'll be missed in the community by many, many people."
"We've tried to convince him to change his mind, but this will be good for him," said Freeman. The community "will adjust," said Freeman. "That's how it is in the rural area."
The town will suffer economically when the clinic closes.
Having a doctor in town was a "feather in the cap" for Atwater, said Smith. It was considered an important marketing tool to attract new residents and businesses.
The town will have to look for some other economic tool to attract people, she said.
"It's a big loss in terms of economic development when you don't have a physician in your town," said Baker. "But that's the way it is."
When the town's business people built the clinic in the 1970s it wasn't difficult to find doctors willing to come to a small town to make a living, said Baker.
"The times, I tell you, they change so dramatically over night," he said. "It's not a good deal. It's not a good deal."
Closing the clinic is "definitely going to leave a hole in the business community and community services," said Baker.
But Baker doesn't begrudge Olsen's decision to retire. "You can't blame Doc Olsen. There's only so much you can do," he said. "He's got to slow down a little bit."
Olsen said he'd like to have the chance to talk to new doctors about practicing in rural communities. He said many reject the idea because they don't know about the positive opportunities a small town medical practice provides.
Olsen, who grew up in Montevideo, said community relationships, getting to know people, seeing their children grow, having a good place to raise a family and experiencing personal growth is "probably what's kept me in a small community."
Baker said Atwater will continue to look for a doctor for the clinic, which also houses the town's dentist.
When asked if Atwater could ever have a physician again, Olsen provided a confident, "Yes, I do."
He said if a young doctor could "just get a taste" of practicing in a small town it would change their views and the town would once again have a doctor in town.