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'Compassionate to the nth degree': New London doctor is Minnesota's family physician of the year

Dr. Rick Wehseler is a family practice physician at Affiliated Community Medical Centers of New London-Spicer. He was recently honored as Minnesota's family physician of the year. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

NEW LONDON -- Dr. Rick Wehseler's day starts early.

At 5:30 a.m. he's at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, rounding on his patients who are in the hospital. Some days he stays for a meeting or two at the hospital, where he's also the chief of staff.

Today he's lucky: no meetings. By 9 a.m. he's back in his office at Affiliated Community Medical Centers of New London-Spicer and ready to see his first clinic patient of the day.

It will be 5:30 p.m. by the time the last patient is ushered out the door. Then Wehseler might be off to another meeting, or an evening shift in Rice Hospital's emergency room or, on a good day, home to his wife, Nancy, and three children.

Wehseler, 41, who was named this spring by the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians as its 2010 Family Physician of the Year, considers himself typical of the 2,500-some doctors in Minnesota who practice family medicine. "There's any number of people who do what I do," he said.

His patients say he's something more.

"He's a kind, caring, compassionate person to the nth degree," said Diane Paffrath, who has been one of Wehseler's patients since he came to town 12 years ago. "He goes the extra mile."

April Dorry calls him "an incredible man."

"He's done so much for so many people," she said.

It's the essence of primary care: caring for the whole person, from cradle to grave, as doctor, coordinator, coach and confidante.

Wehseler knows about the stress these days on primary care.

"The discouraging things are the debt load and the challenge of continuing to maintain a good physician base," he said.

But he also sees much that's good about being a family doctor in rural Minnesota.

"From my perspective there aren't many down sides," he said. "You get to know your patients very well. You get to see them and interact with them. There are plenty of consults in the produce aisle."

He delivers babies. He takes care of two and even three generations in the same family. Sometimes he's a pallbearer at a patient's funeral.

Wehseler first came to New London as a third-year medical student at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, doing a rural rotation at ACMC under the mentorship of Dr. Terry Peterson. After finishing medical school and a residency at Mayo Clinic, he and his wife came back to New London-Spicer to settle.

"We'd spent nine months here. We knew what we were getting, and what we were getting was a place where we wanted to live and raise our kids," Wehseler said.

At ACMC in New London-Spicer, he's one of four family doctors as well as part of a regional multispecialty network with 160-plus providers in all.

It's a good setting for a family doctor, he said. "You can be a primary care physician and have specialists around you."

Perched above a small marsh just off Highway 23 between New London and Spicer, the clinic, which moved into a brand-new building in 2008, is growing yet hasn't lost the art of making patients feel cared for.

Paffrath, two of her children, her sister and her mother-in-law all are patients of Wehseler's.

"You can go in there and never, ever feel that you're rushed," she said. "It just makes you feel very comfortable that you're talking to someone who's caring. ... He cares deeply about the people he sees. You can tell that."

Gina Hatlestad, Wehseler's nurse, said he's "a wonderful listener."

"He's always there for them," she said.

Three years ago, Kenny and Melissa Batterberry were expecting their second child when Wehseler detected a fetal heart abnormality.

Doctors at the University of Minnesota, where the infant underwent heart surgery after being born prematurely in Willmar, were impressed at how early the heart defect was diagnosed, Melissa Batterberry said.

When the surgery was followed by complications, the Batterberrys were told their baby's primary care should be directed by a pediatrician. But Wehseler "took him on with open arms," Batterberry said. "If there's anything I'm worried about, I just call and they make sure they get him in right away."

"We believe that if it weren't for Dr. Wehseler, we wouldn't have our Reese," she said. "We just can't thank him enough."

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians "really made a good choice" when it chose Wehseler for its award, said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of ACMC and a family physician himself. "We are very proud of his work. We've long known he is a very bright physician who is a star of our organization. He's a real leader."

Added Holmgren: "We'd like to clone him."

Wehseler credits the clinic and staff with helping to create an environment in which patients' individual needs are recognized and respected.

"Our staff figures out a way to do that," he said. "My nurse is tremendously aware of what patients will need and is very efficient. Patients recognize that."

It's one of the reasons he suspects his patients nominated him for the Minnesota Family Physician of the Year award.

"Sometimes you just want to be treated. You want to get in and get out," he said. "Other times you want to be cared for. There's a difference. You give patients time to talk or cry or whatever they need to do. Sometimes it's just taking 60 seconds of silence and seeing what that leads to."

Open house Thursday

An open house in honor of Dr. Rick Wehseler and the entire staff of Affiliated Community Medical Centers of New London-Spicer will be hosted from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday at the clinic.

Wehseler last month was named Minnesota's Family Physician of the Year for 2010 by the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians. Winners are nominated by patients and chosen by a panel of judges.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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