Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by Jason Johnson
Shannon Rider, M.D., ’99, remembers his childhood days in Harrisburg, running back and forth through a field to get from his home to the home of a friend. Thirty years later, the field is long gone, and as an adult, Dr. Rider stands in that same location each day, within the building of his medical clinic at the Primary Care Group in Harrisburg, Illinois. "It was always in the game plan to go to SIU and then come back here,” Dr. Rider says.
Though Southern Illinois University School of Medicine graduates choose a variety of residencies and practice in all areas of medicine, the School has a history of attracting students eager to enter primary care specialties. In fulfillment of the mission of SIU, many of these physicians can share stories similar to Dr. Rider’s as they bring the care back into their hometown communities. Fifteen SIU School of Medicine alumni practicing in rural clinics in Harrisburg, Mascoutah and Litchfield, especially exemplify the mission to assist the people of central and southern Illinois.
Larry Jones, M.D., ‘76, always had that mission in mind. Thirty-four years ago, Dr. Jones began the Harrisburg Primary Care Group next to the town’s Dairy Queen. The group has grown from a five-person practice in that first small building to a two-story facility offering multiple procedures and services from more than 100 employees and an additional clinic in Carrier Mills. Six of the group’s physicians are SIU School of Medicine graduates. "Dr. Jones has made it attractive for young physicians who have grown up in Harrisburg to come back and practice here and be a part of the community,” says Matt Winkleman, M.D., ’02, a Harrisburg native who joined the practice in 2005.
About two hours northwest of Harrisburg, a former Harrisburg resident and former understudy of Dr. Jones, Stephen Raben, M.D., ’90, began the Rural Family Medicine Associates in Mascoutah, which has clinics in Mascoutah and Freeburg. Practicing with him are three other SIU School of Medicine alumni and one alumnus from the SIU Family & Community Medicine Residency Program in Belleville.
"In the third year of med school, they asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I want to be a doctor.’ We had a surgeon in my town growing up, but there were no pediatricians or obstetricians/gynecologists. I didn’t know all these specialties existed,” Dr. Raben says. "Two or three weeks into each specialty rotation, I’d think, I don’t want to do just this for the rest of my life. Primary care is great – you can pick and choose what you want to do to an extent.”
"We’re all small town folks, and we wanted to come back to that,” Roger Wujek, M.D., ’76, says. Dr. Wujek’s partner, Jerome Epplin, M.D., began the Litchfield Family Practice Center in 1978 and waited a year for Dr. Wujek to finish his residency and join him. The small town atmosphere and exceptional practice has drawn three other SIU School of Medicine alumni to the group of more than a dozen medical providers.
SMALL TOWNS, BIG BENEFITS
Small town living isn’t for everyone, but these physicians cite many benefits of living in towns of fewer than 10,000 people over life in the big city. "Parking is never a problem,” Dr. Wujek says with a smile. "Traffic’s never a problem. A deer and possum are about the biggest traffic I get in the morning.” Residents of Mascoutah and Harrisburg, too, are familiar with the wonders of nature, with state parks and the Shawnee National Forest a short drive away. And yet just an hour’s drive will get Litchfield residents to Springfield or St. Louis and Harrisburg residents to Evansville, Indiana.
"There aren’t many disadvantages to working here,” says Elaine Fisher, M.D., ’99, who also practices in Litchfield. "We have the benefit of a rural community – and that’s community with a capital C. We have a lot of good people here. We get to know our patients and their families. We get to be a part of their lives.”
"I like family practice,” says Tim Ishmael, M.D., ’97, a member of the Litchfield group. "We deliver babies, take care of grandma and grandpa, and fix broken bones. When you ask patients who their doctor is, they don’t say their cardiologist or GI doctor; they say we are their doctors. That’s the relationship I like.”
The life of a physician is often harried and hectic, leaving little time for leisure activities or family. Though their patient loads keep their clinic schedule filled, the physicians in these communities believe that practicing where they are allows flexibility. For Dr. Wujek, it means getting to eat lunch at noon every day with his daughter, Michelle Wujek, who is the practice comptroller and human resources administrator, and his son, Dan Wujek, M.D., who is a physician with the group. For Dr. Fisher, every other Friday is a day off to spend time with her granddaughter.
Dr. Rider agrees that practicing in Harrisburg allows him more time for his family. "I can leave here, head 200 yards and I’m at the baseball field coaching or watching the kids play,” he says. "I’m friends with several parents on the teams; they are people who grew up here with me. I can’t imagine being somewhere where I didn’t know anyone.” Similarly, Dr. Matt Winkleman is active in his children’s athletic endeavors and also has the benefit of working with his wife, Laura Winkleman, M.D., ’02. Dr. Laura Winkleman can adjust her working hours to stay home more with the couple’s four children. Judith Weis, M.D., ’92, grew up in Belleville. "My heart was here,” she says. "I have two sisters, and my mom and dad are nearby.” Dr. Weis is also lucky enough to work with her husband, Paul Reger, M.D., (a 1994 graduate of the family practice residency program in Belleville.)
Practicing primary care in a small town also means a wider variety of patients. For the physicians in Litchfield, their diverse team allows the physicians to focus on areas they really enjoy. "I wanted to practice in a place that would let me do just about anything I wanted,” says Keith Cochran, M.D., ’06, who found what he wanted in Litchfield. While some of Dr. Cochran’s colleagues enjoy practicing obstetrics and delivering the babies, he prefers to perform gastrointestinal scoping procedures. "A lot of our patients want to stay here to have procedures done, so if we can do it here, they’re pretty happy.”
In addition to caring for the people of the region, each of the groups participates in fulfilling the mission of the School by training future physicians and residents from SIU and other medical schools. "I think teaching medicine is ingrained in us because it was part of our training at SIU,” says Dr. Fisher. These teachers and their practices have been honored with numerous awards for their work and continue to offer their expertise to medical students, some of them year-round.
"Students like coming here because they get to do a lot of things that they might not get to do in a bigger city,” says Dr. Fisher. "We recently did a knee injection and a student commented that he’d never get to do that in another primary care practice. We do a lot of hands-on procedures here.” The Litchfield Family Practice Center has been teaching SIU School of Medicine students since its preceptorship program began in 1981.
Dr. Wujek began inviting students to the Litchfield practice because he enjoyed the challenge that teaching offered. "The students who come here who have been trained with a non-traditional approach like SIU offers, like to take a problem and investigate it to the ’nth degree,” Dr. Wujek says. "That’s kind of fun because they feel like colleagues, not students; and when they are here, we treat them like colleagues.”
Dr. Ishmael remembers his preceptorship in Litchfield well. "My last day, the plans to this building were sitting on Dr. Epplin’s desk,” he says. "I took the plans and wrote ‘Tim’s Office’ on an empty room.” A few years later, he was back as a practicing physician with the group.
Dr. Wujek says he still bumps into some of the students who have been in Litchfield as he lists the names of former medical students who are now practicing physicians. One of these "colleagues,” Janet Albers, M.D., professor of family and community medicine in Springfield, recalls her family medicine clerkship rotation in Litchfield in 1985. "That experience solidified my decision to become a family physician,” Dr. Albers says. "Dr. Wujek exemplified the ideal family physician. He performed the full spectrum of family medicine including ambulatory medicine, obstetrics, as well as hospital and office procedures. His office was a well-run medical home: efficient, effective and team-based. He was loved by his patients and has been an outstanding role model to many students over the years.”
Dr. Albers has continued her medical career as a family physician and mentor to countless SIU medical students, including Dr. Fisher. "It was certainly amazing to see Dr. Fisher go to Litchfield to practice,” she says. "I guess things go full circle!”
"I really enjoy teaching,” says Dr. Jones who has mentored students at the Primary Care Group in Harrisburg for nearly 25 years. "It’s good for me, and teaching keeps me focused. I think we can provide medical students something that they can’t get in Springfield: a rural experience. It’s just a little bit different culture – I know my patients well and they know me.”
Amanda Rabideau, MSIII, liked that rural culture as she worked with Dr. Jones this summer in his clinic. Though she is interested in pursuing general surgery rather than primary care, Rabideau is interested in practicing in a town like Harrisburg. "The rapport Dr. Jones has built with his patients translates to better care,” Rabideau says. "He is able to give me a background on not only their medical history, but also their social history, which very often enables me to approach their care in a tailored manner that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise.”
"The sooner you can get their hands on the patients, the better,” says Dr. Raben, who is training student Morgan Koentz to become a physician’s assistant and return to Mascoutah. "As soon as they feel comfortable, we put them in an exam room. That’s how they get good at it.”
The connections between the physicians and members of the communities span many years. "I’ve known Morgan (Koentz) since she was tiny,” Dr. Raben says of his protégé. On the walls of the office he shares with some of the other physicians, his priorities and connections are obvious. SIU School of Medicine class photos hang on a wall opposite a photo of Dr. Raben’s patient, Miss Illinois 2010, Whitney Thorpe-Klinsky, who is also a third-year SIU medical student. Family photos sit near his computer and a wedding photo of Dr. Weis and Dr. Reger with Dr. Raben in the bridal party hangs above.
"Dr. (Matt) Winkleman’s father and I were neighbors,” Dr. Jones says. "We go way back.” The two physicians enjoy running together on the weekends and even ran the Boston Marathon together a few years back. Dr. Winkleman remembers visiting Dr. Jones’ clinic as a patient, and now Dr. Jones is taking care of the next generation of Winklemans. Blaine Eubanks, M.D., ’08, who grew up fifteen minutes from Harrisburg in Eldorado, is the newest member of the Primary Care Group’s Family. Continuing the connection among the providers, Dr. Winkleman is the physician for Ellie Beth Eubanks, Dr. Eubanks’ one-year-old daughter.
"We really give the best care when we know these folks,” says Dr. Wujek. "I know their background, their history and I have a rapport with them.” Dr. Wujek’s patients have been with him for an average of 22 years.
The alumni have listened to the towns’ needs. "We’re a community resource,” Dr. Wujek says of the Litchfield clinic. Knowing the community and its needs prompted the physicians to give back. The Litchfield physicians found that access to care during after-hours was a community need, so they opened the Prime Time clinic from 5 to 8 p.m. Patients are charged only for an office visit charge rather than paying an emergency room charge. The Primary Care Group opened the Bridge Medical Clinic, a free clinic in Harrisburg. The physicians all volunteer their time and see patients who have jobs but no insurance.
While the desire to live and work in a rural community may have already been in their blood, the alumni say the SIU School of Medicine education further emphasized the importance of serving rural populations and well- prepared them for life as rural physicians. With a philosophy of excellent patient care and a mind-set of caring for patients as people, these alumni continue to be mission-minded.
"SIU’s focus on small, rural communities is a great feeder system for places like this,” says Dr. Rider. "When people grow up in these communities and then come back, it’s great."
"I think we’ve done a good job with SIU’s mission and brought more primary care back to southern Illinois,” says Steven Pritchett, M.D., ‘97 who grew up just down the street from the Rural Family Medicine Associates building. "SIU really pushed patient care from the beginning and communicating with the patients, not just science and medicine,” says Dr. Weis. "I think SIU offers great training – a good work ethic and caring about our patients.”
"I think we were a lot better trained in patient interaction than other students because of SIU,” agrees Dr. Raben.
"I’m your SIU poster child,” says Steve Knight, M.D., ’81, who calls Harrisburg home. "I’m the guy that got in the medical school and came back to southern Illinois to do this.”