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After 36 years, a beloved ‘doc’ retires
The paintings in Dr. C.G. Weispfenning’s clinic tell a story about how this unorthodox and much-loved physician worked during his 36 years on Vashon. Several — including a boating scene in his personal office — are by Michael Spakowsky, who gave them to Weispfenning in return for medical care.
“He really liked my art, and I was broke most of the time,” Spakowsky recalled. “I’d actually have a tab with him, where he’d take a couple, three paintings and let me see him for about a year.”
Weispfenning often traded medical care for goods. Some gave him eggs; another built a woodshed for him; still others never got around to paying. Weispfenning, a child of the Great Depression who grew up poor in North Dakota, said a practice that allowed room for barter fit his style and personality as well as his commitment to affordable medicine.
“My philosophy was that health care should be available to everyone, whether they had money or not,” he said as he sat in his crammed office at the Vashon Plaza Medical Clinic last week.
Now Weispfenning, an old-style physician known by many as simply “Doc,” is retiring. He’s 78. And patients like Spakowsky wonder if they’ll see his like again.
“I consider him a true-blue country doctor,” he said. “I’m going to miss him.”
But for Weispfenning, his retirement — which won’t be official until November — will give him a much-needed chance to rest,
“I want to do as much of nothing as I possibly can,” he said, smiling wryly. Noting his bad heart, which has 13 stents in it, he added, “I’m not in good health.”
Weispfenning has wanted to retire for a while. It turns out, however, that it’s not so easy these days — with escalating medical costs, high overheads and the uncertainty surrounding Medicare — to sell a solo-practice like the kind he owns. A series of articles in The New York Times recently highlighted the problem, Weispfenning said.
“It’s a national phenomenon,” he said. “Old doctors across the country can’t sell their practices. They can’t even give them away.”
Weispfenning began his effort to sell his practice 10 years ago, advertising nationally in specialty publications. “I got no bites,” he said. Earlier this year, with his health declining, he resumed his effort, sending out personal letters to all of the residency programs in Washington as well as to a website that serves programs in Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Washington. Again, nothing, he said.
Then a patient suggested Dr. Gail Fulton, a long-time Vashon resident and family practice physician who works in Tacoma at the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority. Weispfenning knew of Fulton but had forgotten about her; he thought it was a brilliant idea and gave her a call.
Fulton, it turned out, had already been approached by some of Weispfenning’s patients about taking over the small clinic but had rejected the idea — for the same reason most physicians don’t want to work without the financial support of a larger institution. But when Weispfenning himself called her, she decided to pay the clinic a visit.
“When I got there,” she said, “I realized I just couldn’t pass it up.”
Their philosophy matched perfectly, the two said. What’s more, Fulton has long admired Katie Konrad and Elizabeth Hopper, the two nurse practitioners who work there.
“I’m impressed by the staff,” she said.
She’s apprehensive about the business-side of the operation, she said — running a small clinic “when nobody does this anymore.” But she has a mentor in the town of Key Center whom she met during her residency, a doctor who, like Weispfenning, runs a small practice and was supportive of her decision. She also plans to practice at the Vashon clinic just two days a week and retain her job at the tribal health authority.
“It’s not something I would have seen for myself,” she said. “But I feel as though I’m stepping into a perfect opportunity.”
For Weispfenning, Fulton’s decision to take over his business gives him the peace of mind he needed before he could walk away from his busy practice.
“She’s a very well-qualified doctor with excellent credentials. ... But most importantly, she’s a patient-oriented doctor, which is what I like to say about myself,” he said.
His years running the clinic have been tough, he noted. He never made much money. It was a good night, early on in his practice, when he got only two or three calls. And when he was one of only two doctors on Vashon, every victim of a bar-room brawl, it seemed, ended up at his clinic.
But he said he’s stayed true to his ideals, offering a rural practice anyone could afford, providing emergency care at all hours and befriending a range of interesting souls along the way .
“It’s been a struggle, but it’s been worth it,” he said. “I don’t regret any bit of it except that I wish I could go on forever.”