Health care on Vashon has undergone many changes since the first clinic opened in Burton in 1972, but for countless islanders, one man was a constant in caring for their medical needs, Dr. Charles Weispfenning, who died earlier this month at age 84.
Those who best knew “Doc” — as he was widely known — have shared similar memories in recent days. They have told stories of a man who was passionate about the practice of medicine, a doctor with a keen intellect, who was particularly skilled in the science and art of diagnosis. And they have shared stories of a man who understood human frailties, often accepting bartering arrangements for his services and conducting home visits long past the time most doctors had abandoned them.
For the last 18 years, Dr. Weispfenning was married to Ann Weispfenning, and last week at the home they shared, she provided newspaper clippings that featured her husband and talked about his passion for medicine, which remained a constant throughout his life.
“He never lost his love of medicine and caring for people,” she said. “He would have done this (practicing medicine) forever. He would have. He never stopped loving it.”
Dr. Weispfenning had a long and circuitous route to becoming a doctor. It was a route that made him kind, where it might have made others bitter, Ann said. He grew up in North Dakota, and early on, knew that he wanted to be a physician. He went to college at the University of North Dakota on a full scholarship to study physics, but left that program and became a teacher and then a principal. Still interested in medicine, he later became a medical technologist, but his goal was to become a doctor, so at 36 years old and living in Wenatchee with a wife and daughters, he entered medical school in Seattle.
In 1974, he moved to the island and became the first director of Vashon’s health center. A Beachcomber article from 1975 quotes him talking about the clinic, then housed where Fair Isle Animal Clinic is now, bursting at the seams with patients. The article also notes he discussed the value of nurse practitioners, although their role in health care was not respected at the time, and that he believed the government would become more and more involved in supporting health care.
“One of the things that amazed me about him was his vision,” Ann said. “He saw clearly where medicine was going 40 years ago.”
In 1979, Dr. Weispfenning opened his own practice, Vashon Plaza Medical Clinic, and five years later, in another Beachcomber story, he referred to himself as a maverick.
“I tend to do the unexpected, and it sometimes gets me in trouble,” he said at the time. “I don’t think I can be any different. I go with the flow — my flow.”
Katie Konrad, now a provider at Vashon’s Neighborcare clinic, was among the nurse practitioners he hired. She worked at the clinic for more than 15 years and refers to her longtime boss as an “amazing mentor.”
“There was a real bias against nurse practitioners,” she said. “He took us on and trained us and collaborated with us. It was really a gift to work with a doctor like that.”
Konrad also talked about being on call and traveling Vashon’s roads late at night, making house calls, a service the clinic routinely provided, especially for elderly patients. Sometimes on those late-night visits Konrad would need to consult with Dr. Weispfenning, she said, and he was always available and would come to patient’s home if necessary, never making her feel badly for calling.
Some of that maverick nature Dr. Weispfenning mentioned showed up in his belief in treatment methods that are now considered standard or complementary but were far from the mainstream at the time, such as the use of supplements, acupuncture and hypnosis. Konrad and other former staff members noted that Dr. Weispfenning performed hypnosis successfully himself for patients’ problems as disparate as assistance with smoking cessation to the treatment of warts and even saw patients referred by Seattle dermatologists.
Noting Dr. Weispfenning’s open-mindedness, naturopathic physician Kelly Wright recently paid tribute to him and credited him for making her career possible.
“While other doctors shunned and disparaged my profession, Dr. Weispfenning had the courage to be kind. He volunteered to be the doctor I needed for those insurance contracts, in case I ever needed an MD to provide hospital admission services. The occasion never arose, but Doc signed those contracts for over 10 years without blinking, and made my office and professional career on Vashon possible,” she wrote on her practice’s blog.
Despite caring for many patients and working long hours — 10-hour days in the clinic with frequent after- hours work — Dr. Weispfenning did not make much money, according to many of those close to him.
“He devoted his life to it,” Konrad said. “We were always in the red. It really was a labor of love.”
He never turned patients away and accepted whatever people had to give as payment, from fresh eggs to paintings — an element of his work that was clear to his three daughters. Gretchen (Weispfenning) Porter recalls deliveries of firewood to their home as payment.
“He was so devoted to what he did,” she said. “There was nothing he would not do for a patient that needed him.”
Heidi Weispfenning concurred, adding her father would accept whatever people had to offer.
“That was just part of ethics of medicine,” she said. “He grew up in a small community where people looked after each other.”
Kirsten Weispfenning recalls that devotion as well, noting that family life was often disrupted, and it was routine for him to be called away on holidays.
“He invested so much in every person. He would go the extra mile to figure out what was going on,” she said.
Many of his former patients and employees also stressed that Doc was an excellent listener, Georgia Galus among them. Over his decades on the island, he cared for her, her parents and grandparents. When patients would go in to see him, they would talk and Dr. Weispfenning would be quiet, Galus said. Sometimes he would say he needed to go look something up, or he would sit quietly and think for awhile, then make a plan and follow through.
Galus is a nurse who has worked with many doctors and filled in as vacation relief at Dr. Weispfenning’s clinic.
“He was a rare physician, always caring, always kind and he always made time,” she said. “He was not just an example of what a medical person should be, but what a person should be.”
While operating his medical practice was nearly all-consuming, those close to him say he pursued other interests as well. He could play multiple instruments, Ann said, including the organ, the banjo and the button accordian. He was also a magician and had a traveling show earlier in his life and resumed it on Vashon, mostly for charitable purposes. In fact, an old newspaper clipping shows “Charles the Great” performing with his daughter Heidi at a McMurray Middle School benefit, with Heidi stretched across two chairs as though she might levitate at any moment.
As Dr. Weispfenning’s career wound down and his health problems increased, he looked for years for someone to take over his practice, which Dr. Gail Fulton eventually did in 2011.
“When he was really ready, it all dropped into place,” Ann said, “It happened the way it was supposed to.”
“Doc” enjoyed his retirement, Ann said, noting that his health declined significantly only recently and that he received excellent care on the island and in Seattle. He died, as he wanted, at home.
A public memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 3, at Bethel Church, with a reception to follow.
“It will be a loving goodbye,” his daughter Gretchen said. “Of that I have no doubt.”