Monday Medical: Why we care about Doc Willett

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Dr. Lambert Orton

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Jan Fritz

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The Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Awards will be presented to Dr. Lambert Orton and Jan Fritz during a celebration Thursday. For tickets or details, contact the Healthcare Foundation for the Yampa Valley at 970-871-0700, email hfyv@yvmc.org or visit www.hfyv.org/docwillett.

— On Thursday, the Healthcare Foundation for the Yampa Valley will host the third annual Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Awards Night. Our 2011 honorees are Yampa Valley Medical Center’s Cancer Care Services Director Jan Fritz, and longtime internal medicine specialist Dr. Lambert Orton.

Fritz and Orton represent the ideals and compassionate spirit of Dr. Frederick E. “Doc” Willett. Who was Doc Willett, and why do we esteem his memory and honor the health care heritage he created?

Just ask rancher and Steamboat Springs native Jim Stanko. He will tell you that Doc, his great-uncle, played a pivotal role in shaping our little town in the Colorado Rockies.

“He put the community first,” Stanko said. “He had a real love for this area and the people in it. There wasn’t anybody he didn’t know or who didn’t know him. Making this community a better place to live was more important to him than material wealth.”

Doc Willett was not the town’s only physician. But he is the one who is best remembered by longtime residents and the pages of history, partly because he owned and operated the town’s hospital for 36 years, from 1914 to 1950.

And he made house calls. Not just house calls, but ranch calls. In mud season and winter, Doc needed real horsepower hitched to a buggy, wagon or sleigh to reach distant homes. There he would deliver babies, set broken bones, treat the sick and comfort the dying.

Doc Willett became legendary during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Heedless of his own well-being, he made tireless rounds dispensing medicine, advice and hope.

In the 1920s, he served as mayor of Steamboat Springs, directing vital civic improvements such as construction of a fire station, the Long Lake dam and the Fish Creek water line.

By 1946, Doc was approaching retirement age. The town’s leaders embraced his idea of forming a nonprofit organization to build and run a new hospital, which opened in 1950. It is this same organization that built and now operates Yampa Valley Medical Center.

I regret that I arrived here in Steamboat three years too late to meet Doc Willett, who passed away in 1970. The next best thing was talking to people who knew and loved him, including Natalie Stanko, Doc’s niece and Jim Stanko’s mother. Natalie helped out at her uncle’s hospital, raised a family and volunteered for more than 30 years at the hospital and nursing home.

So much has changed since 1914, when Doc took over a failing hospital and poured his heart and personal funds into saving it. Ninety-seven years later, the hospital has 550 employees and 61 physicians representing 23 specialties serving on the active medical staff.

We owe much to the good doctor, and to people like Jan Fritz and Lambert Orton. Valuing the memory of Doc Willett while celebrating the medical services we otherwise might take for granted today is the goal of the Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Awards.

Christine McKelvie is the public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. Email her at christine.mckelvie@yvmc.org.

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