It’s been three decades since Dr. Harold Thysell packed his black physician’s bag and moved his medical practice here from Minnesota.
That was the Summer of Love, when Kootenai County’s community of doctors was still in its infancy.
“I was doctor number 17,” recalled Thysell, who at 73 still runs a family practice three days a week. “Some of the others thought that was already too many.”
How times have changed.
Today a dramatic increase in health care is transforming Coeur d’Alene’s medical community from a retirement home for talented country doctors to a five-county hub for cutting-edge science and specialized care.
The shift was kicked off by a 12-year-old building project at a once-rural hospital. The result is a wealth of convenient services that draw patients from Mullan to St. Maries, and a near recession-proof boost to North Idaho’s fragile economy.
“I frankly don’t see a down side,” said Thysell.
While population has merely tripled since 1967, the county now has six times as many physicians - 120 of them - plus 820 nurses and some 1,800 other health care workers. Nearly half those were added just in the last 10 years.
There are brain surgeons and cancer specialists and a doctor who makes a good living rebuilding hands. Nursing home numbers jumped fourfold in recent years and there are now 13 agencies or business offering home health care.
Hundreds of patients who once had to go to Washington for treatment now are cared for here. That saves seriously ill people like Todd Callahan a host of headaches.
The accountant is fighting the life-threatening genetic disease “familial adenomatous polyposis” or AFP. He shares the precancerous intestinal disorder with his 5-year-old daughter.
Callahan, who just moved his family to Coeur d’Alene from Los Angeles, recently had his large intestine removed. He now attends weekly support groups at the North Idaho Cancer Center and takes his daughter to get magnetic resonance imaging - high-tech computerized X-rays - at Kootenai Medical Center.
“To go to Spokane I need an hour on either side of my appointment and it may be only a half-hour long,” Callahan said. “That means baby sitters and taking time off work.
“But here, you know the quality of care is just as good - if not better - and it’s five minutes away,” said Callahan, 35. “That’s such a relief.”
Health care also pumps millions of dollars into Kootenai County.
Medicine now pays $63 million in salaries here every year - and that excludes highly paid, self-employed doctors or pharmacists working in retail centers. The industry accounts for 9 percent of all county wages - more than retail or real estate and nearly as much as timber and construction.
Today, experts agree the health care explosion was made possible by the renovation of Kootenai Medical Center, completed in 1984.
“Sometimes North Idaho is the last vestige of change,” said Bill McClintock, administrator for tiny Boundary County Hospital. “Up here, we’re slow to try new things. But KMC is a leader, even nationally.”
Kootenai Medical Center now handles most types of care, except serious burn victims, open-heart surgery and intensive care for infants. Fifteen years ago, however, KMC faced a paradox.
Hospital leaders wanted more doctors and more specialists to build a great medical center, said Bob Seehusen, with the Idaho Medical Association. But a great medical center was needed to draw those specialists.
Meanwhile, the country was battling recession and one of the region’s largest employers - the Silver Valley’s Bunker Hill Mine - had just gone belly up.
It seemed a strange time to plunk $25 million into renovating a tiny hospital that had not grown since the advent of Medicare in 1966.
Enter KMC administrator Joe Morris.
Portland-born and Seattle-schooled, Morris landed at KMC after residency at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center.
Taking over as administrator in the late 1970s, he quickly established himself as a visionary, viewed by friends and foes as a sort of Hagadone of health care in Coeur d’Alene.
“If he’s not directing the orchestra, he’s at least the first chair violinist,” said Kay Kendig, director of the Panhandle Health District’s home health care program.
Morris pushed to ensure the new hospital offered top-of-the-line technology and was best in the region. It was much the same tack tourism dynamo Duane Hagadone took two years later with his Coeur d’Alene Resort.
Morris “likes building bigger and better things,” said Jack Riggs, a Coeur d’Alene-born Air Force veteran who got his start in KMC’s emergency room. “He saw a direction he thought we should go in and he took us there.”
Morris wasn’t alone. In the mid-1980s, the Idaho Panhandle was changing. The resort promised to recast North Idaho as a tourist mecca. Business recruiter Jobs Plus was created, and KMC began recruiting neurosurgeons and other specialists.
After only a year at KMC, the young Riggs noticed a problem: The ER offered good care, but lots of waiting. Between car accidents and heart attacks, doctors rushed to treat broken arms, sore throats and skinned knees.
“About 80 percent of the people we treated weren’t severe enough to need a hospital, but lots of these people didn’t have a family doctor,” Riggs said.
Seeing an untapped market, Riggs opened North Idaho Immediate Care, a 16-hour emergency clinic for people with minor injuries.
A decade later, Riggs employs 50 people in two such clinics. A third is under construction.
Hospital life used to resemble an episode of “M*A*S*H*,” the sitcom about a Korean War Army hospital, Riggs said. Doctors were kings and administrators kept books.
With the advent of managed care, some doctors said, the more accurate scenario is the Chicago-based drama “E.R.,” where physicians occasionally face with financial issues.
Because of rising costs, services are shifting away from hospitals.
“In the old days, if you broke a leg, you were admitted to the hospital,” said Terry Peoples, with the Idaho Hospital Association. “Now, everything is out-patient, out-patient, out-patient.”
KMC’s empire continues to grow, in part, because of its move into out-patient services.
The hospital finished a $1.6 million resource center this year and is planning to break ground on a radiology lab and physicians’ offices in Post Falls this summer. The hospital even offers immediate care and is part of a network of doctors starting their own insurance group.
“In some cases, we have to learn to compete, and others we have to learn to be partners,” Morris said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color) Graphic: Health care growth