Steamboat hospital welcomes neurologist, rheumatologist
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In an ongoing effort to expand the hospital’s offerings and keep patients from needing to travel, the UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center now has a neurologist and rheumatologist on staff.
Dr. Tracy Vargas joined the UCHealth Neurology Clinic at the end of August.
Born and raised in Denver, Vargas spent eight years serving as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Medical Corps. She spent her residency at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, and for the past four years served at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Vargas also spent two-and-a-half years serving in the Peace Corps in El Salvador.
“I’m very excited to be in Steamboat,” she said.
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Since childhood, she often visited the mountains, and wanted to live in a smaller town as she transitioned out of the military.
Vargas said she was drawn to the service-oriented aspect of the Peace Corps and military, and in joining the YVMC staff, likes that the full-time neurologist position is one of significant need in the region.
“I don’t want to feel like I am not serving a purpose,” she said. “In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen a big need.”
With her time in the Peace Corps, Vargas is fluent in Spanish, which she said helps her connect to the Spanish-speaking community, and allows them to feel more comfortable talking about their care.
Prior to hiring Vargas, there was a neurologist who visited Steamboat once per month. Patients had to sometimes wait months for an appointment where now they can be seen in a matter of just a week or two — or of course, sooner in an emergency situation.
Based on a continual needs assessment, “We are slowly plugging in the specialties,” said Practice Administrator Ted Morton.
“People actually relocate to the area because of health care,” Morton said. And more specialized doctors “gives people another reason to stay here and not have to travel to Grand Junction or the Front Range.”
For the most part, Vargas divides the patients she sees into an older and younger population.
In older patients, she mostly sees people for things like dementia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
In all ages, “I see a lot of headaches,” and patients with epilepsy and concussions.
“I like neurology because the brain is a fascinating organ,” she said. “It is really so interesting and complex.”
And the brain both serves the same purpose for everyone and is totally unique in each patient, she said.
Transitioning during a pandemic has been a challenge, she said, especially for her kids, ages 2, 6 and 8. But she said she’s lucky to have help from her husband, and they are all excited to ski.
Dr. Nicole Cotter joined the UCHealth Rheumatology Clinic in September. She moved to Steamboat in January with her kids and husband, Jim Cotter, an emergency medicine physician at the hospital.
Cotter practiced in Shreveport, Louisiana, for 10 years, where she worked at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. She spent her residency at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston.
Primarily treating systemic inflammation and autoimmune diseases, Cotter said she likes the specialty.
“It’s a puzzle. Rheumatology is all about putting pieces together and coming up with a diagnosis based on the evidence,” Cotter said. “Rheumatologist figure out the puzzle when other people can’t.”
About half of the patients Cotter has seen so far transferred their care from the Front Range. “They are super grateful not to have to make the commute,” she said.
The other half of her patients haven’t seen a rheumatologist before, Cotter said, or saw one years ago but dropped the care because of the distance required.
The thing Cotter most often treats is rheumatoid arthritis.
She also evaluates and manages osteoarthritis and other conditions related to joint inflammation.
“People think of arthritis that just affects old people or joints,” Cotter said. “But it’s really a systemic problem that affects other organs.”
Cotter also has a learning fellowship from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
Having the combination of rheumatology and integrated medicine is unique, she said, and beneficial, especially in addressing lifestyle habits that drive inflammation.
While all triggers for systemic inflammation aren’t known or preventable, there are lifestyle aspects that can improve management, she said.
For Cotter’s kids, the transition just before the onset of the pandemic was hard in that they had just started to make friends and get involved with activities. But the whole famly has still adapted well, she said, including with the snow.
Cotter grew up skiing on vacation, including in Steamboat. “I broke my leg on Heavenly Daze when I was 7 years old.”
Both specialists represent grassroots clinics, Morton said, and fill a need and desired service for the Northwest Colorado region.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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Peak Health Alliance, a health care purchasing cooperative created in Summit County in 2018 after it had one of the highest average health care costs in the nation, is looking to expand to Routt County.