Steamboat ER doctor retains passion for community medicine after 35 years
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On May 5, 1983, Dr. David Wilkinson arrived at Routt Memorial Hospital in the heart of downtown Steamboat Springs for his very first day of work. Today, some 35 years later, he said he has no plans to leave his post anytime soon.
“It’s all I have ever done,” Wilkinson said of emergency medicine. “The reality is that if you practice emergency medicine in a big city setting, the burnout rates tend to be pretty high. The hours are hard, the job is stressful and you don’t get that other piece of the reward — the community.”
He was 28 when he landed in Steamboat, arriving from the Oakland, California, area. The young doctor was looking to advance his medical career, and at the same time, achieve his childhood goal of living in the mountains. He may not have known it at the time, but Steamboat Springs would be the perfect place to blend his ambitions.
Wilkinson, better known to locals as Dr. Dave, was overwhelmed by the sense of community he found here. His colorful personality and the fact he was not afraid to let that personality shine quickly made him a favorite in the community.
“If you are going to have a memorable personality, the first part is that you have to work hard to treat people well,” Wilkinson said. “When I’m in the emergency department, I will get a chair for every patient and sit down and talk to them face to face.”
Wilkinson is the most experienced of the seven doctors who currently serve in the UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center’s Emergency Department. Together, the doctors boast more than 127 years of combined experience.
Wilkinson also has worked with Routt County Search and Rescue, Steamboat Powdercats and the U.S. Ski Team’s freestyle program and has volunteered at a number of annual events including the Steamboat Marathon.
Wilkinson said he treasures the role he played on Steamboat Ski Patrol, which he joined shortly after arriving, and he’s worked as the group’s medical director for a number of years.
“It’s great because we get to interface with all pieces of the community,” Wilkinson said. “You get to branch out and play a role as a doctor with community resources, which is really rewarding.”
Wilksinson also has responded in times of crisis, and he remembers well the day he was called to the emergency department to treat the victims of the explosion that leveled the Good News Building in February 1994. He was trained to respond to mass casualties, but on that day, it was real as he cared for injured victims as they poured through the doors of the emergency room. And while there were a number of serious injuries, no one died in the explosion.
Some doctors might crave what a larger town has to offer, but Wilkinson has defined what it means to be a doctor in a small town, providing the type of care many would expect from hospitals serving larger populations.
“Because it was a small hospital, there were lots of other dimensions to the practice,” Wilkinson said. “I’ve helped on probably 3,000 orthopedic surgical cases. I’ve helped deliver C-sections and maybe 100 babies over the years. In our hospital, you get to do more than just emergency medicine.”
During his tenure at the local hospital, Wilkinson has witnessed changes in technology as medicine moves forward, and he maintains his eagerness to keep learning and stay on top of where medicine is headed.
“I moved here in 1983, and Steamboat was really a small town then — really small,” Wilkinson said. “I skied here with my family in the late-1960s when there was no gondola, and at that point in time, I knew that whatever I was going to do I was going to end up in the mountains.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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