‘Too cool’ Steamboat emergency doctor with larger-than-life personality celebrates 35 years
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Colleagues of Dr. Dave Wilkinson use many different adjectives to describe the free-spirited emergency room doctor who has been a fixture in Steamboat Springs since he arrived in town in May 1983 — “entertaining,” “a champion,” “calming,” “enthusiastic” and “too cool.”
But it only takes a sentence or two for longtime Steamboat Springs resident Jace Romick to paint a picture of the man he has called a good friend for more than 30 of those years.
“That guy has got a zest for life,” Romick said with a grin. “He loves sports and just being active. He never sits still.”
Time has not faded Romick’s memory of the first time he met Wilkinson on a summer afternoon almost three decades ago.
Wilkinson rolled up on his mountain bike wearing a neon outfit that stood out even for the ’80s. He didn’t look like any of the doctors Romick had ever met, and it left an impression.
“At first, I thought that he dressed that way to get attention,” Romick said. “But looking back now, I realize that was just who he was.”
Over the years, the two friends have played tennis, ridden dirt and mountain bikes and skied and waterskied together, and also embarked on some epic trips to Lake Powell in search of adventure.
Since arriving in Steamboat Springs, Wilkinson, who is known as Dr. Dave to many, has been making impressions — sometimes with his flashy dress, especially on holidays, and sometimes, with his charismatic personality. However, the place where he received the most attention, and often the most respect, has been in the emergency department of the local hospital where he set the bar when it comes to health care in Routt County.
“What he has done for this community in 35 years is absolutely incredible,” Romick said. “There are very few people that have impacted this community as much as he had or touched as many lives as he has.”
During the past three decades, the doctor from Michigan has worked at Routt Memorial Hospital, Yampa Valley Medical Center and now UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, and 2018 marks his 35th year of practicing medicine in Routt County.
Romick said it’s not unusual when he is hanging out with Wilkinson to have people approach the doctor, shake his friend’s hand and say, “thank you.”
“I had a feeling that he was a perfect fit for a town like this, and the lifestyle,” said Dr. Larry Bookman, former emergency room director who hired Wilkinson. “It hasn’t surprised me that he stayed here forever — just like I did, and just like pretty much everybody that I hired over the years has.”
Today, Wilkinson is the veteran on an emergency room staff that includes David Cionni, who has been with the emergency department for 24 years, Nathan Anderson and Laila Powers, who have been here for 18 years, and Jeanne Fitzsimmons, who has been on staff for 17. Laura Sehnert and Carlos Ortiz fill out a staff, which has a combined service time of 127 years.
The mountains were calling
Wilkinson always dreamed of living in the mountains and enjoying the lifestyle that accompanied that.
As an undergraduate, Wilkinson attended college in the spring, summer and fall, and then in the winter, he would head to the mountains, living in several different ski towns during those years. But when he got into medical school, spending winters skiing was no longer an option.
However, during medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Wilkinson discovered a unique way to complete his classload while living near Vail.
“The first two years of medical school you are learning the science behind medicine, so you are sitting in an auditorium listening to lectures all day long,” he said. “Back then, there was no electronic media, so what they did was tape record the lectures and then someone typed up a transcript of what the lectures were …. and every eight weeks or so, we would take all of our class exams on one day.”
So it dawned on Wilkinson that he only needed to be in Michigan for the tests.
“I thought that they didn’t take attendance, and I just have to take the test,” Wilkinson said. “So in late November, I moved to Vail, and I would get my roommates back in Ann Arbor to send me the transcripts. I would study religiously every weekend, and then every eight weeks, I would drive back to Ann Arbor to take the exams.”
His remote plan worked, and he finished in the top 10 of his class. He also was elected as the only student member of the Dean’s Council that would interview and accept incoming medical students.
“In the end, and in a roundabout way, I did what I wanted to do in my own fashion and became a doctor,” Wilkinson said.
After graduating from medical school, Wilkinson headed to Northern California to complete his residency. And then, while in Colorado on an elective rotation, Wilkinson met Bookman, who was part of the teaching faculty at Denver General. A few months later, when Bookman was hiring doctors to fill positions in Steamboat Springs, he reconnected with Wilkinson.
“We met up in Sausalito and talked it over, and he agreed to come join me,” Bookman said. “I had an impression of him as a medical student. I liked him. I like characters, and he is a character for sure. He did his own thing, but for me, he was a perfect fit for what was going on in our community.”
The two worked together on Steamboat Ski Patrol for a few years, and it proved to be a place where Wilkinson continued to impress people, including Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke.
Kohnke admits he was caught off-guard when he first met Wilkinson. He didn’t look like the other doctors in town, but once again, it didn’t take long for Wilkinson to make an impression.
“When I think of a doctor with the best bedside manner that I have ever seen, that’s Wilkinson,” Kohnke said.
In the years that followed, Bookman started to step back from Ski Patrol, and Wilkinson began to work more regularly. As medical advisor, Wilkinson oversaw ambulance and medical protocols that define how, when and at what levels patients who are injured on the mountain were treated. He oversees the annual patrol orientation.
Kohnke describes Wilkinson as a role model, not only for other emergency medicine doctors, but for the Ski Patrol staff as well.
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.
Tackling new challenges
Wilkinson has been instrumental in addressing the opiate crisis in Steamboat Springs through his work with the RX Task Force and his involvement in a program at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, which aimed to cut down on the use of opioids in the emergency department, where use dropped 40 percent as a result of the pilot program.
“I think Dr. Dave has been one of the strongest clinical champions in our community to really take a lead on addressing the opioid epidemic from the perspective of a provider,” said Ken Davis with the Northwest Colorado Community Health Partnership. “We could not have gotten nearly as much done without his support and his endorsement, because I think a lot of people respect him in the community.”
When Wilkinson isn’t in the emergency department, he still enjoys the lifestyle that drew him to the Yampa Valley in the first place. The Wilkinsons own a cabin in Hahn’s Peak where he enjoys mountain biking, waterskiing and hanging out with his wife, Lisa, and three children Devin, 26; Dylan, 22; and Riley, 20.
Wilkinson is well known for his love of getting dressed up for Halloween and Steamboat Ski Area’s Closing Day festivities.
“The town kind of embraces those days,” Wilkinson said. “I love St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and the end of the ski season. I started doing it a long time ago and got caught up in getting dressed up and having fun with it.”
He said it was a way to connect with the community he has come to love.
“I love the community here. I spent a lot of time before I came here in Vail, Aspen and the rest of it. Those are wonderful places, but the spirit here is really unique. That’s why I came, and that’s why I stayed here.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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