Respected physician leaves her mark on the community
When Dr. Vicki Anderson first came to Cloquet, it was like moving back home. Though Anderson grew up in what she light-heartedly calls a “Norwegian ghetto” in South Minneapolis, she said her childhood neighborhood was close-knit and all about church and family.
“There were tons of kids in my neighborhood, and our parents would just let us go out and play,” she related. “There was an old, retired German Shepherd police dog that would come and drag us back if we got too close to the street. I’m really a small town person. I love being able to walk or bike to work and not have to drive half an hour to go shopping anywhere.”
And so, when she spent nine months in Cloquet as part of the Rural Physicians Associate Program (RPAP) during her third year of medical school, she immediately felt at home. After she was hired as a full-time physician at Puumala Clinic following medical school, that relationship with the community grew and expanded. And when she retired last week after 38 years, the entire community embraced her – as part of the “family.”
Anderson grew up as the middle child in a family of three children. Her dad was a self-taught airline mechanic and her mother, a homemaker, had once been an Army nurse.
“After WWII, she became a homemaker, raised us and went back to nursing after we were old enough that she could trust us alone,” said Anderson. “She never really talked much about her career as a nurse until after I went on to medical school. She had wonderful experiences. She went to the Philippines and she was a nursing student in downtown Chicago in a hospital during the pre-penicillin era, where they had wards and wards of children with gonorrhea in their eyes and all of those things you never seen anymore.”
By the time Anderson reached high school, she didn't have a clue what she wanted to do once she graduated.
“I was a good student and I loved to study, but there just weren’t a lot of people in my family who had gone to college. My dad was very mechanical and took home courses in how to become an airline mechanic. My brother and sister learned on the job as well. My sister started as a welder for an electronics firm and worked her way up to vice president. My brother inherited our dad’s mechanical ability and started out as an entrepreneur at 16, fixing other people’s cars, so I didn’t really have an example of why I should go on to college. I was moping around at the end of high school, wondering what I was going to do, and my mom said, ‘You know, what are you going to do to support yourself? You can’t type and you can’t spell!’”
The high school Anderson attended had some 2,000 students, 800 of them seniors, and one guidance counselor. During her five minutes with the counselor during her senior year, she walked in, the counselor looked at her grades and said, “Well, what would you like to do – be a nurse or a teacher?”
“At that point, none of that particularly appealed to me so I guessed I’d better go to college,” she acknowledged.
She enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter and the classes she discovered she liked the best were biology and microbiology. In her junior year, she still didn't know what she wanted to do, so she applied for graduate school in biology as well as medical school. The acceptance for medical school came out way before she’d finished her application for graduate school, however, and she only had two weeks to decide whether to accept it or give it up for good.
“When I got my acceptance into medical school, my mother, who had worked in the medical field, looked at me and said, ‘Do you really want to be a doctor?’ She knew what a doctor’s life would be and that it would be a consuming career. I said yes, I’d give it a try – and I’ve never regretted it. I loved it. I’ve always loved studying about medicine and reading about medicine and the history of medicine. I’m kind of obsessive-compulsive about it and was very focused on it. Fortunately, I channeled my obsessive-compulsive nature into studying and stayed clean!”
Anderson went to medical school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she was one out of only about 20 women in a class of 200.
“There were no quotas , but for 50 years, including when I came in, it seemed it was always 10 percent women every year,” she said. “Before that, you couldn’t have convinced me there was discrimination against women. I was so focused on what I was doing, I didn’t see the roadblocks until I got to medical school. Then I realized that these women have their point —there is discrimination. There were little things like it was hard to get to practice on male patients. I’d get assigned to females all the time, and here I was going into family practice!”
Anderson spent her third year in the Rural Associates program, working under Dr. Ricard Puumala in Cloquet.
“It really helped me having all that clinical exposure,” she said. “Everything just started making sense when I went back to school.”
She spent her fourth year in a residency program at the University of Minnesota Hospital, graduated in 1975 and then, at the invitation of Dr. Puumala, went back to Puumala Clinic to work full time as a family practitioner in 1976.
“I never wanted to be a specialist,” she attested. “To me, the body is whole, and I can hardly see someone for a sore throat without wanting to know their whole history. I just can't part it out that way, so I knew I'd never last as a specialist. And then, with local doctors like Byron and Lloyd Backus, Orv Swenson and Rick Puumala and his dad, who were pillars of family medicine at its finest, I had that example to follow."
Anderson and her husband Terry, who she'd met on a blind date in college and later married, found Cloquet to be exactly to their liking. At first they rented a little house across the street from Skutevik’s, owned by Charlotte Olson, who worked at the clinic and rented it to Dr. Puumala’s Rural Associates for years. “That was the coldest place I ever lived,” she said. “It had no insulation and no storm windows, and we used to go across to the 14th Street Sauna to warm up!”
They later moved into their current house in the 400 block of Avenue D. There was a housing shortage in the area at the time, and the house was one of only three they had lined up to look at.
“It was spring, and the whole street was lined in lilacs,” she recalled. “The houses here had white picket fences then, and as we drove down the street, I said, ‘I don’t care what the house looks like —I want to live on this street!’”
The house, where they live yet today, is the former home of Al Spafford, after whom the park and campground along the St.Louis River were named, and it was built right after the fire in 1920.
Anderson had made so many contacts when she was there as a Rural Associate, she had kind of a ready-made practice when she started as a full-time physician. Dr. Elizabeth Bagley, one of the few women doctors practicing in the area, had just retired.
“I had a ton of older women who wanted a female doctor, so I was busy from the get go,” she said. “There wasn’t any start-up time.”
She was a welcome addition to the clinic as well. At that time, the area wasn’t exactly flush with doctors and Dr. Ricard Puumala had been working pretty much solo for many years after his dad, Dr. Reino Puumala, had retired, plus he was on call every night and working as coroner as well.
“When I came, call became every other night and every other weekend for the two of us for 15 years,” recalled Anderson. “Then his daughter, Dr. Victoria Herron, joined us, and it was every third night. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! The three of us did that for 25 years until we joined with Raiter Clinic. Then there was less call and more evenings off —until electronic records came along!”
Anderson said there was such a collegial atmosphere in the medical community in Cloquet that she didn’t ever feel like she was on her own.
“All the doctors here were willing to stand beside me and give me whatever help I needed,” she said. “It was just one big happy family. Down in the Cities the big clinics were buying up the smaller clinics and there was starting to be more competition between doctors. It was not the same atmosphere as here, where I got the sense that we are all in it together. That was really special.”
Life as a young female doctor was not without its challenges, however. Once, when she answered the phone at the clinic, the man on the other end said, “I need to talk to a doctor. I’m having chest pains.” But when she replied, “I’m a doctor. How can I help?” he said, “No, I mean a real doctor!”
Not long after she started her practice here, Anderson found she had her hands a bit fuller than she expected.
“Reino Puumala invited me to make rounds with him at the Carlton Nursing Home (now Inter-Faith) the first week I was here,” she said. "We got all done with rounds and he said, ‘Well, now you’re the medical director.’ I didn’t know that I could say no at that point, and that was 38 years ago!”
Over the years she’s spent countless hours reviewing policies and procedures at the Carlton facility and made patient rounds there once a month, along with keeping in constant contact by phone with them and sometimes spending evenings or weekends providing support.
That same year, she was likewise startled to find she'd been passed the reins of the volunteer medical director of Carlton Fire and Rescue, for which she received a Lifetime Achievement Award this spring after 38 years with the department, making her the longest-serving volunteer medical director in the state of Minnesota.
“When I started there, it was just when things were getting more regulated,” said Anderson. “Around 25 or 30 years ago, the state started putting defibrillators on basic life support ambulances. A grant came around and I asked Carlton if they would be willing to do that, and they became one of three such departments in the state that were trying it out on a pilot basis. It was up to me to do the training, and I taught them how to read EKGs and operate the defibrillators.”
Anderson’s life became very busy very quickly – and she loved every minute of it, even doing regular rounds of house calls, which most of the local docs did at that time.
“My day off was typically my house call day, and I had my house call bag set up and ready to go,” she said. “I always had a car that was four-wheel drive because I often had to go out in the country or at night. House call day was really fun. There were always some stops where I knew I was not going to get out of there without coffee and treats and being shown this or that. I really enjoyed it. Also, a lot of things became very clear to me just by making a house call that might have otherwise taken me months to figure out. I remember one family who had a lot of kids who were sick a lot. When I made the house call one day, I noticed the mother was changing the baby on the kitchen counter. I thought this might be something that could be corrected a little bit.”
Anderson still made house calls up until the time she retired last week, but the number was far less because medical care has become more accessible over the years.
She figures she’s delivered 500-1,000 babies over the years, though the majority of her patients tended to be older people. She delivered her first baby during medical training, and as she said by the patient’s bedside, the woman’s pupils started to dilate and she said, “Oh, I have to have a bowel movement.”
“The nurse got the bedpan and I lifted up the sheets—and caught a baby!” said Anderson. “That was the last time I wore my wedding ring to work. I ended up having it professionally cleaned.”
Anderson enjoyed working with all types of patients on a daily basis, and at one point her youngest was a newborn and her oldest was 106.
“All ages and all variety of things – that’s what’s been so fun and challenging,” she said.
She said there have been many changes in the medical profession over the years, some of them better than others.
“When I first started it wasn’t unusual to have 20 patients in the hospital at one time, and a lot of it was for congestive heart failure. I can remember all these older people who would go and have their saunas on the weekend and their hearts couldn’t take it. Then they’d have to be admitted and have diuretics to get rid of the excess water in their lungs. Now there are better medications so they don’t have to be admitted for that.”
She said patients today are better informed and more interested in their health care, but they are also prone to falling for the all of the “designer drugs” that are touted in radio, TV and print advertising.
“I basically think that’s really bad,” she said. “Advertising works, and I have all kinds of people coming in convinced that they need a particular medication when they don’t have that disease. I find myself spending lots of time trying to educate them and be more convincing than the advertising. Most of it is pushing expensive medications when there are other, cheaper alternatives. You’ll notice that they aren’t really pushing drugs that are life-saving but are kind of elective things instead.”
Another big change has been the need for more documentation, she said – spending so much time working with insurance companies over which drugs they’ll cover, as well as more, and increasingly complex, medications. At Raiter Clinic, the changeover to electronic record keeping has been a major hurdle in recent years.
“The last few years, with all the new requirements of electronic records, took up a lot of time,” she said. “I always say my computer is my time sucker. It’s wonderful because of the organization and the accessibility, but it does take a lot of time. It was up to the individual doctors how much of the past information was transferred to the new systems, and with me being obsessive-compulsive, of course everything had to go in. It took weekends, and hours and nights. I was there until 5 or 6 in the morning sometimes.”
Anderson said many things about her job have remained the same, however.
“For me, it’s the importance of history taking and letting people tell their story,” she said. Hearing their story is so important and not jumping to conclusions. I think that gets lost in technology sometimes. I joke that the basic test for most new doctors is a complete blood count and a CT scan before a complete history is ever taken. I still think the value of talking has not changed, and that’s the most important thing.”
Anderson announced her pending retirement a year ago and felt bad to think she might actually retire before Dr. Puumala.
“When he finally announced he’d be retiring this spring, I felt relieved because I’d been feeling so guilty leaving before he did!” she said with a laugh. “When you love your work, it’s a hard decision. I still loved my work, I just didn’t love the hours any more. They were just too long.”
She delivered her last baby a month ago, and one of the next to the last babies was born to a family for whom she’d treated five generations.
Now, she’s looking forward to working in her garden this summer, taking organ lessons from Marge Stillwell and reading some of those medical history books she’s been collecting over the years.
“I couldn’t quite hang it up, though,” she admitted. “I want to keep my license, so I’m going to do ER work part time through the service they have at the hospital here, about 24 hours a month.”
Over 160 people attended Anderson's retirement party at the hospital last Saturday to wish her well and thank her. Another party is planned for her this weekend at Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton.
“It is really a tremendous honor,” she said.
And long after the balloons are gone, the flowers have faded and the last of her thank you notes are written, Anderson said she will sit back and remember all that this community has meant to her over the years.
“When I first started out in medicine, the standard practice was that you didn’t take care of friends or family,” she reflected. “After being here for so long, my patients have become my friends. If I didn’t take care of them, I wouldn’t have any patients. That’s one of the things I like most about a small town.”