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New physician wants to 'pull out all the stops for Cloquet'

Dr. Verna Thornton

It was snowing the first time Dr. Verna Thornton came to northeastern Minnesota — in April.

While that might not be much of surprise to those who have spent more than a couple of years in the area, it was a bit of a rude awakening to the Alabama-native and suburban Atlanta-based gynecologist. However, the people she met at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet made a bigger impression.

"I got up here and it was a blizzard," Thornton said. "The winds were 45 miles an hour. The snow was outrageous, but the people were so warm."

Thornton, 56, had been practicing for nearly 30 years outside Atlanta, where she helped expand women's health services outside city limits.

When she began with a group private practice, she performed the first laparoscopic resection of an ectopic pregnancy in Coweta County, Ga. The procedure is a minimally invasive version of a surgery that once required a large incision across the abdomen, Thornton said.

Ectopic, or tubal, pregnancies occur when a fertilized egg attaches itself to the fallopian tube or ovary instead of the wall of the uterus. If left untreated, it can be deadly to women, Thornton said.

Thornton also saw women being sent to Atlanta for more mundane issues faced during pregnancy, like gestational diabetes or high blood pressure, and wanted to make sure they had an option to be treated closer to home.

"I was just like, 'No, we need to start taking care of those patients right here,'" she said.

After 14 years of private practice, Thornton said she was feeling a little burned out, so she decided to start her own solo practice in Peachtree City, another Atlanta suburb.

She said she did well and enjoyed it, but her practice was in a hospital that housed more than 1,100 physicians and had more than 250 beds for patients — almost four times what is available at CMH. The practice was more and more consumed by the business side of medicine.

"It is a business, but I seemed to be spending more time on the business end than the clinical side of medicine and I really missed that clinical side," Thornton said.

Thornton said after about 13 years, she really became burned out again. She was concerned the strain of running a practice was beginning to affect her relationships with patients.

She and her husband, attorney Chuck Sylvester, began to explore options for a potential change. The pair went to interviews in Maine, Oregon and other places around the country, but something was off.

"It just didn't seem to be the right demographic or geographic fit," Thornton said. "Then we got an interview here and I always remembered Minnesota fondly from my youth. I had an uncle who was a physical therapist in the Twin Cities. We came up during summer and Thanksgivings. I remembered even as a child how nice the people were.

"I got here to Community Memorial Hospital and it was just like a feeling came over me — I can't even describe it — this was going to be my next career home," she said.

Thorton said Rick Breuer, CEO of CMH, and retiring gynecologist Skott Nielsen helped her feel at home in her new hospital setting when she arrived in October.

Also factoring into Thornton's decision, she said, was Minnesota's attitude toward health care. In her Georgia practice, Thornton said she was the only physician in the area to accept Affordable Care Act insurance policies.

"I saw how motivated, employed, working people were denied access to health care," she said. "I had an affluent patient population and the majority of the people on the Affordable Care Act in my clinic were self-employed ... for the first time, I saw just how broken the health care system was and it frustrated me."

In Cloquet, Thornton found not only a welcoming medical community and the rich outdoor environment she and her husband sought — she also found a friendly patient population excited to have her.

"The patients here have been just fantastic," she said. "People are just like, 'Thank God you're here and you're a lady and you know what you're talking about.' That's the vibe I get and it just makes me want to up my game, it really makes me want to get in there and pull out all the stops for the people of Cloquet."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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