Imagine living hundreds of miles away from your doctor, then hearing he's about to scale back and direct his expertise closer to his own home.
The anxiety of change and isolation would overwhelm any cancer patient. But, people say they have high hopes a new leader is emerging. "It gives you a kind of a peace, because he knows exactly what's wrong with you, and he knows exactly what to tell you," patient, Chester Wirtz said.
"He must be a compassionate person to come out here and take care of us old people,"Wirtz's wife, Grace said.
When Grace and Chester Wirtz of Outlook, Montana heard Dr. Santala was scaling back his outreach work in Williston, they were concerned. Chester is able to receive chemotherapy treatments closer to home because of Dr. Santala, the Rural Outreach Program, and Mercy Medical Center nurses like Heidi Jeanotte. "There are so many communities around here who don't even have general primary-care providers. So, this is a huge asset to our community and surrounding communities," Jeanotte said.
Dr. Santala said traveling to the various communities, like Williston and Glasgow for nearly 30 years, has been a highlight to his career. Even though he plans to still practice his work in Billings, Dr. Santala says he'll miss traveling, "It's been fun to live through the boomtown environment. It's kind of interesting to experience that. If I would of stayed in Billings I would have not had the opportunity to enjoy it, if only one day a week," Dr. Santala said.
Every week for the past 27 years, Dr. Santala has flown all around to see his patients. He said the early mornings and extreme weather might be better suited for a younger physician, like new Billings Clinic Oncologist, Dr. Pamela Smith. "Those are big shoes. We all have different styles, and different approaches, and so I'll bring my own style to this clinic and do the very best I can. I'm very grateful to have Dr. Santala right now. I use him all the time. He's wonderful to talk to, to get advice from, to run cases by, and all of that. It's been a very friendly environment, it's been very nice for a less experienced physician to have someone who has been doing this for a long time who can just learn," Dr. Smith said.
Dr. Smith said her background in rural outreach medicine from the Tuff Medical Center in Boston will help her transition to seeing patients in Williston. "In some other populations you feel like you're taking care of the worried well. This population is the hard-working middle class. They almost don't get enough medical care. So, it's so nice to be able to help them with their problems," Dr. Smith said.
Dr. Smith said she's looking forward to seeing patients from all over and working with Billings Clinic's oncologists. At last count, Billings Clinic has 60 providers who travel to the various outreach clinics in 22 communities in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.
Dr. Santala will still be practicing at Billings Clinic, and he is only scaling back his outreach career. Dr. Santala says he's excited to train other doctors so they can transition into the outreach role.