Rick Herrington and Gary Knaus have a strong sense of their place in the Carbondale community.
Knaus, 65, was born in Glenwood Springs but grew up in Rifle. He considered being a veterinarian like his father but decided, “Delivering babies in the hospital is better than in a barn in the middle of winter,” and he went into medicine.
Herrington, 68, has served as team doctor for Roaring Fork High School, assisted in the implementation of an EMT service that now provides paramedic support, and played a part in the birth of over 500 children. His office in one of the many additions to the original Tri County Medical Center building, at the corner of Eighth Street and Highway 133, is home to an antique desk that once belonged to Dr. W. Ray Tubbs, who served the community before most of doctors at Roaring Fork Family Practice were even born.
The desk won’t make the move to the new 10,500-square-foot facility two blocks north along Highway 133 between Euclid and Sopris next week, but the sense of community and history will carry over.
Photos of the folks Knaus calls “quiet leaders in town” — former patients and residents who helped support the practice — will hang in the lobby of the new clinic.
“You just don’t want that part of Carbondale to get lost,” Knaus explained.
The Tri County Medical Center, which served portions Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, came into being in 1958, when the town of Carbondale banded together to attract a new doctor.
Tubbs, an old-fashioned practitioner who made house calls and operated out of his home next to the post office, had died in 1947. He was around long enough to help remove some corn from young Roz Turnbull’s nose when she got the notion to put it up there, an incident both Roz and her mother Ruth “Ditty” Perry recalled fondly. His departure left a void.
“There was great discussion about whether we could afford a doctor in Carbondale,” Perry recalled. “But the town was behind it. They raised money any way they could.”
A board was formed to oversee the construction of a new clinic to serve Carbondale and the surrounding area. Elmer Bair donated the land, and the architectural plans came out of a Sears catalogue.
It was a big deal when Harry Hendricks set up practice at Tri County Medical Center. Although Bob Perry, like many longtime residents, generally eschewed doctor’s visits for all but the most serious maladies, he made an appointment with Hendricks just to ensure the young doctor would have some business and stick around.
Over the ensuing decades, the clinic would serve four generations of Perrys, as well as an assortment of Nieslaniks, Fenders, Debeques, Gianinettis, Fergusons and other families with deep roots in the valley.
A GROWING PRACTICE
Al Waski took over from Hendricks around 1970, then turned things over to Herrington in 1974. It quickly became apparent that another set of hands was needed to keep up with the growing community, and Knaus joined in 1978.
Initially separate practices, they formed Herrington Knaus PC in 1980. In 1986, they bought the building from the board. The money for the sale went to local medical scholarships, and within the practice itself, not much changed.
“The only difference was that if we wanted something done or fixed it was our responsibility instead of the board’s,” explained Herrington.
The clinic was renamed Roaring Fork Family Physicians when it added service to El Jebel and hired another doctor.
“We decided Herrington, Knaus and Stall sounded too much like a law office,” Herrington quipped.
The practice continued to grow and add staff throughout the 1990s and 2000s, until overhead began to bog things down. The new medicine and diagnostics patients expect are expensive for a small operation to keep up with, and although the clinic was ahead of the curve in adopting computer records, its systems were rapidly becoming outdated.
“We simply got to the point where the cost of doing business was so high that we could not see our way clearly into the future,” said Herrington.
Their solution? Join forces with a bigger institution.
“If you have everybody integrated and pushing in the same direction, it’s going to improve the system,” explained Knaus.
Valley View Hospital bought the building and the practice effective Jan. 1, 2012.
For legal reasons, the clinic dropped “Physicians” and replaced it with “Practice,” tweaking the name but keeping the acronym. It’s also more accurate, as the practice now employs physician assistants and nurse practitioners.
It’s a sign of broader changes at Valley View Hospital, which has acquired other organizations like Pediatric Partners and has moved away from being just a hospital — as have many health systems around the country.
“We’re definitely much more of a full spectrum health-care organization,” said Stacey Gavrell, executive director for the Valley View Hospital Foundation.
Gavrell doesn’t believe the acquisition has changed the clinic’s tone.
“Our goal as Valley View is to continue to support the values that this practice has had for so long,” she said.
Herrington agreed that things have mostly been business as usual since the purchase.
“I don’t think any of our patients perceive that the business is run differently just because it’s owned differently,” he said.
One of the major perks of different ownership is the brand new clinic, which hosts an open house Tuesday night and opens for business July 21.
Knaus, for one, can’t wait.
“We’re maxed out in terms of space,” he said. Compared to the old building, which he called a “rabbit warren,” the new clinic will have nearly twice as many exam rooms, an additional procedure room, a break room and a new digital X-ray machine. Knaus will also get his own office, a comfort currently afforded only to Herrington out of nine providers, seven physicians and two physician assistants. In addition to the legacy wall, there’s a plan for public art, an idea for a rotating high school art exhibit and a community garden.
The construction cost, according to Gavrell, is being absorbed by the hospital. If the new building lasts as long as its predecessor, as Gavrell says it’s designed to, the cost of will be spread over decades as part of the 4 percent share of the annual budget the VVH chief financial officer has previously cited for building overhead.
“People should just see a more modern facility with more options and no change in cost,” Knaus said.
STILL THE SAME
In the end, medicine comes down to people, not facilities, and the staff won’t change.
“It’s still local. We have the same doctors,” said Tom Turnbull, who served on the Tri County board for many years. “Both of those guys have been a huge asset to this community.”
“What we’ve always had here is true medicine,” Roz Turnbull agreed. “Your doctor knows you, your history, your family...”
Both Herrington and Knaus say they have a few more years of practice left in them before retirement. Their passion for community medicine hasn’t waned.
“After 36 years, you still see something every day that you’ve never seen before,” said Knaus. “We’re taking care of our friends and neighbors. That’s part of what’s different about small-town medicine. It’s what makes it special.”
“To this day I still enjoy coming to work,” agreed Herrington. “We are so blessed. We have a bunch of these young doctors who are smart and compassionate and really care about people.”
He added that the clinic would always strive to be “caring, compassionate and affordable.”
“If you practice good medicine and take care of people, it all takes care of itself,” he said.