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Nutting couldn’t be finer

Carrie Click

There’s a great old grandfather clock that stands and chimes in the main entrance of Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. It’s much like the man who gave the clock to the hospital in 1957. It’s antiquated and charming, and instantly warms the room around it, making everyone who comes in contact with it feel comfortable.

It’s much like Dr. Burtis Nutting: Glenwood Springs’ very own grandfather of health care.

Dr. Nutting – or “Doc,” as he’s known – is celebrating his 100th birthday today. His advice for a long, healthy life makes him smile broadly.

“Smoke good cigars,” he laughed mischievously. “And drink rot-gut whisky!”

Actually, Doc is kidding. He has a wry, sweet sense of humor that he taps frequently.

“I stopped drinking when Betty was a little girl,” he smiled, “because I told her I was going to take her to see Santa Claus, and she said, `Dad, that was two days ago!’ I stopped smoking in ’67.”

On Thursday, Doc and members of his family were in Grand Junction, at the home of daughter Betty Heritage, chatting and reminiscing.

Doc uses a walker to get around, but more importantly, he still can get around. Up until a year ago, he had his driver’s license and lived on his own. When he broke his hip May 11, 2001, his son Jim said Nutting lost some physical and mental mobility, but he’s still got a twinkle in his eye, and he’s quick to share a joke or anecdote from decades ago.

Doc doesn’t have any magic formula for living 100 years. Betty says that he’s never adhered to any strict diet or exercise plan. He did, however, spend his working years working – and working harder than it seemed humanly possible.

“You’ve got to work if you’re going to amount to anything,” Doc said simply.

Those were words Doc lived by.

From 1938 until 1971, Doc was Glenwood Springs’ doctor, working seven days a week, seeing up to 30 patients a day, and performing 700 surgeries a year.

He cared for patients from Leadville to Rifle, and from Aspen to Meeker. Doc delivered over 4,000 babies, never losing one child or one mother. And for much of that time, he was the only surgeon-physician in the area.

Doc said that he always knew he wanted to be a doctor. He was born in Delta on Sept. 15, 1902, when Teddy Roosevelt was president.

Doc’s father didn’t live nearly as long as his son. He was electrocuted in a Telluride mine when Doc was just a toddler.

At 15, Doc ran away from home – and stayed away for two years.

“I was a drop-out,” Doc said, almost proudly. “But after two years of working in the wheatfields and shoveling grain, I’d had enough.”

He came home and graduated from Delta High School in 1922 – at 19, the oldest student in his class.

Doc studied pre-med at Western State College in Gunnison, then went on to the University of Colorado Medical School, where he graduated in 1929.

Doc and Margaret “Johnnie” Johnston met in Seattle and married in 1930. Johnnie was a nurse. She fit right into Doc’s world, helping him out occasionally in his practice through the years.

The couple had three children: Jim, now 68, Don, 67, and Mary “Betty” Elizabeth, 64, all of whom grew up in Glenwood Springs. Doc delivered Jim and Betty.

“It was all I had time for!” smiled Doc.

Doc began his medical career not in Glenwood Springs but at the Empire Zinc Co. in Gilman. He practiced there for 6.5 years. During that time, he also took a year and a half during the Depression to get a degree in surgery from the University of Pennsylvania. There, he learned to perform surgeries from head to toe – from appendectomies to c-sections to orthopedic surgery.

Doc was on his way to Cedaredge in 1938 to “hang up my shingle” as he says, when he heard that Dr. Porter, the local doctor in Glenwood Springs, had died.

“There was a job opening,” he said, “and I took it.”

What he took was an enormous patient load. Dr. Porter had run his own 18-bed hospital, located in what is now the US Bank building at 8th and Grand in downtown Glenwood Springs.

Doc Nutting kept Porter’s name on the hospital marquee and started seeing patients in his second floor office. The hospital was on the third floor. Doc ran the entire outfit, also making house calls from Aspen to Rifle.

When World War II broke out, Doc remained in Glenwood Springs.

“A lot of other doctors got shipped off to the war. But I was 39 years old by then and getting a little old, so I stayed here,” he smiled, a hint of irony showing through.

But the war made Doc’s life even busier.

“There were no days off during the war,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Besides Dr. Porter’s Hospital, the Navy converted the Hotel Colorado and the Hot Springs Lodge and Pool into a naval convalescent hospital.

Doc had his hands more than full tending to the local citizenry, and used the naval hospital’s resources to the town’s benefit. Penicillin and other medical breakthroughs were available to the armed forces, but were severely rationed to civilians.

“Dad saved more than one life by managing to get medicines that weren’t readily available to the general public,” Jim said.

Doc worked with the help of one assistant who helped with the hospital and gave anesthesia during surgeries.

“Dad’s medical records amounted to an index card he’d file on each patient,” Jim said. “And you couldn’t make an appointment. People would just line up in the office waiting for Dad. He had a big waiting room.”

“It was like a barber shop,” said Doc. “You know, take a number.”

Practicing medicine was a lot different then than it is today. Doc says there was no health insurance, so he kept costs low for his patients.

Betty’s boyfriends or Jim’s buddies would break something or get sick and they’d just show up at Doc’s to get treated. Money wasn’t discussed.

Doc would also sit on the sidelines at the high school football games – just in case a player got hurt.

“People would pay for health care with chickens, vegetables, livestock – whatever they had,” said Betty. “And Dad never charged fellow medical professionals like the local druggist or nurses.”

In the event patients did pay, surgeries were $50 or less. At one point, he raised his rates from $3 a day for a hospital stay, including medication and care, to $4.12.

“That was our break-even point,” Doc smiled.

Because Doc was such a vital link to every local person’s well-being, he was a reluctant local celebrity.

“Absolutely everybody knew Dad,” Betty said. “When he’d walk down the street, every person knew him.”

“I was known as Doc, and then later I was known as Old Doc,” he said laughing. “Everybody knew me.”

Doc’s schedule kept him from having any hobbies.

“My hobby was my work,” he said.

Even vacations during this time centered around medicine. Doc would visit the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota every year.

“I wanted to see what they were doing,” he said.

“That was Dad’s continuing medical education,” added Jim.

Doc’s children remember growing up with their father – albeit in spurts and starts. Even before the age of the pager, people managed to locate the only doctor in town.

“We could never do anything or go anywhere – not the movies, not out to dinner, not Christmas – that Dad wasn’t called away,” added Betty. “We never finished a meal at home that someone didn’t call and take him out.”

“Really, the only place we could go was Grizzly Creek on Sundays” said Jim. “We could go fishing up there sometimes, and they never found us there.”

When Betty and Jim talk with their father now about Valley View Hospital, they still refer to it as “the new hospital.” Its construction was completed in 1955 – due, in large part, to Dr. Nutting.

When the war ended and soldiers returned home, the Glenwood Springs area was faced with a medical crisis. Other hospitals in the region had closed down, and people were moving in, to the east with skiers and to the west with ranchers. Doc’s hospital had grown to 26 beds, but that wasn’t enough to care for the growing population.

A group of local businessmen worked with Doc to come up with a solution – a bigger and better hospital with adequate staff and facilities.

“I helped them every way I could. I had to sign a waiver saying I would close down my hospital. I was happy to do it,” said Doc. “I didn’t want to run a hospital.”

Utilizing the Hill-Burton Act enacted in 1946, which provided federal money to municipalities to build health care facilities, the group worked together to obtain the land, resources and funds necessary to build Valley View Hospital.

The new facility was sponsored by the Glenwood Springs Mennonite congregation, and Mennonite staff and volunteers came from across the country to work at Valley View.

At Valley View, his schedule was a bit more sane. New doctors arrived, taking some of the tremendous burden off of Glenwood Springs’ sole physician – finally.

Doc earned a well-deserved retirement in 1971, but it wasn’t easy.

“It was terrible to learn how to loaf,” he laughed. “But after I got that settled, I was fine.”

“You do a good job at it now,” smiled Jim. Father and son split time between Betty’s house in Grand Junction, Jim’s house in Swink near La Junta, and Doc’s condominium in Glenwood Springs.

“Wherever he goes, I go. We spend two months here, two months there,” Jim said.

After 100 years of medical care and community giving. Doc has a lot to show for it. He was named Colorado Citizen of the Year in 1956. His alma mater, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, recently honored him with a special ceremony for being the oldest living graduate of the school. Last week he received a signed birthday card from President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush.

And there are 4,000 Glenwood Springs natives who can thank Doc for bringing them into the world.

Doc’s career in medicine influenced members of his family. Daughter Betty is a nurse. She remembers helping her father at his hospital when she was in third grade. Son Jim finished pre-med but opted for a career in education.

Both of Doc’s wives had careers in medicine: Johnnie and his second wife, Esther Brown, who was a medical assistant. She died in 1996.

Bob Nutting, M.D. is a “the other Dr. Nutting.” He is a specialist in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery and practices in Southern California.

“I was the little nephew,” he smiled. “I can remember as a fourth-grader watching Uncle Doc operate. It made me want to become a doctor.”

Doc has four grandchildren and four great grandchildren, one of whom is in her first year of medical school at Johns Hopkins.

“It’s kind of like a virus,” Doc said of the family’s interest in medicine.

Perhaps the best symbol of Dr. Nutting’s good work is the old clock that greets every person who walks in the Valley View Hospital’s door. The plaque next to the clock says he is known for his “gentle voice and healing hands.”

He received the clock from an appreciative patient, Harold Sutton, of Meeker. The clock, handmade in 1893, was purchased at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Sutton family.

“This is a fitting tribute to a kind man, a fine physician and surgeon, and a fine man,” the plaque reads. The clock stands tall, gently ticking comfort and warmth.


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