Keelan: Odyssey of a country doctor

By Don Keelan

Long-time Arlington resident Norman Rockwell memorialized the unique position of the Arlington area country doctor. The famous illustrator would often have then local doctor George A. Russell, M.D., as a model. Over his 57-year practice, Russell set the standard for the American country doctor.

In the summer of 1987, Michael Welther, M.D., unpacked his suitcases and those of his wife Harriet and their two pre-teenage daughters at a rental house in West Arlington, Vermont. The Welthers had traveled from Tucson, Arizona to Arlington, where Dr. Welther planned to open a family medical practice. His three years of residency and five years of practicing in Tucson were now behind him.

Don Keelan

He would join Dr. Russell’s legacy as only the third doctor to have had a medical practice in Arlington in the prior 64 years. There was no medical doctor in town for the 10 years before Welther’s arrival.

Earlier that year, Welther answered a request from an Arlington ad hoc recruiting committee searching nationally for a doctor to relocate and open a practice in Arlington. It was a perfect fit: Dr. Welther wished to apply his skills in a rural area, and his wife Harriet had family roots in New Jersey and upstate New York.

His transition from a major U.S. city with a population of 640,000 in 1987 to a rural Vermont town of 2,300 shocked the Chicago native. At least that was the case until he arrived at the building that the town committee selected to be his medical office.

The one-story, 900-square foot, red-painted cape stood south of St. James Episcopal Church.  Dr. Welther was astonished when he saw the building that was to be home to his practice. He could only imagine what the interior was going to look like.

The building’s kitchen was the practice’s business office; the living room was designated as the waiting room; and between the two rooms, table counters were set up for his staff of two. The cape’s two bedrooms were converted into exam rooms. This was The Arlington Family Medical Practice.  One serious factor was unaddressed: there were no patients.

That was 35 years ago, and there have been many changes since. Tucson’s population grew to 1.1 million; Arlington’s population increased by 200. The tiny medical building was replaced in 1988/9 with a 5,000 square foot structure. Except for a three-year absence from 2015-2018 to be the in-charge physician at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s Pownal campus, Dr. Welther was always present at the Arlington Medical Center. Until December 3, 2021.

On that day, Arlington’s third physician in nearly 100 years gladly turned in his laptop computer and sadly removed his stethoscope for the last time. During his tenure, he went from zero patients to over 4,000 and was present for more than 100,000 office visits.

Dr. Russell’s medical practice method was not lost on his Arlington successor. Russell was unique in many ways. He served his Arlington neighbors for over 50 years. At the same time, he established one of Vermont’s most extensive collections of Vermontiana; today displayed at the Martha Canfield Memorial Library in Arlington.

Upon seeing a patient who required immediate special care, it was not unusual for Dr. Russell to close his practice and personally bring the patient to a medical specialist or hospital, even if it meant driving to New York City.

Likewise, on any given Thursday morning, Dr. Welther was always absent from his office. He was, as he had been for so many years, off checking on his patients residing in Bennington County nursing homes or rehab centers.

Other changes have taken place at Dr. Welther’s “old office.” Now, a federally qualified health care clinic, the Battenkill Valley Health Center, with a team of over thirty-three medical, dental, and mental health personnel, serves thousands of patients locally and from neighboring New York and Massachusetts.

No longer does one have to go into a converted bedroom for a medical exam. Also gone forever is seeing Doctor Welther arrive at the home of one in need and hold that patient’s hand or that of a family member. That will be missed.  So will the country doctor from Tuscon, Arizona, who served Arlington, Vermont, for so many years. May he now, in retirement, take care of one more patient, Dr. Michael.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.