Well-traveled doctor retires after 44 years

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Dr. Bill James spent his last day at Chief Andrew Isaac Clinic on Wednesday reminiscing about his 44-year career as a physician, enjoying a potluck and participating in a final round of teary farewells.

Hugs and tears have been going on for weeks as clinic patients realize that Dr. James really is retiring.

Longtime patient and friend Shirley Demientieff deliberately scheduled herself for James' last appointment on his last day. James asked Demientieff why she bothered to show up since she never follows his advice anyway.

Out of James' earshot, Demientieff said, ''He's a great doctor for knowing what he's talking about. I don't know who I'm going to go to.''

James, 70, came to Alaska as a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service in 1959 and has never left except to pursue a specialty in pediatrics.

''It's been a great adventure,'' James said. ''I've gotten to see a lot of Alaska,'' he added, ticking off his many stations over the past four decades: the Pribilofs, Anchorage, Bering Sea coast, Southeast Alaska, Tanana and most of the Interior villages.

A son of the Midwest, James served his medical internship in Denver where he discovered mountains, downhill skiing and wide open spaces.

''I swore I would never live east of the Mississippi again,'' James said.

He and his wife of 15 years, Jean Wadland, have no intentions of moving elsewhere. ''I still get excited when the geese come in the spring and I get excited in the fall when I see the first star,'' he said.

The white-bearded doctor has been battling his own medical problems for the past two years -- chronic lymphocytic leukemia and prostate cancer. He continued to work as a family physician at the clinic while undergoing six months of chemotherapy. Both cancers are in remission.

When James first started working with the Public Health Service in Alaska, tuberculosis and infectious diseases were the major killers.

''Kids were dying of measles, dying of diarrhea and dehydration, and TB was rampant,'' he recalled. ''One time I went to Stevens Village and half of the kids there had positive TB skin tests.

''It (TB) really disrupted Native society in the '20s, '30s and '40s,'' he said. ''When you take the mother and father out of the home and a lot of them died too. A lot of kids got raised in children's homes.''

Today, James said, it is rare to get an active tuberculosis case.

''What has improved tremendously is immunizations and sanitation, and that's solved a lot of the problems we had back then,'' James said. ''Now it has turned to more general things, like cancer and heart trouble and diabetes.''

James points to alcoholism as the biggest health problem today. Alcoholism has a lot more social problems attached to it and is most disruptive to families, especially children, he said.

In his early years serving at the Public Health Service hospital in Tanana, James had his share of stressful moments dealing with complicated births and Caesarean sections. Still vivid in his memory is an emergency operation in Nulato on his first village field trip out of Tanana in 1960. It was January, and the radio was down, eliminating an air evacuation, so James had no recourse but to perform surgery by flashlight on a woman who was bleeding internally from a tubal pregnancy.

He was accompanied by two nurses. One nurse sat on a ladder holding the flashlight overhead. The other nurse fainted.

''It took forever and ever, a couple of hours,'' James recalled. The procedure normally would take about 10 minutes. ''And she's still alive,'' he added with a smile.

For his retirement, James has planned a Grand Canyon backpacking trip, a Fortymile River float trip and a 10-day cruise between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, before he hits the books. He's already reading ''Moby Dick'' and intends to crack a few more classics and peruse Civil War and Revolutionary War literature as winter sets in. James also plans to take university classes in geology, history, literature and maybe brush up on his Spanish.

''I'll probably audit them,'' he said with a grin. ''I don't want to write any papers.''

James leaves a large void at the clinic, said nurse Beth Zito, who has worked closely with James for six years.

''He's a very hardworking, educated, compassionate human being,'' Zito said. ''He's always reading. He's always learning. He's always the first one learning about something new and always teaching everybody there. The other doctors, they come to ask him for advice. His patients too, and sometimes it isn't even about his medical care.

''You don't meet too many people like him in your life. We're all going to miss him.''

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