A special photo sits on Dr. Jeffrey Lewis’ desk at the UCHealth Family Medicine Clinic in Boulder.
It shows Jeff’s mom, Dr. Jeanne Lewis, with a young patient in her Boulder medical office years ago. A little girl sits on an exam table. She has brought a toy stethoscope and is checking on her stuffed animal while Jeanne does the same with her real stethoscope.
Jeanne Lewis was a beloved family doctor who delivered babies and cared for thousands of patients of all ages. She practiced in Boulder and Lafayette from 1983 until her retirement in 2003. Now Jeff Lewis gets to follow in his mom’s footsteps, serving as a hometown doctor is his hometown.
‘An honor’ to care for Boulder families
Last summer, Lewis cared for a young boy, then a couple of months later, the boy’s father came to see him, and soon after that, the man’s wife also became a patient. Jeff now gets to see the entire family. Seeing patients of all ages and getting to care for multiple members of Boulder families is a great benefit of being a family doctor.
“It’s an honor to be thought of so highly that a whole family wants you to be their doctor,” Lewis said. “That has happened several times.”
And while it hasn’t happened yet, he knows that one of these days, he’ll find himself tending to a patient who once saw his mom, or perhaps was one of those babies she delivered.
Jeanne Lewis started medical school back when her son was about five. She had always loved science and was eager to study medicine, but received little encouragement. She had already earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. Then, she decided in her mid-30s to go to medical school. The University of Colorado School of Medicine told her she was too old and didn’t accept her. But, Jeanne did get in to Washington University in St. Louis. Her husband, a German professor at University of Colorado in Boulder, encouraged her to seize the opportunity. His mother came from England to help with their son. Jeanne Lewis graduated with honors in just three years.
While his mom was away, Jeff Lewis never felt neglected.
“I was close with my dad. It didn’t seem unusual to me,” he said.
A shared love of science
Later, when he was a little older, he loved the independence of walking home from school and visiting his mom at her office or going to the hospital while she did rounds.
“I’d sit in the doctors’ lounge. They had ice cream sandwiches,” Jeff Lewis said. “It was very special.”
His mom also shared her love of science with him.
“She would bring things home, like a microscope and slides from histology class. She would teach me things. One that made a big impression on me was her anatomy text book. I thought it was interesting and maybe, a little scary.”
Now Lewis cherishes a 1994 article from the Boulder Daily Camera that features his mom among many other women who were pioneering female doctors in their time. It’s surprising that just 24 years ago, women doctors were still a novelty. Today more than one-third of doctors in Colorado are women and across the country, women comprise about 51 percent of medical students.
Anne Donovan, practice administrator for the UCHealth Boulder Health Center, worked as Jeanne Lewis’ nurse many years ago. She remembers what a coup it was for their office to have their first woman doctor.
Jeanne Lewis also stood out for her dedication to her patients.
“She had such a sparkle and provided such amazing patient care,” Donovan said. “Her patients adored her. She always did what was right for patients even if it took extra time. She was really respected in the practice and in the community.”
Donovan was thrilled when Jeff Lewis joined UCHealth’s Boulder clinic.
“I saw what an amazing doctor his mom was. As a nurse, you get to see the special moments. What I remember was her kindness. I get to see that now in Jeff too,” Donovan said.
Jeff Lewis recently won an award from co-workers, acknowledging how much he’s contributing to the practice. They thanked him for smiling all the time, caring about fellow team members, welcoming new patients at the last minute and “being an overall good guy.”
His journey into medicine was circuitous, like his mom’s.
Choosing medicine in his 30s, just like his mom
He went to Duke University for college, where he studied both engineering and pre-med. After college, he worked in engineering, writing software and successfully navigating the corporate world for several years. But, he decided he wanted a job with more meaning.
So, like his mom, he decided in his 30s to go to medical school.
“I always knew medicine would be a really good fit because of my mom. It felt totally natural,” he said.
Starting medical school at age 36 was tough, but policies about older students had evolved at University of Colorado. Jeff applied only to CU, and fortunately, he got in.
He credits his wife and family support for making his second career possible.
“It’s pretty hard to go to medical school if you’re 24 and single. It’s harder when you’re older,” said Lewis, now 43.
When he started medical school, he and his wife had a 2-year-old. Now they have two children, ages 7 and 10.
Lewis’ mom helped care for their oldest child, but she soon began to have serious health problems.
“She was suffering from some dementia and not quite knowing what was going on,” Jeff said.
Eventually his mom learned that she had Parkinson’s disease. She later had a debilitating stroke and died last May. Lewis lost his dad back in 2002 and is an only child, so while completing medical school and his residency, he was also caring for his mom.
Seeing his mom decline was devastating. She was his hero and the role model who inspired him. Caring for her in her later years has also made him a more compassionate doctor.
“Knowing what it’s like to be a family caregiver and to interact with long-term care facilities and insurance companies and to feel the pain and the shock of talking with a mortuary director after someone dies is really valuable,” Lewis said. “In medicine, we deal with a lot of these things every day. And we might forget that for people going through them, it’s a once in a lifetime event.
“I can help make some of these things easier for my patients,” he said.
For Lewis, each day at work is a tribute to his mom and for that, he’s enormously grateful.
“Most of us want to make a difference and be counted on,” he said. “We want to do something that really matters.”