When Dr. Robert Reid passes one of the historic photos of “Doc Susie” Anderson that adorn the walls of UCHealth Primary Care – Cripple Creek, he often pauses and marvels at the crude tools, primitive techniques and challenging conditions she had to overcome as she practiced medicine in the late 1890s in the rough-and-tumble gold camp.
“I’ll walk by her and occasionally salute,” said Reid, who, as he carries on the tradition of rural mountain medicine, is thankful for his state-of-the-art clinic on the outskirts of town and the benefits that come with being partnered with UCHealth.
He salutes because it’s hard to imagine how Doc Susie worked the camps treating miners who had no money to pay, often taking firewood and food in payment, walking to house calls because she had no car and often slogging through snow in the mountain community.
UCHealth Primary Care – Cripple Creek
Address: 1101 Colorado Road 1, Cripple Creek, CO 80813
“She was providing medical services in a really primitive time,” Reid said.
And while Cripple Creek has blossomed since Doc Susie’s time into a modern community and a mountain tourist destination, many health-care challenges still remain.
The nearest hospital – UCHealth Pikes Peak Regional – is 25 miles away in Woodland Park.
Homelessness is an issue, even in an area with brutal winter conditions. Poverty often prevents patients from getting to the hospital for emergency care, or even to a pharmacy for necessary medications.
Today, Reid is the only family practice physician serving communities in southern Teller County, which has been classified as a medically underserved area by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
On average, it takes one to three years to recruit a physician in rural Colorado, and less than 40% of rural primary care providers remain in same rural community for five years, according to the 2019 Snapshot of Rural Health released by the Colorado Rural Health Center, part of Colorado’s State Office of Rural Health.
But for the soft-spoken Reid, practicing medicine in Cripple Creek is “like a dream come true. I think pretty much from the first time I started to train for primary care it was always with the intention to be in a more underserved, remote setting – more of a rural, remote setting.”
“Partnering with the team at UCHealth means that ‘small town’ need not be ‘small time’ in any way with ready access to all the advantages of the larger health system of resources, facilities and specialty consultants while still retaining the home-town personalized feel of a rural family practice,” he said.
Says June Besler, UCHealth’s manager of primary care clinic operations in Teller County: “He’s the perfect doctor for a rural mountain town like Cripple Creek.”
Medicine in rural Colorado
Having graduated from medical school in 1981, Reid brings years of experience in family and emergency medicine to meet the challenges he often faces in an area with unique health care needs.
Sometimes, people just show up at his office with no appointment. “I don’t think we’ve turned anyone away. If somebody needs to be seen, we’ll make sure they’re seen,” said the Cripple Creek doctor.
There are patients who are short of breath at the elevation of 9,494 feet. Residents with chronic respiratory problems who need oxygen supplementation. People with conditions better-suited for a hospital emergency room.
“We see a wide variety of different things in a rural setting. A lot of it is the effects of living at a distance from access to health care. We don’t think of communities like this as in any way primitive – Cripple Creek is very much a modern community. But I think we see a lot of folks that ideally if they had proximity to a hospital would show up there, in the emergency department. ’’
Access to specialty care
Reid said being part of UCHealth – which began operating the clinic in 2019 – is a great asset. Now, with the click of a mouse, he can access specialists in Woodland Park or Colorado Springs and “not have to jump through 100 hoops” to get his patients the specialty care they need.
“The real challenge in this environment is the geographic distance and the number of individuals who are here who don’t’ have a lot of resources. There’s a lot of folks who are working poor and have a lack of transportation.”
Simply getting patients to Pikes Peak Regional Hospital often requires tapping volunteers from the Community of Caring Foundation/Aspen Mine Center, a Cripple Creek nonprofit. “Sometimes that involves several phone calls and asking for favors and calling in favors: ‘Can you get these folks to the hospital?’”
Another barrier Reid faces: There’s no pharmacy in Cripple Creek or Victor. The closest is about 18 miles north, in Florissant.
“That’s a real problem,” said Reid. Thankfully, though, UCHealth provides the clinic with certain frequently prescribed medications. “We do have a supply that we can oftentimes provide to people who can’t get to a pharmacy in a timely fashion. That’s a great asset that UCHealth has provided to us as a rural clinic.”
Road to becoming a Cripple Creek doctor
Reid grew up in an Air Force family. His father was an intelligence officer, a navigator in World War II and later a professor of English at the Air Force Academy. After graduating from St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs, he joined the Marine Corps and served a tour in Vietnam.
Upon his return, he was accepted to Colorado College, where he supported himself on the GI bill and worked as a residence hall counselor, which covered his room costs. Although his father had always wanted to go into medicine himself and encouraged his son to do the same, it was Reid’s time in Vietnam that cemented his decision to become a doctor.
“Seeing the impact of poverty and deprivation in Vietnamese villages – it was a very eye-opening experience for me. I had a chance to see it up close and personal and sometimes in a very unforgettable way. It very much motivated me – for my own reasons, not my father’s – to want to go into medicine. “
Reid’s dad, though, didn’t live long enough to see Reid get accepted to medical school. He was 49 when he died, when Reid was a sophomore at Colorado College.
Reid was almost 30 years old when he went to medical school – “already closing in on retirement age,” he jokes – at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. After graduation, he completed a three-year residency in family medicine and an additional two years of residency training in general surgery.
The bulk of his career has been spent in Florida and Colorado, but Colorado has always been “home.” He has practiced in the emergency department at Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs, an urgent care clinic in Denver and the Cadet Clinic at the Air Force Academy, to name a few. He also currently teaches medical students at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he’s been on the faculty since 2012.
A love for the community
As a Cripple Creek doctor, Reid has come to love the community and its people. And it seems the feeling is mutual.
Angie Trelstad, director of client services at the Community of Caring Foundation in Cripple Creek, said Reid has had a great impact on the community in the 22 months since he began practicing in town.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Reid with a few clients who very rarely, or never seek medical help because they do no ‘trust’ doctors or the medical system. Dr. Reid had been able to see and treat these patients, one who hadn’t been to a medical doctor in literally years due to mental health issues,” Trelstad said. “It is very difficult finding people who take the time to understand or work with this population.”
Rebecca Blair, the senior citizens advocate at the foundation, echoes Trelstad’s sentiments.
“As senior advocate, I have received many comments about his ability to really take time and listen to a patient. I have seen him go over and beyond with patients. My seniors love that. To them, that means he really cares, he’s really listening,” said Blair, who sometimes accompanies clients to their doctor’s appointments.
Plus, she likes being able reach Reid if she has a question or a client who needs help. “I can call him and actually talk to a doctor. He even gave me his cell phone.”
The small-town doctor with a personal touch
After practicing in the community nearly two years, it’s impossible for Reid to go anywhere without being recognized. Of course, it could be his long hair that makes him stand out.
“I’ve been a longhaired hippie for as long as I can remember,” he joked. “It’s probably a reaction to my Marine Corps high-and-tight buzz cut days.”
Blair, the senior advocate at Community of Caring, said patients like the look.
“There is quite a presence of old hippies who moved here in the ‘60s – there’s definitely very eccentric characters up here. They feel like he is an old hippie. They feel like he’s one of them.”
Reid enjoys the small-town feel, its residents and living in Teller County.
“I think that Cripple Creek itself is just a unique, iconic western community that harkens back to another time, even though it’s very much in 2020. If you’re walking the streets near the courthouse, you run into people you know. This is the small-town America that many of us grew up with perhaps in the 1950s or 60s, which was my era. It has that personal touch that is lacking in larger communities.”
And that personal touch is how Reid practices medicine – patients won’t find him using a computer during their visit.
“I’ll take a clipboard in and I’ll take notes. It slows me down, but I would not want someone clacking away on a computer as I’m trying to explain my health or my fears or my concerns or my aspirations,” Reid explained. “I’d want someone to be present entirely if I were seeing a health care provider. I recognize the fact that the most important thing we provide people is our time.”
The charting on the computer? That comes after the patient is gone.
At age 72, Reid has no plans to retire anytime soon. Like Doc Susie, who practiced medicine throughout Colorado, he hopes to help people as long as he’s able.
“I think I’ll be here as long as I can provide the service that I think is meeting a standard I have set for myself, as long as I can continue to practice medicine to what I imagine is a level of excellence. I got a late start. I want to provide as much service as I can as long as there’s a need.”