As the three women sat beside each other on the couch, there was little doubt they are sisters. And you can see their resemblance to their father, a Navy captain who had moved the family in the 1960s to Fort Collins, where he would be the town’s first oral surgeon.
Each sister left Fort Collins after high school but they eventually returned to northern Colorado, and now they take turns checking in on their still independent 99-year-old father.
Lane Oesterle-Miller, the oldest of the three, was the second to move back, in 1996. As she settled into her community once again, she began looking for a primary care doctor. A friend recommended Dr. Cathy Ow.
Ow had gone to Duke University School of Medicine and did her residency David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She started her internal medicine practice in the Army then joined a multispecialty practice in Hawaii before coming to Fort Collins in 1995 to start her own practice, which is now called UCHealth Internal Medicine – Snow Mesa. It includes six internal medicine physicians and a physician assistant.
“Dr. Ow is very professional but also very approachable,” Oesterle-Miller said. “I wanted a doctor I could go to who I could be honest with and would listen to my concerns.”
The trust that develops over time between doctor and patient is one of the key differentiators between having a primary care physician vs. choosing urgent or walk-in clinic care for health care, Ow said.
“There is nothing more important than these long-standing relationships,” she added.
It was that comfort and trust in her new physician that led Oesterle-Miller to recommend Ow to her youngest sister, Lynn Oesterle-Zollner, when she moved back to Fort Collins in 2003.
“It was so nice to have a woman doctor who can relate to what you’re going through,” Oesterle-Zollner said.
Oesterle-Zollner had come to Ow already diagnosed with polymyositis, an inflammatory disease that causes muscle weakness, and she was taking hormones at the time for early menopause.
Ow encouraged her to get off the hormones immediately because her family had a history of breast cancer, which may grow on estrogen.
“No one had ever said that to me, and I appreciated her honesty,” Oesterle-Zollner said. “And when my rheumatologist retired, she helped me transition to a new one.”
Navigating the complex world of health care with someone you trust, such as a primary care physician, can make all the difference, Ow pointed out.
“In this day and age, things are so complicated,” she said. “What is the first test? Where do you go? What medications are appropriate? As a patient, you can’t do these things on your own and know you are doing the right thing. Primary care providers are there to help navigate that system to help you feel better and get you back to health.”
And that’s exactly what Jill Hultin found out.
Hultin is the middle sister and also came to Ow on her sisters’ recommendations in 2005. Just over a year later, Ow had to call Hultin with the news that she had breast cancer.
“This woman here saved my life,” Hultin said about Ow as she gave her a hug during a recent visit to her office.
Ow stressed that it wasn’t just her.
“You have a team here,” Ow said. “And now we are able to better communicate between offices and with our patients. As their primary care physician, I can see their UCHealth emergency room visits, hospital admissions or discharges and consultant notes; it’s all part of the UCHealth system.”
That communication is aided through UCHealth’s electronic medical records system, EPIC, and My Health Connection, the patient’s portal to that system. Through My Health Connection, patients can contact their physicians, look at lab results, schedule appointments and see their doctors’ notes. And doctors get the same seamless advantage of having a patient’s health care history at their fingertips.
Hultin is now 10 years free of cancer, and all three women continue to go to Ow.
“We are very close,” Ow said. “We talk about them caring for their dad, how everyone is doing. It’s these relationships that have evolved over the years. … I feel very lucky to have these sisters as my patients.”