Cowboy Doctor Making A Difference In Rural Oklahoma

Wednesday, November 24th 2010, 10:23 pm
By: News On 6

Terry Hood, News On 6

CANEY VALLEY, Oklahoma -- As families come together across Green Country Thursday to say thanks, those in the Caney Valley can claim a special blessing.

In a state where 66 out of 77 counties are struggling with a lack of available medical care, they can point with pride to their own cowboy doctor.

Dr. Michael Woods' day begins before sunrise. He makes daily rounds at Jane Phillips Medical center in Bartlesville, hitting everything from the psyche ward to intensive care.  By the time most of us are starting our workdays, he has already completed his rounds, met with the medical residents under his supervision and hit the road.

Morning still hangs in the air as he closes in on home base, a small medical clinic in the Washington County town of Ramona.

"I was the first physician in Ramona in 40 years and the first in the area in 20 years," he said.

Dr. Woods says the lack of available care left its mark on the peaceful valley. In the first six months of his practice, he saw more cases of cancer than in his three years of residency training.

"I had brain cancer, I had two pancreatic cancers, I had two or three breast cancers, two or three colon cancers, all diagnosed within the first six months," he said.

"I like to refer to mike woods as really the physician I've always wanted to be," said Dr. Clancy.

Dr. Gerry Clancy at the OU Medical Center in Tulsa works hand in hand with Dr. Woods on a common goal: recruiting doctors to rural Oklahoma. It's a dilemma facing states nationwide.

"Nationally, the prediction is within the next 10 years we'll be somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 physicians short across the country," Dr. Clancy said

Oklahoma started behind the curve.

"We're in the bottom five nationally in physicians per capita," Dr. Clancy said.

So Mike Woods is taking matters into his own hands.

Studies show students who train in rural settings are more likely to practice there. So 16 years ago, in conjunction with OU, Dr. Woods established his own residency training program. His afternoons are divided between treating the sick and turning out the next generation of small town family doctors.

"You walk through that door to see someone you've known for 20 years and everything changes, everything's ok," Dr. Woods said.

"I like the idea of doing house calls and being the old general family doctor," said Heather Campbell, a second year resident. "I think we're doing something great here."

As the day draws to a close, an age old tradition unfolds in the small town of Ramona. Its homecoming and everyone from the seniors to the kindergartners is decked out for the occasion.

Dr. Michael Woods, who brought many of these students into the world, is here too. He keeps watch at football, basketball and baseball games, just in case. Dr. Woods was late for his third son's birth because he was attending to hurt football players.

And while the boys from Caney Valley celebrated their homecoming victory, Dr. Woods carved out one small part of the day for himself. In the peace and quiet of the Osage hills, draped with a black velvet sky, he studies the mysteries of the stars.

"It's kind of nice, peaceful way to come out and forget about the problems of the day," he said.

He sometimes worries doctors like him are a dying breed. But tomorrow, he'll get up and do it all over again, making a difference in his own small corner of the universe.

"It does put things in perspective doesn't it?" he said. "You know, we're just a tiny part of it."

Dr. Woods is also fighting a political battle. He's backing a bill that would help medical students who go into rural practice repay their student loans. The bill has a couple of sponsors and will be introduced in the next session of the state legislature.