By Nicole Zempel
Advocate Tribune Correspondent
When asked how it feels to leave the work that has, in many ways, defined him for nearly five decades – Dr. Ken Carter smiles and with a laugh says, “It’s sort of a shock.”
But this, however, is not for lack of preparation. In fact, it seems the ability of foresight has set the tone for much of Dr. Carter’s life – and, in this regard, entering into a new phase is really no different.
And so it was, that a three month “practice retirement” seemed most fitting.
“I didn’t really miss working,” while touring the southwestern United States said Dr. Carter, but some 6,500 miles later, “the finality of it is sort of difficult.”
Dr. Carter began his career as a family practice physician in 1969 – and of those forty-six years, forty-four have been spent in Granite Falls.
“I visited Appleton, Wheaton, Montevideo, Canby, Marshall – I looked at a lot of different communities and then I went into the old clinic.”
The expression on his face and elevation in voice says that it was the room with a view, in Granite Falls, that won him over,
“At that time, the clinic was right on the river and I was really quite a duck hunter,” and with the same amazement as years earlier says, “I looked out the window and there were ducks in the river – right below my window – and that just really knocked my socks off to look at that!”
What brought him to that window had much to do with his uncle Frank, a visit with his hometown veterinarian and, that foresight.
“I was thinking about going into veterinary medicine and Frank suggested that family medicine, with all the future developments, would be much more interesting for me.”
Yet, it wasn’t until after his first year of pre-vet courses and visit with a young twenty-something veterinarian that he made a decision that would set him on his true course.
“He was already showing signs of burn out,” says Dr. Carter as he recalls thinking, “Boy, this doesn’t look good, this could be me in another twenty years.”
So, upon returning to school he submitted an application to medical school and was accepted.
“Medical school was really a lot of fun – I guess I had confidence that I could do what I needed to do. And, I look back and I had wonderful teachers!”
Perhaps because he is the product of parents who were both teachers that he is able to identify this quality in others – but as they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Dr. Carter’s wife, Lori, echoes a similar sentiment, “It’s his way of structuring thoughts in order to have organization and communication…he has the ability to see clearly what needs to happen.” Adding, “he’s decisive, clear and good at diagnosis – he will tell you straight what he sees and has an effective way of delivering any message.”
And while there is an acknowledged sense of accomplishment by Dr. Carter in a body of work which spans decades and happens to include developing rewarding relationships, helping to improve the health and well-being of others, saving lives, and delivering babies – lots of babies…
As Dr. Carter looks back, it’s really the moments in which he was able to help lay foundations for the benefit of future growth that seems to arouse the greatest sense of achievement.
“I had the opportunity between my freshman and sophomore year of medical school to be in a research dog lab at the U of M hospitals – what I did that summer was working on a project that was the precursor for the current bypass heart surgery of today.”
There is also the influencing of the current location of the clinic, serving as a Medical Advisor developing protocols and plans for the beginnings of what would eventually come to be known as Project Turnabout, and the implementation of a Telestroke system to name only a few.
But it was while speaking about becoming a finalist for physician of the year that gratitude took hold of Dr. Carter.
Some fifty letters were submitted on his behalf to the Academy of Family Practice and in these letters a steady theme emerged, “In terms of medicine, people were remembering that I taught them something.”
It seems fitting then that a man who describes himself as more of a “comprehensive physician,” and someone who, “loves bouncing ideas off of people,” would find his greatest joy in helping others for the benefit of something larger than himself.
While a sense of joy and fulfillment have lent themselves to a long and satisfying career in medicine, it is no doubt the gift of foresight that saved Dr. Carter from the burnout that he says, “forty-seven percent of physicians experience in their career.”
Lori recalls a time when her husband was on call every other night, plus delivering babies, “There would be easily three or four nights in a row with not enough sleep,” adding that, “he was always wanting to be present and trying to be present – but there are only twenty-four hours in a day.”
Dr. Carter adds, “I think at the time when I went into the geriatrics around twenty years ago I was starting to run out of gas a little bit – I think you kind of go through phases in your life saying well this is great or that’s great – but you have to reinvent yourself and rejuvenate yourself.”
“The great thing about medicine is that there are all these choices,” says Dr. Carter. “I’ve always said that I’m going to keep doing this till I’ve seen everything new. I can honestly say in the last forty-five years I haven’t had a single day where I haven’t seen something that I would consider new.”
It was in this spirit that Dr. Carter took an added exam for geriatrics and found that working with the elderly was something he really enjoyed.
“Geriatric patients are tremendously grateful for what you do – it just makes practice fun along with the intellectual challenges.”
“I got the most joy when a family would come in – I wanted the whole family in to help get the whole story – I felt that was really fun – communication with the whole family.”
As for what’s to come next Dr. Carter says, “I’m sort of playing with my options – so I’m working on that side of it.”
Adding to this, words spoken by his mentor in 1968, “You should never concentrate on retiring from something – you should concentrate on retiring to something – and I think that’s a great bit of advice.”
The ability to prepare and to look ahead has always been a strength for Dr. Carter – and surely what lies around the corner will be just as extraordinary.