When he got ready to establish a family practice, Dr. Paul Schmitt knew exactly what he wanted: a career as a "country doctor" in a small town - and the chance to be part of a close-knit community in an area marked by natural beauty and easy access to outdoor recreation.
Schmitt, an active outdoorsman whose passions have run from cycling and hiking to skiing, found it all in Upper Kittitas County.
In 1977, Schmitt and his wife Cindy, newly-arrived in the Upper County, settled into the small community of Roslyn, a former mining town. It was a far cry from where Schmitt began.
Raised by a dentist father and a mother who was a nurse, Schmitt grew up in a Detroit suburb but fell in love with country life as a boy visiting relatives in rural areas. For a time, he envisioned following in his father's footsteps. Then, in his teens, he suffered a laceration. "This is neat," he remembers thinking as a doctor stitched him up.
Fast forward to the University of Michigan. Schmitt, finished with his undergraduate studies there, was just beginning medical school when, in 1969, he met Cindy, a junior studying psychology. Like Schmitt, she loved small town living. A rotating internship at Swedish Hospital brought the couple to Seattle. "It was a lot of obstetrics and cardiology," recalls Schmitt, who also spent time at Children's Hospital and in the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center.
Then came a stint with the Indian Health Service in Shiprock, N.M. As a senior in medical school, Schmitt had signed on with the agency, agreeing to work a set number of years in exchange for help with the cost of medical school. For a young doctor eager to hone his skills, the experience was rich with opportunity. "We handled accident victims, chronic conditions, a lot of high-risk births," he says. "I was thrown together with a lot of young doctors and nurses. I learned a ton. It was great preparation for rural medicine."
Three years later, his obligation fulfilled, he and Cindy headed back to the Pacific Northwest to establish a small town practice through the National Health Service Corps. They considered locations ranging from Port Orchard to Cle Elum. In the end, a mountain sealed the deal.
Schmitt had taken up skiing in college. It was a love affair he wasn't about to put on hold. Other communities under consideration involved ferry rides or long drives to the slopes. Cle Elum and Roslyn, on the other hand, were just down the road from Snoqualmie Pass.
In the spring of 1977, the Schmitts visited the Upper County and liked what they saw. "It was April or May," Schmitt recalls. "I liked the idea of having four seasons, that there would be snow, that it wasn't too far from Seattle. Roslyn was picturesque. It reminded us of some Colorado mountain towns. We liked it.
"The mountain was the big draw. It still is."
Schmitt signed on at the Cle Elum clinic, joining the late Dr. John Anderson who had arrived a year earlier. Schmitt also signed on with the Alpental Ski Patrol, retiring from that role just a few years ago.
The community quickly embraced the Schmitts. "The old timers rolled out the carpet," Schmitt says. "You feel part of the community right away. That's where small towns have it over cities when you're working in this field."
Their three sons grew up on the slopes of Alpental, got into ski racing, and thrived on outdoor adventure. Cindy operated a popular antique store. In 1990, when filming of the TV show "Northern Exposure" began in Roslyn, actors Rob Morrow (aka Dr. Joel Fleischman) and Janine Turner (aka Maggie O'Connell) posed for photos outside the shop holding the Schmitts' youngest son, Evan, then an infant.
Much has changed since the first time Schmitt donned his stethoscope at the Cle Elum clinic. Hospital District No. 2 owned the practice when he arrived. In 1981, Schmitt and Anderson bought the practice and Dr. Elizabeth Wise joined the partnership that same year. The trio operated a private practice until 2005 when Kittitas Valley Community Hospital (now Kittitas Valley Healthcare) bought it.
"Back then we were the emergency room docs," Schmitt says, recalling the early years. Ambulances routinely brought patients to the clinic at all hours of the day and night. "The emergency room was staffed by an RN after hours," he says. "So it was the RN and us doing everything. You'd be up a lot of nights taking care of anything and everything that came through the door." It made the job interesting - and demanding.
"We didn't have the access to technology that we have now," Schmitt says. "You couldn't just walk down the hall and talk to a specialist."
Today, an advanced life support ambulance service staffed by paramedics with advanced life support skills and equipped with new technology, handles most emergencies and transports to hospitals. An Urgent Care clinic handles walk-ins after hours and on weekends. "The emergency system is really good, in part because it integrates well with the emergency room at KVH Hospital," Schmitt says. "KVH Hospital does a good job of doing what they do and making high quality transfers when necessary."
Thirty four years after arriving in Roslyn, Schmitt has no regrets about choosing a small town practice.
"You can achieve balance," he says. "You can connect to people, get long term continuity with people, and become friends with your patients. You get a relationship that's healthy for you - and for your patients. The more you're involved in the community, the happier you're going to be."
Now working a three-quarters position, Schmitt says he and Cindy have no plans to leave Roslyn once he's fully retired.
"We're Roslyn people," he says, smiling. "We're not going anywhere."
Want to know more? See Dr. Schmitt's medical education and clinic information here.