Dr. Frank Smith was a suddenly unemployed general surgeon looking for a new opportunity. Kittitas Valley Healthcare was a rural healthcare organization looking for a way to provide around-the-clock surgery coverage.
Together they formed a win-win relationship that is a boon to the community.
At 69, Smith is trimly built, possessed of an engaging demeanor and as comfortable in worn jeans laying irrigation pipe in his cherry orchard as he is in scrubs in the KVH hospital operating room.
As a child growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he fell in love with the rural lifestyle. In 2001, Smith traded a private practice in southern California for a job in Toppenish with the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, and bought a home with an orchard in Wapato. A decade later, his employer decided they didn’t need a full-time general surgeon and Smith found himself out of work.
Enter Kittitas Valley Healthcare. Smith learned the organization was looking to expand its surgical coverage. The organization’s congenial, straight-up, no-nonsense style impressed him and he accepted an offer to provide on-call surgical coverage. Less than a year later, when it was clear there were patients he needed to see in clinic not just on call, Smith was offered a part-time position with KVH General Surgery. He has been there ever since.
Yet Smith’s path to KVH was hardly a given.
The great grandson of a slave, he was raised by his mother and grandmother, became a civil rights activist in college, met Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Rosa Parks. He participated in the march from Selma and the March on Washington in 1963.
"If I had believed what white society told me about myself when I was a young man, I would never have amounted to anything," Smith says. When his high school counselor refused to write him a recommendation to a university, suggesting instead that he belonged at a city college, Smith ignored the advice and went on to earn both his bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in biochemistry at the school of his choice, the University of Chicago. It’s where his mother, herself a California university professor, earned her doctorate and where his oldest son got his bachelor’s degree and PhD. "It’s a family thing," says Smith who went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School before doing a residency at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston, MA.
He would temporarily interrupt that residency to spend two years teaching surgery in Nairobi, Kenya, a move that provided lessons in politics and starkly illustrated the difference between third world and first world medicine. When the blood he needed to perform surgery on a patient with a bleeding ulcer failed to arrive for two days, he went to the blood bank, found the technician sleeping and expressed his extreme displeasure. The following day, Smith was told to apologize. The technician was a political appointee and in a post-colonial society that fact was far more important than any patient’s health.
A stint in the Air Force followed, born of his desire to give something back to the nation and a fascination with flying that began as a boy. His passion for flying still endures. Smith owns a light twin - an Aztec - and flies it frequently. "If I didn’t have to wear these things," he says removing his glasses "I may have ended up ended up flying F4s rather than as a surgeon."
That said, he’s delighted to be working for Kittitas Valley Healthcare. "I still prefer rural," says Smith, who combines his work in Ellensburg with surgical coverage in Prosser. "It’s the people you meet, and the tranquility."
KVH's commitment to 24/7 surgical coverage still carries weighs with him. "This is a mark of significant dedication to quality patient care and to the community. It’s unusual in a hospital of this size," he says.
Smith also enjoys his relationship with the organization’s leadership. "There is enough gray hair and experience between us that we can sit down and work things out. They are a pleasure to work with."