He served the Ellensburg community for nearly four decades, his commitment, energy and influence helping shape what is now Kittitas Valley Healthcare.But Dr. Don Solberg, retiring CMO of Kittitas Valley Healthcare and a longtime family practitioner, didn't always plan a career in medicine.
He was headed for a career in psychology when a group of friends - and a conversation with his father - persuaded him to change course. "For some reason, they thought I would make a good doctor," Solberg says with a laugh. They were right.
Solberg, a Tacoma native studying at Willamette University, switched to pre-med at the end of his sophomore year and went on to medical school at the University of Washington where two things won his heart: a girl named Joy, now his wife of 46 years - and family practice.
"I felt it was my calling," says Solberg. "I liked the breadth of it. It was birth to end-of-life. I liked knowing a lot of things about a lot of things rather than supposedly knowing everything about a small part of medicine."
After a residency in Colorado followed by two years of private practice in a town so small the only hospital had "maybe six beds," Solberg and Joy headed back to the Northwest.
In January 1979, he joined the Valley Clinic (now KVH Family Medicine--Ellensburg), then one of only two clinics serving Ellensburg. "Both of them were advertising for doctors," he says. "Both had aging providers. The last doctor before me had come ten years earlier."
It was an era far different from today. The community's doctors were all private providers. The clinics operated independent of the hospital and there were no ER doctors or hospitalists.
Solberg quickly fit in. His warm demeanor played well in a small rural community. So did his ability to juggle multi-faceted challenges.
An image from those years stands out in Solberg's memory: A phone perched on his shoulder, he was scrubbing to deliver a baby while simultaneously consulting about managing the care of a man in critical care. "It was a busy night," Solberg says, recalling that when he had to interrupt the call to deliver the baby the consultant was so impressed he later used the story to illustrate the pressures rural family doctors faced at that time.
When Solberg chose his career he was drawn to the importance of "having someone who was interested in the whole person and looked at the person's physical, mental and emotional well-being in the context of family and relationships."
That's as important now as it was then, insists Solberg. "The sicker you are, the more complex your needs are," he says. "Outcomes are better when you have a primary physician to advise and guide you."
Solberg, who previously served 12 years on the Kittitas County Board of Health, may be leaving KVH but he won't be leaving a long history of community involvement. Besides belonging to the Ellensburg Morning Rotary Club he's also a longtime board member of both the Laughing Horse Arts Foundation and Jazz in the Valley and serves as treasurer of both organizations.
And then, there's family. Besides Joy and the couple's two daughters and their husbands, the Ellensburg-based clan now includes 19-month-old identical twin grandsons that Solberg can't talk about without beaming.
As he closes out his career, Solberg leaves with absolute conviction that he did what he was meant to do in the place where he was meant to be. "There are so many times I felt, yes, I was the right person for that patient at the right time," he says.
Beyond family, what makes him proudest? Two things, he says. "There's something very special about being a family doctor," Solberg says, his face wreathed in a smile. "I'll always treasure the experiences I've had in this community. I've had the opportunity to become not just a friend but also the person to walk beside them through physical and emotional difficulties."
The second thing parallels the first. "When I came in 1979 I realized that this (medical) community would be re-shaped in my lifetime because most of the physicians were older," he says. "I think we've built an exceptional medical community. "To the extent that I've had a role in that makes me very proud."