Lunch with Marjorie: Finding my own personal Marcus Welby, M.D.

Part One

Dr. Eric Henley, our family physician, became one of my heroes in the 1990s. When I move to a new place, I always search for my “Marcus Welby, M.D.” (Remember kindly, probing Robert Young on the television show?) I confessed this to Dr. Henley as we lunched at Mary’s Market Bistro on Perryville.

“I like him,” he said. “He was my role model when I was little.”

“Welby got to the root of the problem,” I thought. “You have that quality. And, you’re non-invasive where possible—First Do No Harm.”

Dr. Henley, a vegetarian, ordered Mary’s black bean burger. Vegetarian chili wasn’t available in August.

“Where did you grow up?” I began.


Since I, too, am a New York transplant, I realized we also had this connection. It was a luxury—my getting to probe—how he became such a good doctor, how he got to Rockford.

“My first job was a small family-practice HMO in Portland, Ore.,” he began. “It was fun, but too small, couldn’t survive.”

He returned to an urban family practice in Cambridge, Mass.

“It’s an interesting community…in the Boston area…a highly technological medical area,” he said. “Family medicine is not very common. We did everything and it was wild…births in the hospital, home births…office visits, nursing home visits, home visits.”

“You were always avant-garde,” I said.

“Very. I don’t know why I was so into alternative stuff. Maybe it was the times…the Vietnam War…protests. Over time, I realized I was a little offbeat compared to the mainstream,” he said.

He met his wife in Cambridge. They were both interested in rural living and rural medicine.

“I worked for a year (in)…a locum tenes position…places that are either short a doc or someone’s left,” Dr. Henley said.

This included North Dakota, Appalachia, northern Alaska, a Navajo reservation.

“After that, I joined Indian Health Services (IHS) and lived on the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona, very remote,” he said. “You have to be really self-reliant…work really closely with your colleagues. It’s understaffed; the need is great; demands are high. You work hard, but it’s incredibly rewarding if you can do it—and fascinating.”

Dr. Henley developed a keen interest in community and public health. After more than three years, he returned to Massachusetts, to Harvard.

“I was really kind of tired and needed a change. I went back to school…got a master’s in public health. It took me about six months to figure out what I would do next,” he said.

He returned to IHS in Albuquerque as part-time clinician, part-time head of outpatients, part-time head of maternal-child health for the reservations, and as National Maternal Child Health Consultant and Adviser for IHS all over the country, getting more into administration, program planning and consulting, plus teaching at the University of New Mexico.

“I taught the first course in their program on maternal-child health,” Dr. Henley said. “It was fortuitous…the opportunity to see what it was like to teach public health. I really had a good time.”

Then he moved his family to remote southern Colorado, then on to Barrow, Alaska.

“It’s at the top of Alaska, the northern-most part…on the Arctic Ocean,” he said.

He treated mostly native people.

“In Barrow you call them Inuit—they’re Eskimo,” Dr. Henley explained. “In Nome, there are Inuit and Yupik…all Eskimo. In the southeast, they’re a kind of a mix…tribes related to northwest Indians. There’s a tribe called Tlingit. There’s a lot of Russian influence in southeast Alaska.”

“I’ve read their diet is high fat without health problems we have,” I said.

“Eskimos traditionally, particularly those who did subsistence living, eat a lot off the sea…seal, whale, salmon—lots of high fatty foods, but lots of Omega 3’s,” Dr. Henley said. “That may have been why. But…it’s in evolution. They’ve changed the way they eat…you know, the worst aspects of the American diet.”

He talked about the challenges of practicing medicine in remote areas.

“A woman came in, beaten by her husband,” he said. “I was worried about her…watched her. I really thought she was bleeding internally and might have ruptured her spleen. This was 1983, so (this) fishing village with a few thousand people…had a call list…people in town who had her blood type, and (they) called them in. We transfused her, flew her to Anchorage. She did rupture her spleen. She had surgery that night. She survived, but it was pretty intense. It’s life and death. You’re gnawing your fingers.”

“The locals—they know their people,” I said.

“Absolutely, it’s called community health…a really interesting concept,” Dr. Henley said. “That model has been adapted to some extent in the Lower 48, but Alaska uses it much more extensively, much more intensely. But there are community health workers, the same concept going on in Rockford, in a very small way.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2005, issue.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!