The good Dr. James

After 30 years on-call, the beeper to go forever silent for retiring surgeon

The Memorial Hospital and Dr. David James have a lengthy past, and the ties that bind the two are many.

He was the first specialist and the first surgeon in the hospital's history. His only child was born here. The doctor was here when a portion of the building was built. He'll be here when it's torn down.

For 30 years, he was TMH's guardian, a deft, precisioned line of defense in times of medical emergency -- always on-call, armed with and ready to answer the pager he carried with him 24/7.

But while TMH and James have practically been synonymous for three decades, the time is drawing near for their inevitable separation. The good doctor is calling it a career at the place he always wanted to be:

Craig and TMH.

"It's been my whole career. My career is Craig, Colorado," James said. He added, "It was fun, satisfying. This was where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do."

Community dedication

Hospital CEO George Rohrich put James' longevity into perspective.

For the greater part of 30 years, James was not only Craig's lone surgeon, but the only surgeon in the surrounding area.

"That dedication, that type of service won't be seen in the future," he said. "What a sacrifice he made for the community."

James, 60, an Albion, Neb., native, came to Craig, fresh off a five-year residency, and four years of medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

After looking at opportunities in Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Idaho, he was enticed by Colorado's mountains, lured specifically to the lush outdoor opportunities and small-town environment of Craig.

That was 1977, in the midst of Craig's power-plant building frenzy, a "big economic boom," as James called it. The town, opportunity, environment and James fit together like scrubs and surgical gloves, so the area became his home.

"It's always a gamble when you pick a place," James said, "but this is a really good fit for me."

When speaking to people about his looming retirement, James said they've responded by asking him where he'll be moving. Leaving the area isn't an option, he said.

"It never occurred to me to move any place," he said. "This is where I want to live. This will be my home base forever."

Logic in chaos

It was with that same sense of certainty and place that James chose the field of general surgery. Surgery, he said, especially during emergencies, is "kind of the logic in the middle of chaos."

"I decided I wanted to be the guy who got called (in an emergency)," James said. "My personality is more kind of fix what's blowing up in your face now."

In surgery, you run the gamut from losing patients too far gone by the time you see them to the satisfaction of seeing them through their maladies, he said.

"There are times when the patient has something very dangerous and scary and you have success, and that makes you feel very gratified," James said.

James has also served the hospital during stints as chief of surgery, chief of staff and trauma director. He stopped practicing full time in January with the arrival of new general surgeon Dr. Stanley Pense. The hospital will add another surgeon, Dr. Jeff Womble, in August, coinciding with James' retirement.

Moffat County resident Leo Snowden said he has benefited from James' work. James has been Snowden's surgeon five times, the last of which was about 18 months ago and took 10 to 12 hours.

"As far as I'm concerned, he saved my life four out of those five times," Snowden said.

With Dr. James and TMH, Snowden has had "nothing but good luck, and I've been in there enough to know."

Full circle

Doctors Ron Danner and Allan Reishus, TMH chief of staff, have been close friends with James since he moved to the area in '77. Given their rural upbringing, desire for small-town life and shared outdoor interests, it was natural the three would strike the easy friendship they share today.

"Our interests in coming to this area drew us together from the get go," Danner said.

"We immediately -- the three of us -- linked up in the '70s," Reishus said. "Even to now, we continue to plan hunting and fishing trips."

Both men said James' influence on area medicine has been substantial.

"You know it's pretty rare, especially in a small-town, to attract a physician of his quality and keep him in the community," Danner said. "That obviously speaks to his commitment to the community. Not many surgeons would emulate that."

Added Reishus, "He brought a higher level of medical care -- surgical care specifically," and helped raise standards at TMH.

James is married to Mary Lynne James, the 22-year Moffat County Court judge, who retired from the bench in December 2006. Together they have a son, John James, who will graduate this month from Texas Tech Medical School.

So as one James is leaving the medical world, another is coming in.

"It's kind of full circle," Dr. James said. "I'm getting out, and he's just getting started."

But while the chain linking James and TMH will be snapped, it won't forever be severed. He will remain a member of the hospital's building committee, helping TMH plan for a new facility.

The hospital will pay homage to James' career during a retirement party tonight. The public is invited to attend.

Snowden, for one, hates to see James go.

"I think the world of the boy," he said. "You got to when he saves your life, don't you?"

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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