A nighttime ride
The road to a lifetime of public service
August 23, 2008
Craig — It started with a frightened, frenzied car ride.
Trace 34 years of Dr. Thomas Told’s public service back far enough, and you’ll find the roots of it there.
Memory: A 1950 maroon four-door Chevy burns through the snowy, Wyoming night.
Told’s younger brother, Morris, a sick 3-year-old little boy, lays cradled in the arms of his mother in the passenger seat.
His father is at the steering wheel, cranking the car across the prairie, pushing past a blizzard to find help for his son.
His parents don’t know what’s wrong with their boy.
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He is delirious. He has a 105-degree fever.
They try making him better. They give him hot water sponge baths, feed him broth and herbal remedies.
Not long before, some neighbor kids died of meningitis.
The family fears the worst. They take to the car.
Told, then 9 years old and in the back seat, watches it happen. His brother sick with illness; his parents sick with worry.
“Live or die,” Told said, recalling the life changing moment decades later. “We didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
From their rural home, it’s 50 miles in any direction over rough, primitive terrain to the nearest doctor.
Told makes a decision.
No matter how remote a place people lived, no matter how far out of the way, they deserve better. They deserve access to medical care, just like anyone else.
“I always reflect back on that (night),” said Told, who became the longtime owner and family doctor at Craig Medical Center. “That’s when I got into medicine. I realized the only thing I could be was a (rural) family doctor.”
His own way
Told was born in Pleasant Grove, Utah, the oldest of Bill and Moya Told’s five children.
He was raised in a Mormon family that placed a high importance on education.
He never was supposed to be a doctor – his parents and grandmother were rural schoolteachers – and if not spoken, it was implied he would follow the same path.
The night in the Chevy on the snowy rural roads changed that. Meeting an osteopathic doctor while on a Mormon mission in Indiana years later cinched it.
“I kind of broke the mold and chose something different,” Told said.
He graduated in 1968 from Brigham Young University with a degree in zoology, and enrolled in the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, a northern Missouri school founded in 1892 by the father of osteopathic medicine, Dr. Andrew Taylor Still.
Following a short internship at Fort Sam Houston, a U.S. Army post in San Antonio, he arrived a year later at Craig Medical Clinic, or what is now Craig Medical Center.
It was there, in the small, blue-collar Northwest Colorado town, that Told would practice for the next three-plus decades, all from the same 580 Pershing St., office.
He remembers beginning his first day of work at 10 a.m. July 10, 1974, and seeing his first patient, a man Told believed was suffering from a ruptured appendix.
Other physicians in the clinic were dubious of the rookie’s diagnosis.
They thought he was overeager. He wasn’t.
“I was the new kid on the block, so they were a little skeptical,” he said. Test results confirmed his conclusion, making it the first and last time clinic doctors ever doubted him.
Triumphs and tragedies
It’s Friday afternoon, and Told sits inside his cluttered Medical Center office. He’s on the eve of accepting a prestigious award a state away and six months from retiring from practice in Craig.
His black-and-gray hair is combed in its usual right-side part, tired eyes rest behind bottle cap glasses and a black-and-chrome stethoscope dangles at his shoulders.
A lot has happened, is happening now and will soon happen. The doctor is contemplative.
“I’ve been able to help a lot of people,” he says. “This was the one way I knew I’d be totally happy. : I’ve been paid far more than I’ve been compensated.”
Between his first day and this one, he’s seen tens of thousands of patients, delivered about 1,500 babies, or enough that he refers to it as “delivering babies for babies I delivered.”
He’s had his share of humor and heartache, triumphs and tragedies.
There was the time a father of a girl he treated for an appendectomy paid the doctor’s fee with a ton of hay and five pumpkins.
“I would have done it for free, but the man said he didn’t take charity,” Told says.
There was a similar occasion when he delivered a baby, and accepted a side of beef and a border collie as payment. The collie, Banjo, lasted 12 years, and his kids loved him.
By that logic, he got the better end of the deal, Told says.
There was the time he made a house call to see the wife of a sick rancher. He visited the wife and was then drafted into further service – the rancher needed help delivering a calf.
“At that point, they needed my muscles more than they needed my brain,” he says, laughing. “I was hired for the shoulders on down.”
And then there were rough moments, memories as painful today as they were years ago. One in particular stands out.
It’s the mid-1980s.
His friend, local veterinarian Dick Miller, visits Told’s office seeking help for back pain. The doctor runs tests, learns the true cause of what’s happening inside him.
He hates what he has to do next. He has to tell his friend, “you have cancer.” A type almost universally fatal.
The friends make a pact – “He and I weren’t going to let that happen,” Told said.
They research aggressive treatments. They find specialists. They set a course of action.
They extend Miller’s life five or six years.
“We did everything we could to keep him alive,” Told says. “Finally, in the end, cancer won.”
Today might as well be the day it happened. Told thumbs tears away from his eyes.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m a little bit tender hearted.”
Today, Told will accept the 2008 Wyoming Emergency Medical Services Physician Advisor of the Year award in Cheyenne, Wyo.
The Little Snake River EMS team recommended Told for the award based on his years of volunteer service.
In 1986, he became a physician supervisor for a small clinic in Baggs, Wyo., and physician adviser for the LSR ambulance group.
The EMS team described Told as a “community leader of a vanishing breed.
“He is a strong advocate for small rural community services and a believer in the importance of giving back to the communities in which physicians live and work. He believes in the spirit of giving for the love of the community and of commitment to neighbors without any expectation of payment.”
The award, along with his pending retirement from practice in Craig, prompted his recently reflective mood.
In January, Told will become the Dean of Clinical Medicine at Rocky Vista Medical School in Parker, where he’ll help train the next generation of rural family doctors.
Now 65, these days, Told thinks about legacy, about how he’ll be remembered.
He thinks about the words of his mentor, Dr. Ray G. Witham, a long-time area physician who owned Craig Medical Center before Told.
He walks down the hall from his office, rounds a corner and stops at a framed photograph of Witham hanging on the wall.
“The way you live forever is to pass your knowledge and skill onto others,” he says.
The words aren’t exactly his, which is to say they didn’t originate with him, but over the years, and especially now, one could say Told has inherited them.
His mentor’s words rattled around in his mind when he was offered the job at Rocky Vista.
“People refer to me as a vanishing breed, and I don’t want to see that happen,” he says. “I feel I can pass that knowledge on, the love for family practice, and keep that breed alive in the hearts of young physicians. It would better society in the long run.”
And in the end, when the final chapter on Dr. Told has been written, it’s improving lives that he wants as a legacy.
“I would hope that I did leave this country better than before I came,” he said.
The next generation
Tragedy was averted that long ago winter’s night in Wyoming, but just narrowly.
Morris didn’t die.
He spent a week in the hospital with pneumonia, recovered and is now a plumber working in Utah.
It easily could have gone the other way, Told said.
By helping usher in a new generation of rural family doctors, he’s working to improve access and keep children from having to go through a difficult experience like he did years ago.
“That’ll be the thing,” Told said. “I don’t want other little kids to take that ride at night.”