Patients lose friend when doctor closes office
Sue Cope of Weaverville was in Dr. Robert Uhren’s office a few weeks ago picking up her medical chart and feeling bad that the longtime family doctor was retiring.
“I am sorry to see him leave,” she said, ticking off all the things she would miss about him. “The way he listens to you. The care and compassion he has for his patients. So many things. I’m going to miss the flower-power shirts he wears. He’s going to be hard to replace.”
Uhren practiced medicine for 37 years, most of it at Swannanoa Valley Medical Center, when he announced his imminent retirement from his family medicine practice a few weeks ago (his office is open through March 9 for medical records and prescription refills; Dr. Drew Snyder of Black Mountain and MAHEC Family Practice in Swannanoa have agreed to accept his patients). Uhren loves his work, but a Christmastime bout with a ruptured appendix made him realize that, at long last, he’s a little tired.
Uhren, who one patient said looks like a cross between Albert Einstein and Jerry Garcia, worked long hours for decades. His days at various offices in the Valley and elsewhere often started early and ended before midnight. He’s the staff physician for area prisons and rehab centers, a position he’ll keep in his quasi-retirement.
“He’s a workaholic,” nurse Cathy Hart said during a recent interview in one of his examination rooms at Swannanoa Valley Medical Center. “He’s 75,” she said with obvious affection. “He doesn’t even look it, does he?”
Linda Baker, who lives in Swannanoa, went to the clinic recently with a sinus infection and was sad to learn of Uhren’s retirement. She describes him as “the most personable, patient, kind man ever.” That’s saying something, she said, because as a retired nurse, “I’ve seen the good and the bad sides of doctors. He has a great bedside manner.”
“He takes all the time in the world, which I’m sure other people hate,” said Janie Belue, who had been coming to Uhren’s office since 1995. “He gets to know you; he’ll sit with you and talk forever. He takes the time to listen to me, and he believes what I tell him. He doesn’t think I’m a hypochondriac. He trusts me, and I trust him. It breaks my heart that he’s leaving.”
Uhren just doesn’t have the energy that he used to, he said.
“We worked really, really hard,” he said. “We would see 20-25 patients in a half day. And there’s a lot of things wrong with that and right with it. It means patients get seen. But when you switch to a computerized system, that extended my day. Somewhere you have to find the time to do all that documentation. At this stage, it just wore me out.”
For decades, he could keep up. Small and light, he’s gifted with good genetics. His mother was going strong in her 90s before she passed away at 97. His father died much earlier, but he worked from the moment he got up to the time he went to bed. “He didn’t change that much when he retired. He just changed what he worked at.
“In the days when I was raised, I remember my parents saying, ‘one thing I don’t want people ever saying about you is that you’re lazy.’ Maybe because they went through the Depression, they were not very tolerant of laziness.”
Uhren was raised Reliance, in small community in southwestern Wyoming. A community of some 200 people might not interest a lot of people, but Uhren loved Reliance.
“There were a lot of things to do,” he said. “It was desert, basically an outdoor life. You knew everyone in the community. You had big thrills, like one year the basketball team for our community actually played for the Wyoming state championship in the small school category. It beat the team in the bigger town seven miles away. There was just a lot of community pride.”
Uhren worked hard to establish a family-like feel among his staff at his Black Mountain practice – some four staff members, generally - so that his patients would feel comfortable in his office and the examination rooms. “It makes it more pleasant for everybody,” he said. He liked having employees’ kids around.
As boys, his son Robbie, now 26, and Hart’s son Michael, now 27, spent a lot of time at the office. Trish Morris, who does insurance and billing, her children worked there. And recently, Morris’ grandchildren Ari and Greyson Hart, were greeting patients as they arrived.
“You know, like Walmart greeters,” Uhren said, lighting up. The place became known as “Dr. Uhren’s office and nursery,” he said.
“His office staff and their interactions with him, you could tell that he was well loved,” Baker said. “When you look at him, he reminds you of a cross between Albert Einstein and Jerry Garcia.”
Uhren accepted Medicare and Medicaid patients – for a long time, he was the only doctor in the Valley who took both – and he also had an open policy of “seeing whatever patients needed to be seen,” regardless of their ability to pay, Hart said. Seeing patients who can’t afford treatment is “what it means to be a doctor,” Uhren said.
“He saw patients that other people wouldn’t want to see,” Belue said. “When you went to his office, you weren’t with the elite population of the valley but people that needed help that he probably saw pro bono. (His retirement) leaves a gap for me because I feel like I’ve lost a friend. But it leaves a gap for other people who may not be able to get medical care elsewhere. You knew when you went to that office that someone is going to care about you.”
Jack Calligan and his wife had been going to Uhren for years, often bringing their German Shepherd-Siberian Husky dog named Ferris Bueller, which Uhren loved. Ferris would say hello to all the children in the waiting room before introducing himself to the adults.
“Dr. Uhren preferred that I bring him,” Calligan said. “That’s just one small thing in about a million other things about him. He’s a fascinating human being with a remarkable variety of interests. Up until a few years ago, he was ziplining.”
Uhren loves to travel, and when he does, he takes up challenges that the localities provide – like ziplining. He’s bungee-jumped twice, “but I don’t that anymore,” he said. He rollerblades – a lot – mostly on Amboy Road in West Asheville and in Fletcher at the park there. It’s great exercise, and it doesn’t batter your knees like running does some people.
“Watch your wrists,” he said. “You gotta protect your wrists.” Throwing an arm out to break your fall is the natural thing to do. But without guards, you might break a wrist.
Now that he’s semi-retired, he has more time to skate. Not the kind to sit still, Uhren is open to possibility. “I may have to pick up something,” he said. “Like running.”