It’s amazing to pause and reflect on decisions that change the course of a life. Sometimes the decisions that don’t seem so important or permanent have a way of shaping your life forever.
Dr. Gene Wilkins made a trip to Ennis in the winter of 1964 based on a call from Dr. Ron Losee, who was the resident physician at the small, recently built hospital.
Wilkins was in his early 30s with a wife and two sons. He had grown up in Nebraska, the son of a farmer and a schoolteacher and the youngest of seven kids. But the young doctor loved to hunt, fish and ski. Ennis seemed like just to place to make his start in the West.
But what might have started as a simple career move turned into a life-long relationship between a country doctor and a community that both welcomed and needed him.
Sitting at his grand one piece, 12-foot banquet table in his home on Ennis Lake, Wilkins can stare out through windows and the cottonwoods and see fish rise, eagles fly and deer romp. In the summer sun, last winter’s snow is still hanging on in the high country and feeding the small stream that flows right outside his door. The old house is quiet and a bit chilly.
Wilkins said it never gets warm in the house because of all the shade provided by the ancient cottonwoods. At his feet, his old and deaf cow-dog Hank snores softly.
“It’s just cold in here,” he said noticing the summer sun filtering into the lawn right outside the big room’s windows.
Wilkins talks slow and thoughtful. Each question seemed to bring back a memory and each memory comes with some reflection.
Wilkins was born in 1931 in eastern Nebraska. His family raised cows, corn and various other crops. Unlike his father, who had only gone to school through the fifth grade, Wilkins and all his siblings ended up attending college. He graduated from the University of Nebraska with an agriculture degree and went into the Navy for four years. He served toward the end of the Korean War.
When his time in the Navy was finished, he went to medical school. Initially Wilkins wanted to be a veterinarian, but getting into vet school took some politicking in those days, so he went to medical school.
His connection to Losee back in 1964 was through his brother-in-law who was a pediatrician in Helena.
Losee needed help at the Madison Valley Hospital and so he called Wilkins, who agreed to come out after his winter trip to Ennis.
At the time Losee, who was gaining notoriety for his knee surgeries, was needing to devote more and more time to his surgical work and less time to the general practice. So Wilkins came out to start his own practice and a new clinic to attend to the general needs of people around the area.
Much of what it took to set up a practice hadn’t yet been done when Wilkins arrived.
He set up a small lab and system for seeing patients and attending to emergency needs.
“I had to set the whole dang thing up from scratch,” Wilkins said.
He taught assistants to do the lab work and eventually established an emergency medical technician training program to train local volunteers to eventually staff an ambulance service.
After eight years in Ennis, Wilkins went to the University of Utah and recruited a physician’s assistant, the first in Montana.
Back then the PA program at Utah was unique. Wilkins saw physician’s assistants as the solution to recruiting doctors to small communities in Montana. The first PA he hired was Ron Handlos.
However, Montana had no laws governing PAs, so Wilkins worked with the legislature to get the first laws concerning physician’s assistants enacted in the state.
Essentially, PAs can act as doctors so long as they’re under the supervision of a licensed physician. After establishing Handlos in Ennis, Wilkins helped establish a PA in West Yellowstone as well.
Being a country doctor was a lot of work and Wilkins was almost always on call. He moved to Ennis for the hunting, fishing and skiing, but sometimes recreation was a distant afterthought.
“I didn’t have time for any of it,” he said with a chuckle.
Getting out for a bit of fishing was easier than hunting. He had two-way radios so the hospital could try and call him if he tried to go hunting. However, the radios didn’t really work that well, he said.
Wilkins worked hard to build his practice in Ennis and serve the community. It wasn’t that he thought he would always live here; it just seemed to end up that way.
Wilkins’ and his first wife divorced soon after he moved to Ennis, but he married his second wife Eileen a few years later. She had two daughters, Julie and Sarah, and he had two sons, Jay and James. The walls of his home are covered in pictures of his children and grandchildren. Eileen passed away in 2006.
After two previous attempts, Wilkins retired for good in 2004. Before that he had to keep coming back because of the difficulty the medical center had in finding replacement doctors.
Both Wilkins and Losee served the Ennis community as physicians for more than four decades. Such consistency was unusual then and continues to be today, Losee said.
At least part of the reason to two doctors were able to last so long working together in the same community is because they stayed independent of each other, he said.
“We worked independently helping each other in precious ways all this time,” Losee said. “We’re good friends and we helped each other.”
This Thursday, the Madison Valley Medical Center is honoring Wilkins with a community ceremony.
“Doctor Wilkins and Doc Losee were the real heart of the community medical center for so many years,” said Dottie Fossel, chairman of the medical center’s board of directors.
The ceremony will honor all the years Wilkins devoted to the people of Madison Valley, she said.
And in all those years, Wilkins learned a few things that could help anyone, but the most important lesson is not to be stubborn.
“You can be open to suggestions,” he said. “You try to use information you get from other doctors that can help you. That’s the important thing – ask for help. You don’t want to be obstinate and determined in your ways because other guys might have a better answer than you do.”