Being a small-town doctor used to mean being on call 24/7 – not exactly a selling point for many physicians deciding where to practice.
But a married team of doctors in Quinter, Kan. (pop. 918) seem to have struck an enviable balance between work and the rest of life. And in the process, they’re contributing more than just medical care to their community.
“We like to say you can still have a lifestyle and a life,” said Dr. Shelly Gruenbacher, who practices in the Gove county town with her husband, Doug.
Quinter is a farming community located on Interstate 70 about three hours west of Wichita. It’s probably best known as the gateway to the Castle Rock chalk formation and nearby badlands.
The Gruenbachers moved there in 2002, after completing their studies at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita and doing their residency at Smoky Hill Family Medicine Residency Program in Salina. They have four children – Evelyn, 12, Ely, 10, Ethan, 7, and Ella, 4.
Both come from small-town backgrounds. Shelly grew up in Stockton in north-central Kansas, Doug outside Wichita in rural Andale. Shelly studied biology as an undergrad at KU, Doug majored in biochemistry at Kansas State University.
Shelly says asthma and knee problems she battled as a high-school athlete helped lead her into medicine. “I thought if I was the doctor, I would have handled things differently.”
Doug says he always enjoyed science and interacting with people. “Medicine was a great way to fulfill all of those things,” he said.
They met in medical school and married during their third year, by which time they’d transferred to the Wichita campus.
“I got a husband, a degree and a job I like out of the deal, ” Shelly jokes.
Serving their fourth-year rural rotation at Gove County Medical Center helped the Gruenbachers decide Quinter was the right spot for them. “We kind of fell in love with this community and the docs we worked with, ” Shelly explains.
“This was the kind of practice we wanted – OBs, C-sections, scopes, minor surgery,” Shelly says. The hospital draws patients from an eight-county area, largely because of its obstetrics services. About 80 babies a year are delivered there.
Shelly says practicing medicine in a small town is more personal than it might be in a larger setting. “The really good things are higher, and the bad things are lower.”
For instance, a young boy who Doug had grown close to through 4-H activities was killed in a farm accident that doctors could do nothing about. “That was a horrible experience,” Doug recalls.
There are joyous days as well, as when the couple delivered a baby from a mother whose placenta had separated from her uterus. “She and the baby were both fine,” recalls Shelly. “That was a day when everybody did good.”
For the most part, working together so closely goes smoothly, although Shelly says her husband “did stab me” during one memorable incident.
“We were doing a C-section and had pronounced bleeding we were trying to control. I was holding the pressure and he had a better angle to sew. In the process he also got my finger. I was just glad the bleeding stopped. I was ready to sew my hand in if it would just stop bleeding.”
Doug and Shelly coach youth football, basketball and soccer teams, participate in 4-H with their kids and stay active in their church. Shelly helped start an annual 5K race that kicked off fundraising for the Castle Rock Wellness Center, on Quinter’s Main Street.
The Gruenbachers have hosted several medical students from the Wichita campus doing their rural rotations, including Kyle and Amanda Miller, a married couple from Derby.
After spending a month in Quinter, the Millers sounded hooked on finding a similar set-up. “I like that they get to do a lot more. And the atmosphere is just different,” Kyle remarked.
Shelly concurs, “You don’t ‘settle’ for family medicine,” she said. “Family medicine is one of the biggest challenges.”
KU School of Medicine-Wichita