Rural champion illustrates CMS past and present
Jack Berry, MD, a CMS past president and past CMS Foundation president, practiced rural medicine in Okarche, Okla., a town of 800, for seven years; Greeley, Colo., for 7 years; and Wray, Colo., for 11 years. He moved to Wray when there was just one doctor and one physician assistant, and through his hard work and mentorship, there are now four family doctors, a general surgeon and many support personnel. After retirement, he went to work for CMS’s Colorado Physician’s Choice as it was being integrated into Rocky Mountain Health Plans, and later ran for CMS president on a platform of improving developing rural health care and access to care.
Of his many accomplishments, he and his wife, Maribeth, were instrumental in launching a CMS scholarship benefiting students who want to practice in rural areas of Colorado, and a board-certified Family Medicine Rural Track residency – the second in the country.
The Berrys met when Dr. Berry was 17 and Maribeth was 16 at a church rally in his hometown in Oklahoma (she was visiting from big-city Oklahoma City). She struck up a conversation, asking him if he played football, and he says he never shut up. He says, “we’re a team; it’s the whole way.” The couple will celebrate 60 years of marriage in September 2023.
CMS sat down with the couple for this interview.
Why did you choose medicine?
Jack Berry (JB): When I was 5 years old I had tonsilitis and my mother took me to a doctor, Dr. Thorpe. He was the nicest man – he was so kind and convinced this 5 year old to open his mouth to look. He set me on his lap as he did it. And he was so careful when he gave me the penicillin shot. I decided that day that this was the nicest man I’d ever met and this is what I wanted to do.
Maribeth Berry (MB): Jack’s mother also started talking to him about medicine at a very young age. Neither of his parents went to college but they wanted this for him.
What is your favorite part of rural medicine?
JB: The people. I would care for four generations. Truly from the cradle to the grave. You can have a lot of influence as a rural doctor in a rural community. We hosted many medical students and residents right in our home to show them how rural life can be (really great). I didn’t mind castrating calves, and I could fish and hunt in any place.
MB, teasing: In fact, every time he met a new patient, he would ask if they had a fishing pond on their property or if they could go hunting.
Is there more pressure on a rural physician to know everything?
JB: I was a preceptor for many years and students who rotated through Wray would ask me how they can gain enough knowledge to work in a rural area. I would tell them that with a family physician’s knowledge base, you can take care of 95 percent of cases. For the other 5 percent, you know how stabilize them and get them to a specialist. A rural physician’s knowledge base is broad but shallow. A specialist’s knowledge base is vertical but narrow. The specialist can take care of 95 percent, too, before calling in a subspecialist.
How did the CMS Education Foundation rural scholarship come about?
JB: Bill Bailey, a pediatric surgeon and CMS president at the time, asked me to start a rural health taskforce because something had to be done by CMS to help rural medicine. I was on the CMS board at the time, the representative of northeast Colorado. The rural taskforce divided the state into quadrants and every quarter Sandy Maloney, the CMS CEO at the time, and I went to visit quadrants to talk to them about current concerns.
MB: It was to identify the difficulties they were having. The very first one that came up every time was rural recruitment and retention of physicians. These physicians said you also need to get support people for rural areas – nurses, physical therapists and dentists – to make it easier to recruit to rural areas.
JB: The rural taskforce led to the Colorado Rural Outreach Program (CROP). CMS worked with the Colorado Rural Health Center to raise funds for the program and we put almost $1 million into rural medicine. CMS decided to transfer CROP to the Colorado Rural Health Center because they could more easily raise money and administer the program. Maribeth was invited to be on the board of the Colorado Rural Health Center representing northeast Colorado. CROP continued to do good work like provide grants to pay for locum tenens for doctors in the communities and host recruiting events for young doctors in internship and residency.
CMS was able to keep everything we had raised to develop CROP, $250,000, to put into a rural medicine assistance fund that was managed by the CMS Foundation, now the CMS Education Foundation. We started using the fund for educational loan repayment, but figured out it would take less staff time to give medical student scholarships. Current CMS CEO Dean Holzkamp said one of the scholarships needs to have my name on it, and I insisted that Maribeth’s name be on it, too, because she was just as responsible for starting the scholarship.
How did you establish a family medicine rural track residency in Wray?
JB: The leadership of the family practice department in Greeley found out about a rural track residency in Spokane. Because I had been having residents to Wray for five years already, they said I had the skills to teach and proposed setting up a rural track residency in Wray. They did all the paperwork and had the residency approval board come out. They approved the second board-certified rural track residency in the country. The residents spend their first year in Greeley to learn the things they couldn’t learn from me. Then they would spend two years in Wray. We have trained 30 residents who can do C-sections, take care of heart attacks, run an ER and more. I trained all of my replacements. There are now four family doctors, a general surgeon, two PAs, one nurse practitioner, a medical student, two residents – a second year and a third year – a PA student and a nurse practitioner student. With a 10-bed hospital with two ICU beds, two ER beds and two operating rooms. My partners in Wray and I built that and I’m very proud of it. It’s my life.
Contribute to the CMS Education Foundation rural track scholarship at cms.org/contribute.
The Colorado Medical Society's monthly member spotlight series offers CMS members the opportunity to share their passions and wisdom from medicine and life in general, and allows the medical society to highlight members from around the state. All CMS members are eligible to be featured; contact firstname.lastname@example.org to self-nominate or to nominate one of your colleagues. It takes as little as 20 minutes of your time!