Dr. Ken Peterson: A doctor for our times

Earlier this week, while reviewing some of my Independent writings from years past, I came upon a column that I wrote in January of 2007, which featured one of my partners, Dr. Ken Peterson, who had recently died. I paused while I read the column since his practice and spirit embodied a concept which seems to be less prominent or missing in today’s medical practice, i.e., a personal interaction between the physician and the patient. I have noticed the subject discussed in recent medical literature, on the Internet and in the Independent. This description of Dr. Peterson sounds as if it holds a lesson for all of us involved in the art of healing…

The passing of my friend and fellow physician Dr. Ken Peterson earlier this month marked the end of the group of physicians who by their efforts transitioned Marshall and the surrounding areas from the era of the “good old family doctor” to the present status of the family physician as the primary medical specialist and consultant for patients as they enter the modern circumstance of specialized and technologically sophisticated medical practice. With the foresight and direction of medical administrators Guy Boughton, Ron Jensen, Dick Sleiter, and Leonard Kompelien, and the cooperation and support of concerned and dedicated hospital board members and civic leaders, these physicians, whose medical careers encompassed nearly 100 years of medical service to our communities, brought the medical practice of the urban areas and academic centers to the southwest prairie towns. In many ways, Dr. Peterson exemplified this remarkable change and progress in our local medical area.

Many of us with long memories and gray hair remember our local doctor as a one-man cottage industry in the 1940s and 1950s, even if we lived in Minneapolis as I did. Dr. Roy Peterson, Ken’s father, was a farmer’s son from Belview, who established his medical practice in Vesta, with Dr. Fred Gray in 1905 or so. The Peterson home was also the clinic and the hospital. However, Dr. Gray saw the need for a hospital in the growing city of Marshall and established the Marshall Hospital in 1911. Dr. Roy Peterson continued to practice in Vesta until the 1980s, but he convinced his son Ken to join Dr. Gray in Marshall in 1947, again anticipating the building of the new Marshall Hospital, which was completed in 1950. A photograph taken at the opening of the Marshall hospital shows the initial medical staff of the Louis Weiner Memorial Hospital in 1950. Thirty-eight-year-old Dr. Ken Peterson appears with Dr. Gray (right, first row) and his father (left, first row) along with other faces familiar to our readers. This picture can be viewed at the Lyon County Museum.

Dr. Peterson trained at the University of Minnesota, the old Minneapolis General Hospital, now HCMC, and the Charles T. Miller Hospital, now only a memory of its prominent position in front of the St. Paul Cathedral. In the 1940s, medical practice was quite different than today, individually challenging and competitive. As an example, Ken related an incident to me when he was called urgently to attend a patient who had had a farm accident. With great effort and speed, he went to the patient’s aid, only to be passed on the road by Dr. Eckdale, hurrying to see the patient. When the two arrived, Dr. Murphy was already there!

When I arrived in Marshall in the fall of 1975, I learned that Ken, John Eckdale, Dr. Stover, and the staff welcomed input from the “new doctors.” Thus, when reviewing some patient charts with Dr. Peterson, I offered a few suggestions about new developments in antibiotics which might be considered in future cases. A few days later, I was surprised to see a memo from Dr. Peterson to the physicians about these ideas which began: “Dr. Martin says…” He really was a physician who was interested in consistently learning new ideas. Later that month he invited me to a Mayo Clinic outreach meeting at McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls and informed me: “the lectures would be good, but the cinnamon rolls would be better…!” Even in his retirement, Ken would send me notes he had taken from Mayo Clinic lectures he attended in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Dr. Peterson had an uncanny gift of recognizing potentially serious illness in patients and rapidly referring them to those of us with knowledge in specific areas whether we were here in Marshall or elsewhere. On one occasion he asked Dr. LaPorte to examine a baby he had just delivered because it “looked different.” Although the initial examination was not abnormal, with the passage of time a congenital heart condition in the child became evident.

One of the main reasons that Ken and John’s clinic, “Doctors’ Plaza,” (now ACMC-Marshall) prospered was their effort to hire physicians who would bring new knowledge, expertise, ideas and procedures to Marshall. Although Ken and John had different personalities, they operated an efficient clinic practice which had as its goal optimal medical care for the area. The evolving challenges in medical practice and physician recruitment and retention continue, but Ken, John, and their associates in both clinics and the hospital provided a strong foundation for the medical care we now enjoy. In addition, Dr. Peterson was one of the first physicians I met who tried to teach us younger physicians about life other than medicine; he encouraged us to treat the “whole patient.” He tried to learn something about his patients and all of us and kept his interest in us throughout our associations. He kept close contact with the night nurses to try to ensure an undisturbed night’s rest, and he often took a nap on an examining table when there was a pause in a busy day!

I had the honor to assist Ken and his wife, Stella, in caring for him in his later years. When I retired, he remarked to me that “I was too young to retire”; he had retired at 72. However, I reminded him that his father had worked until he was 92! At which time he retorted: “You bet!”

Godspeed, Dr. Ken Peterson! May you enjoy the afterlife as much as we have enjoyed experiencing life with you!