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Community Builder: Healing the children

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Lee Murdoch, a retired pediatrician, founder of Southern Oregon Pediatrics, and chairman of the Jefferson Regional Health Alliance board.

Q: You’ve championed children’s and family health during your career. What changes have you seen in the 50 years that you’ve practiced medicine in Southern Oregon?

Murdoch: When I first came to Southern Oregon, the Rogue Valley Hospital emergency was two rooms. Now it’s this ginormous place. We used to have a big problem with the fog in the wintertime. When babies were born here and needed more help, sometimes we couldn’t fly them to Portland or San Francisco because of the fog. Medical folks in Portland and San Francisco were willing to teach us what we needed to do, and that led to the development of a neonatal intensive care unit. People come from all over this end of the state and Northern California for medical care, and there weren’t any intensive care units in 1966. We had to evolve, so what has developed are state-of-the-art medical facilities. The whole hospital is kind of an intensive care unit. Of course, medicine itself changes with new techniques and various strategies. It’s been fun to see it grow. I read in the paper this morning, there are 550 physicians in Southern Oregon. That’s 500 more than when I first came to town.

Q: What drew you into pediatrics and the care of young children?

Murdoch: In 1960, following medical school training, there were rotating internships where you did a month of this type of care and a month of that. It was a great year, and I enjoyed pediatrics, but I also enjoyed surgery and orthopedics. Then I spent three years in the Air Force and worked with a pediatrician for two of those three years. I came back to Portland and completed my residency in pediatrics.

Q: How did you choose to settle in the Rogue Valley?

Murdoch: The opportunities for me, as I was finishing my training, were in communities close to Portland. Physicians in those regions with really sick kids sent them to Portland. That was fine. Perhaps that was good for the patients, but it was not necessarily good for the skill level of the physicians. I saw doctors out of medical school for five years who weren’t really up on stuff. Medford was halfway between San Francisco and Portland, and there were lots of situations that we just needed to do things here. It’s an excellent medical community. The physicians here were really high-quality folks, and we worked well together. I could call anybody at any time and they would come help. It’s been a good place to practice medicine.

Q: What are the rewards you get from pediatrics?

Murdoch: It’s probably the same kind of reward you get anywhere in primary care medicine. You establish relationships and that’s the fun part of it; establishing connections with children and their families. Kids are amazing. They can get sick. They can get really sick really fast, but they usually get well very quickly. It’s when they’re in the depths of the really sick part that is the challenge.

Q: Tell us about Jefferson Regional Health Alliance.

Murdoch: At the end of this month, I will be stepping down as chair. Jefferson Regional Health Alliance is a unique organization. The heads of various entities that have to do with health care in Southern Oregon are all involved: the CEOs of the hospitals, the CEOs of La Clinica, Rogue Health and Siskiyou Health, plus, Jackson and Josephine county health departments. The coordinated health organizations: All Care, Jackson Care Connect and Primary Health of Josephine County are also active members. We meet every other month to learn about each other and how we can collaborate. The function of JRHA is to find issues that are affecting the whole community, things that any one entity maybe can’t do by themselves. There are several people who have been instrumental to the development of JRHA. Kathy Bryon (executive director of the Gordon Elwood Foundation) was one of the “founders” and continues to support us. Bill Thorndike (president of Medford Fabrication) and Roy Vinyard (president and CEO, Asante) were key to getting the discussions started.

Right now, we’re finishing a community health assessment. Historically every organization that had anything to do with state or federal money had to have a community health assessment and develop a health improvement plan. A couple years ago someone suggested that we do it together. That required a lot of give and take to happen. We’ll hear the results of the year’s report soon. I don’t think we’ll be surprised. The key thing with health care is to be able to address the social determinants of health: poverty, food and shelter. If organizations work together, we can have a bigger impact.

Q: What are some of the activities Jefferson Regional Health Alliance?

Murdoch: Several things have already been accomplished, there’s a health information exchange that was incubated with Jefferson Regional Health. Jim Shames (Jackson County medical director) and the opioid project got its start and support with JRHA. You may recall that a couple years ago there was kind of a blowup with Mental Health services. Our concern at Jefferson Regional Health Alliance was that the patients didn’t get lost in the shuffle. I think we kind of navigated that whole thing pretty well. Patients have been taken care of. The end-of-life issue, John Forsyth has been managing that forever and he got a fair amount of support from Jefferson Regional Health. As we identify problems together, maybe we can do something to solve the problem. That’s the fun part.

Q: If you could wave your magic wand, what would you like to see done to improve life in Southern Oregon?

Murdoch: Well, housing is, of course, a huge issue, along with the homeless folks and drugs. I worry about the kids growing up in these kinds of situations. At the Family Nurturing Center, many of the kids that we see there have parents who were at one time addicted. They are really motivated to do a good job with their kids and to stay clean. These kids are really bright. If we can focus from zero to 5, if we can help those kids all to get a good start and a good education, it will be huge for our society. If I had a magic wand, the magic wand would focus on stabilizing families and educating the kids.

Q: What provides you motivation to continue to be involved in health-related activities even in retirement?

Murdoch: I guess it’s gotten in my bloodstream. If there’s something that I can do to help, I should do that. It’s not so much a “should do” as “I would like to do.” It turns out that there are a whole lot of people in Southern Oregon who want to help.

Q: What’s clearer to you now than in the past?

Murdoch: When it comes to resolution of social issues, it seems pretty clear that we’re all in this together. A lot of folks just say, “Well, that’s their problem.” No, it’s our problem. First of all, owning the problem is a whole lot better for the folks affected and unaffected. And it’s a whole lot less expensive in terms of health care costs. If I had one thing that I could do, it would be to persuade people that we have an obligation.

The governor’s budget for next year is asking for more money, and I’m just totally supportive of that. It’s primarily going to education. It’s not like we can just say, ‘Oh, somebody else will take care of it.’ It’s us. We have to take care of it. I am hopeful. The schools have cut back. There are increased class sizes. They’ve cut back on days, cut back here and cut back there. I’m impressed with the number of people who are willing to step up and be helpful, but still it’s the schools that provide education. People say that we need to have private schools or more of this and more of that. No, the public-school system is fine, if we support it.

Q: Were there events in your life that were turning points?

Murdoch: In high school we had a career day and people representing a variety of pathways came to school to talk. One of the local physicians presented, and I remember him saying, “Well, there are a lot of good things about medicine, but you should know it’s going to cost you $25,000.” This was in 1952 in Eastern Nebraska. Our family didn’t have that kind of money. I couldn’t see any way. Finally, my mother, who had been a teacher said, “I’ll go back and teach school to help out.” My dad’s business had suffered but was recovering. It was a tough time because I really wanted to go into medicine, but I couldn’t see how to pay for it. The turning point was when my folks said, “We will figure it out, not to worry.”

I was able to go to a local college and get a scholarship. Diana and I got married after the first year in medical school, and she worked to put me through. It’s been a joint effort.

The internship in Seattle was a turning point. That was a really, really, really hard year. The hardest year ever, but I learned more that year than any other year. That was a very good education. I was at the county hospital this was before Medicare, so the county hospital was basically the doctor’s office for all the indigent people in Seattle. People came in 24 hours a day. They came in by ambulance and cars, really sick people. That was a difficult year, but we survived.

Coming here, in retrospect, was a really good decision. It was a good place for my family and for me. There are a whole lot of nice people in the world. Being able to practice medicine and have deep relationships with people is very rewarding. Parents and kids tell me what’s going on, and I try to help them. It has really been quite a privilege.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.


Lee Murdoch bio

Lee Murdoch was born in Blair, Nebraska, in 1936. He graduated from Doane University and University of Nebraska Medical School, then completed his internship at King County Hospital in Seattle. After three years in the U.S. Air Force, he completed a pediatric residency at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.

Murdoch, his wife, Diana, and children settled in Medford in 1966, where he joined the Medford Clinic. He started Southern Oregon Pediatrics in 1983 and was affiliated with Rogue Valley Memorial Hospital until 2006.

Murdoch retired from his pediatrics practice in 2001 and again in 2006 (second try). Since retirement, he has been active in several nonprofit entities in the Rogue Valley, including the Family Nurturing Center and Jefferson Regional Health Alliance.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Dr. Lee Murdoch, shown inside the Southern Oregon Pediatrics center in Medford, has spent his career improving the health of Rogue Valley children and their families.