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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Features

Country Doc

With Irish humor and a healing touch, SPU alumnus treats the whole person

“Doc” Raney believes quality health care involves a little magic, the kind of enchantment that happens in a small town where house calls are still made, people have their home remedies, and medical bills are sometimes paid in bear steaks and dandelion wine.

Eighty-eight-year-old Imogene Hoffman, a resident of Sultan since 1948, enjoys the personalized care and friendship dispensed by “Doc” Mark Raney and the town’s family clinic.

What sounds like an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” is Mark Raney’s life. The 1980 graduate of Seattle Pacific University practices osteopathic medicine in Sultan, Washington, a town of 4,800 with a school and fire district population triple that. In 2005, Raney and three other medical partners in the independent Sky Valley Family Medicine Clinic saw 13,000 patients. While most came from the 77-mile stretch of U.S. 2 between Sultan and Leavenworth, other former residents drove from Seattle’s urban center.

“It’s hard to let go of a good doctor,” explains Raney’s assistant and clinic manager Karen Clark. “The patients know if they’ve got a need, they can just walk in without an appointment.” Clark, who rides her horse to work except when the river’s too high or the salmon are running (they spook the horse), says country medicine is just what the doctor ordered for the people of Sultan, especially the elderly. “It lowers their stress level to see a familiar face,” she says. Some simply want conversation, others the comforting reminder that a person can, indeed, function just fine with a single kidney.

It is that level of approachable care that saved the clinic in 2003, when it lost money and its administrative affiliation with Medalia Medical Group, and was on the verge of having to close. A groundswell of community support raised more than $80,000 to help the clinic next door to Sultan Lumber modernize, make the transition from paper to electronic medical records, and operate independently. Today, there is talk of opening a second independent clinic in a nearby community to serve the burgeoning population without losing the personal touch.

When he’s having a bad day, Raney thinks of the patient on a food-bank budget who insisted on dropping $20 in the save-theclinic donation box every chance he got. Or the elderly man who walked into the clinic one day and calmly wrote a check for $10,000.

Thoughts of his “Red Apple consults” lead to a wry grin. On average, says Raney, three people he knows will walk up to his shopping cart in the local Red Apple Market and ask his advice about an ailment. The doctor is never truly off duty unless he leaves town. On Sundays, he and his family drive 17 miles to attend church in Duvall, where he is just Mr. Raney.

Raney; his wife, Dixie, a surgical specialties nurse; and daughters Meaghan and Maura live on Claddagh Farms, a 15-acre horse ranch outside Sultan, also home to three prized Belgian draft horses weighing a ton each. Raney has wrestled 530 fence posts into place, planted 1,800 trees, and calls the barn he built “my mental health.” It is the place where leather harnesses, an antique John Deere tractor, and an Amish buggy help bridge the generations and remind him of a compas-

sionate form of oldtime medicine that treats the mind, body, and spirit of a patient.

“We do house calls,” says Raney, who is proud of his Irish heritage and plays guitar in an Irish band dubbed Rapparee (Gaelic for “romantic rogues”). “Sometimes people need a doctor, and sometimes they need reassurance. I had one patient, a pioneer woman, who came here a century ago by ox team from Idaho. When she was 101, she put on the teapot for me and had banana bread waiting. Turns out she’d seen an article in Reader’s Digest that said butter was bad for you. She was apprehensive. So I told her that if she stopped eating butter, it would kill her. She liked that.”

“Dr. Raney is much more than a physician,” says Karen Frances, a 2005 SPU premed graduate now working in Jordan for Youth With a Mission. As a student, she shadowed Raney on the job and observed a model for her planned career in Christian missions and family medicine. “He is counselor, pastor, doctor, or friend, whatever he needs to be in order to serve a person best. Patient after patient told me stories of how great he is.”

Raney deflects praise and instead applauds the eight other members of the clinic staff. “They could have left during the dark days,” he says. “Instead, everyone took a pay cut, lost their health benefits, and forfeited their retirement to keep the place open. This is more than a clinic; it’s a mission.”

No one is more grateful for the sacrifice than the working poor, many of whom treat the red-bearded Irishman like their patron saint of good health. He and his colleagues chose an economic path so troubled by insurance regulations and skyrocketing malpractice coverage that the trend for most family doctors is to seek the protection of a hospital or large physician network.

“We may only have two weeks’ worth of operating funds at any one time,” says Raney, “but the clinic is the right thing to do. All of us are willing to do everything around here to get the work done. That rids us of costly administrative layers.”

It was in the 1970s that Falcon Coach Cliff McCrath learned of a rich vein of soccer ability in the Raney clan, an Irish-Catholic family living near campus with 10 children. “He called me on the job at a furniture factory and told me I was needed at Seattle Pacific,” Raney, the eldest, recalls. “He helped me get the financial aid I needed, so I went to play soccer and accidentally got an education.”

Raney played for a year while holding down three part-time jobs. Finally sidelined by a serious thigh injury, he worked with Professor of Biology Ken Moore to design a course of study that eventually led to a bachelor of science degree in physiology and sports medicine.

“Mark was fun-loving, enjoyed school, and always displayed a concern for the welfare of others,” recalls Moore. “He had a holistic view of life, and I encouraged him to pursue medicine.” Moore helped Raney apply to the Kirksville School of Osteopathic Medicine, considered the nation’s best with a holistic philosophy. Raney received a full-ride scholarship from the U.S. Army, and served for 11 years in its ranks before retiring as a major in the Medical Corps.

The letters behind Raney’s name are D.O. for “doctor of osteopathy.” He was the first primary care D.O. employed by Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center. Osteopathy is a method of anatomical diagnosis and treatment that relies on the belief that human beings should be treated as a unit, that sickness in one part of the body can’t help but affect other interrelated areas. Raney takes it as his solemn charge to put patients at ease, listen for the unasked questions, and educate each patient to take responsibility for his or her own health.

“In the process we break some of the rules in medicine about maintaining a strict separation between doctor and patient,” he says. “But our patients are the people we go to church with, shop with, and our kids go to school with. The community has taken ownership of the clinic, and that’s just the way it is.”

That means cradle-to-grave care. It means tending to sick children, conducting annual physicals for high school athletes, joshing an old man that he’s “dying of too many birthdays,” and being a presence in patient homes at the moment of death. “Those are some of the holiest of times,” Raney acknowledges, “dying in your home, at peace, with everything attended to. It makes me feel I should remove my shoes. That’s holy ground.”

The country doctor tries not to wear his Christian beliefs on his sleeve, preferring that people ask him why he does what he does. And yet, he says, his faith is everything: “It’s always been the driving force. And when it seemed there was no way the clinic would stay open, those were the days I learned to trust, and I saw our burden lightened.”

In many ways, days filled with work — not as an end in itself but as a way of serving others — are their own reward. “I come from hardworking, blue-collar people,” says Raney. “One grandfather was a butcher, the other a merchant marine who worked his way up to admiral. Work was what you did. After decades, my dad’s still coaching soccer at O’Dea High School and has the most high school soccer wins of any coach in Washington state history.” Raney has coached the Sultan Turks soccer team for three years, and there’s talk of a state championship this season. His brother, Bruce, a soccer standout at Seattle Pacific, is a member of the Falcon Legends Hall of Fame.

If it weren’t for those house calls and kids running up to tell him hello at the high school basketball games, Raney might actually be tempted to leave a profession burdened by complex bureaucracies, mushrooming insurance costs, and long hours. Might, that is, if he didn’t believe so passionately in country medicine. “If we can export this toward the cities, lawsuits will go down, satisfaction will go up, and people’s health will improve,” he reasons. “Most people don’t sue because they’re hurt, but because they’re mad. Why are they mad? No one talks to them.”

Doc Raney talks, listens, and won’t wear a watch. “Don’t want one,” he says. “You take the time you need to take.”

—By Clint Kelly
— PHOTOS BY Mike Siegel

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