Born and bred in Wyoming, Doctor Heith Waddell says his veins run brown and gold. Taking up residency full time in the clinic at Sundance Hospital is a return to his roots after years of traveling for his medical education – which is why he can be certain he’s here to stay.
“I started out in Wyoming. My family has been in Wyoming for five generations now; they homesteaded in Gillette and Rozet,” he says. “I went to school in Cheyenne, got a wild hair after high school and went and did an internship in New York.”
In New York, he met an Australian who told him about the rural medicine programs available across the waters. Though he initially dismissed the idea and returned to Billings to complete his undergraduate degree, it turned out that he had a choice between Australia and Iowa to continue his education.
When you’re 22 years old, he grins, the choice is almost always going to be Australia. Waddell ended up living there for seven years, completing his training as a rural general practitioner.
“The program I went to is probably one of the top three in the world for country medicine, just because once you get an hour outside of the coast, everything is really remote,” he says.
In his second year of medicine, Waddell met a country physician who runs a hospital by himself in Australia and has extensive knowledge of the western United States. That physician became his mentor and predicted even at that stage that Waddell would become a rural doctor.
Waddell completed medical school in Adelaide and moved to Sydney to work in the intensive care unit of a large hospital as a resident.
“I knew that I was going to go into country medicine, but that experience of being in a big hospital and doing high-powered, critical medicine I think is important when you come to an area like this, because you never know what’s going to show up at the door,” he says.
Waddell trained in family medicine in Rapid City and then returned to Australia to spend a little time in the outback, an isolated place that was a 12-hour drive from the nearest town of 1000 people.
“I literally worked in tin shed, working with Aboriginals doing medicine way out in the bush,” he says.
After finishing his training, Waddell began his career in Custer. A year ago, while seeking additional work, he found out that Crook County was experiencing difficulties with its providers and made a call to Sundance Hospital.
Not long after, in November, he began coming to Sundance twice a month and soon realized two things: Crook County was a community in need of stable providers and its medical services district genuinely cared about providing healthcare.
“They have excellent providers who really do a great job keeping the community cared for and, for a while here, things were really thin and those providers really stuck it out and went all in to keep this place going,” he says.
“When you see a place with that kind of dedication and staff who say they really just want to make this place better, you start thinking, could I fit in here?”
When CEO Nathan Hough asked what it would take for Waddell to join the hospital full time, he was open to negotiation. It was a big decision, he says, but an easy one in the end.
“Being from Wyoming, I’ve always tried to support Wyoming and its communities. While I was in Custer, I worked in Newcastle doing a clinic there,” he says.
Waddell has moved to Crook County with his wife, a dietician who hails from Newcastle and who will also be joining the staff at the hospital. The couple has purchased land from an ex-board member, just six to eight minutes away from the hospital, and will be constructing a house there in the near future.
“I want to do country medicine but I also want to do some stuff on the land, raise some cattle,” he says of the convenient location. “It’s all fallen together really nicely.”
Waddell says he is thrilled to be joining the facility at a time while it is working proactively to improve and has already shown great progress.
“I didn’t come in to make all these big changes, but to help improve on what has already been started – to get on that bandwagon and be a part of the improvements,” he says.
“I do a very wide spectrum of general practitioner work. What I’ve always told people is that I’ll take care of you from before you were a thought…to the time you die and anything in between.”
Thanks to this, Waddell hopes to offer additional services at the hospital that will allow patients to attend to their healthcare needs locally, such as injections for arthritis. As he continues his training and introduces the staff to new services, his intention, he says, is to continue to boost what the hospital is able to provide.
Waddell’s official starting date at the hospital on August 1. He will be in the clinic from that date and available to see patients.
By Sarah Pridgeon