After more than 50 years, Cloquet doctor retiring from practiceThe Puumala doctoring dynasty in Cloquet all started with a note on a bulletin board in Chicago.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
CLOQUET — The Puumala doctoring dynasty in Cloquet all started with a note on a bulletin board in Chicago.
“My father saw a note on a board at the University of Illinois asking if a Finnish-speaking doctor could come to Cloquet,” explained Dr. Ricard Puumala, 78, who is retiring after 54 years as a family care physician in Carlton County. “They (Ricard’s mother also was a medical doctor) had recently started a family and were a little short on cash, so he decided to come work here for a couple of years and then go back to Chicago to get his Ph.D. in anatomy.”
Ricard Puumala was 18 months old when he moved to Cloquet with his parents in 1936 and — except for school — he’s been there ever since. He’ll be honored for his decades of service with an open house from 1-5 p.m. today at Community Memorial Hospital.
The Puumala family was welcomed with open arms by the Finnish-speaking members of the local population, if not the Raiter brothers, who then had a virtual monopoly on medical care in town, Puumala said.
But the Raiters didn’t speak Finnish. Ricard’s dad did. Raised in Red Lodge, Mont., the elder Puumala didn’t learn to speak English until he was 8 years old, Puumala said.
Puumala said he grew up planning to be a doctor, just like his parents, Reino and Marie, who had opened the Puumala Clinic.
“One time my dad did say, ‘We hope we aren’t influencing you too much,’” Puumala recalled, noting that the influence was pervasive, if not intentional. “We’d be eating liver for supper and they’d be talking about someone with liver disease.”
Puumala graduated from Cloquet High School in 1952, and attended the University of Minnesota for both undergraduate studies and medical school. He met his wife, Barbara, at medical school.
Like his parents, he and his doctor wife moved to Cloquet after medical school. Unlike his parents, they had a clinic bearing their last name waiting for them.
Both Ricard and Barbara worked at the clinic with his parents for a time, until the demands of being a family practice doctor started to conflict with the demands of raising four children.
“A gal would come in in the middle of the night and, at the drop of a hat, she had to deliver babies,” Puumala said, explaining that Barbara quit the family practice and worked as a doctor at the state hospital clinic in Moose Lake for close to 25 years, where the hours were more regular and she could more easily balance the demands of work and home.
Puumala stayed with the family practice and then added a second job in 1970, working as the Carlton County coroner. While he is retiring from family practice, he plans to continue as coroner at least until this term ends at the end of 2014. While he enjoys the interaction with patients in his day-to-day practice, Puumala said he also likes being coroner.
“It’s not pleasant — you’re dealing with people’s emotions and they don’t like what you’re telling them sometimes, they don’t want to hear bad news,” he said. “On the other hand, it is intellectually satisfying, because it’s like figuring out a puzzle.”
The tools used in both his jobs have changed over the years, but the real core of the work hasn’t, said Puumala, who was named Minnesota Family Physician of the Year in 1996.
“They don’t really teach anatomy much anymore — they have all the fancy machines that do the thinking for you,” he said. “But it’s the hands-on physical [exam] and history taking, those are the things that you’ve really got to rely on, not offer someone a CT scan if they’ve got a headache.”
Puumala Clinic survived until 2005, undone in the end by the demands of “unfunded federal mandates,” Puumala said.
“You couldn’t do a white blood count by hand, you had to buy an $18,000 machine to do counts, then you had to buy the chemicals to run the machine. It just wasn’t economically feasible for a small clinic,” he said. “That’s why there are so few clinics now.”
Puumala joined Raiter Clinic, and he says it was a good move. The people are congenial, he said.
“There are good docs in this town,” he said. “Every one of them has a different personality, but they practice good medicine.”
Now, Puumala’s patients at Raiter Clinic must find a new doctor.
“I have a tendency to shove them off to my darling daughter,” Puumala said — his daughter is Dr. Victoria Heren, who also practices at Raiter Clinic.
When asked why is retiring, Puumala said it was simply the right time.
“But I can’t think of doing anything else,” he said. “I think I’ve done a fairly decent job.”