When general surgeon Steve Smith completed his residency in New Orleans and headed for the Florida Keys, he admitted that he didn’t quite know what to expect.
“With big hospitals, you have big budgets, and I suppose I didn’t really appreciate that until I got here,” he remembered of his move 31 years ago.
Upon his arrival, he shelled $7,000 out-of-pocket to purchase his own endoscopic equipment which he regularly loaded in and out of his car to use at Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon and Mariner’s Hospital in Tavernier.
The Mount Vernon, NY native admitted that practicing medicine and performing surgeries in the rural Florida Keys certainly presents its own set of challenges, but those aren’t great enough to imagine him anywhere but here.
The warm weather and friendly people are certainly a draw, but Dr. Smith says living in a community where everyone knows your name can be, well, rather interesting.
“It can be problematic when you’re in the grocery store and someone starts telling you about their constipation,” he laughed.
But he said he’d take the quirkiness of the Keys over the inner-city issues and triage style of medicine he experienced in New Orleans.
“There was a lot of knife and gun club kind of stuff, particularly at Charity Hospital,” he remembered. “I worked in a ward meant to house 15 people, yet it often had as many as 40 patients in there at once. Coming here was a luxury compared to that.”
Smith completed college and medical school at New York University. Tired of the rat race in the Big Apple, he set his sights on the Big Easy.
“The training there was terrific because of the large volume of people who needed care,” Smith said of his residency at Tulane University Division.
Attracted to the Keys for recreational fishing and diving, Smith admits he’s simply too busy these days to enjoy the reasons he moved here.
Dr. Smith told USA Today that though he bought a boat a year ago, he has yet to even get it wet.
“The only days I get off is when I leave town,” he chuckled.
He and his wife, Barbara, to whom he’s been married for 32 years, try to visit their daughter in Orlando and their son in Massachusetts as often as his busy practice and hectic schedule allow.
His days, which usually begin at 5:30 am, often last until nine or 10 at night. Since opening his practice, he has been committed to seeing every patient that comes to him.
“Steve is just an admirable guy,” said retired surgeon Dr. Luis Sala. “He is the son of a physician who went into medicine for the sake of helping people, not for the power or admiration.”
The Country Doctor of the Year award is sponsored by StaffCare®, a physician staffing firm that recognizes physicians with extraordinary dedication to their patients in rural communities.
The award was developed in 1992 when there was an apparent migration of patients to the rural communities of America.
“Our desire was to bring the recognition to rural medicine and to award the physicians who’ve dedicated their lives to their patients,” said Kurt Mosely, Vice President of Strategic Alliances for StaffCare®, an AMN Healthcare Company.
“The award is also designed to inspire graduating medical students to practice in rural areas,” Mosely continued. “With everything going on in our medical system today, it’s so important to encourage more people to go into medicine and practice in our rural communities.”
It’s not often that a general surgeon simultaneously operates a private family practice, but Smith found it necessary to remain in business as well as to properly serve his patients in the Florida Keys. Mosley said that was another criterion that set Dr. Smith apart from the other 100 applicants.
“My practice at first was very slow,” Dr. Smith remembered.
With a lack of primary care physicians in Monroe County, Dr. Smith opted to join the staff of Mariner’s shortly after his arrival in Marathon.
According to Sala’s nomination letter for the Country Doctor of the Year award, Dr. Smith operated as the only surgeon between Miami and Key West for 25 years.
The incredible exposure during his residency at Charity Hospital in the Tulane University Division came full circle as he now regularly responds to consultations from other practitioners – from urologists to obstetricians and orthopedists.
Sala continued that because of the Keys’ rural locale, the community often has a difficult time attracting and keeping qualified and competent internists, specialists and even family physicians.
“Dr. Smith has thus acquired a superior amount of general medical knowledge and developed the largest general medical practice in the Keys with nearly 4,000 active patients,” Sala wrote. “He handles everything from urinary tract infections to hypertension management, diabetes, migraines, seizure, and depression on top of all the general surgery.”
In the business of medicine that pervades every physician’s practice, Dr. Smith said there are still plenty of positive memories. Since he lives in a small town, he still occasionally sees the police officer that stumbled into a robbery and was shot multiple times with a 44 Magnum and wound up in his care.
“It’s just nice to know you’re out there helping people and doing something positive,” Dr. Smith said.
At 61 years old, Dr. Smith admits he’s not looking to retire anytime soon. “I’ll retire only when my health dictates that I have to.”