Larry Sluiter has a lot in common with the character Dr. Joel Fleischman from the television show Northern Exposure. Both practice in remote areas. Both are basically solo practitioners. And both received financial assistance in return for service. Larry received a National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment award.
But there is one important difference between the two – and no, it isn’t just that Larry Sluiter is a real person where Joel Fleischman is fictional. Dr. Fleischman’s placement in rural Alaska served as a comic backdrop that he viewed, at least initially, as a bit of a prison; his struggles to fit in and adapt made for good television, but his reactions didn’t exactly endear him to the town. Conversely, Larry has embraced his surroundings and his new community, which has helped him flourish both personally and professionally.
With assistance from one nurse, Larry runs the Onida Clinic in Onida, South Dakota. A physician comes in once a week to check in and supervise, but for the most part Larry is the only provider in the county. Onida’s population is just under 700 people, and the next nearest town and health center are more than 30 miles away. The arrangement has afforded Larry tremendous opportunity to coordinate with specialists and be involved in a wide range of follow-up patient care.
Larry enjoys the variety and responsibility working in this small town affords him, but it is the relationships he has developed with his community that make his job so meaningful. “To me working at the Onida Clinic is about developing the personal side of medicine that you wouldn’t get in a larger medical setting,” he said.”I see these people in the grocery store, at the hardware store and out around the town. Sure, you get the occasional question or request as you make your way down the grocery aisles, but it lets you know that they trust you and have accepted you as part of the community. It is not just about dispensing medical care, but becoming part of these people’s lives – and they are truly tremendous people.”
Larry first heard about the NHSC during his physician assistant program. One of his instructors had been in the Loan Repayment Program working at an NHSC site on the Mexico border. “She had the most glowing things to say about the NHSC. “After graduation, I started looking for eligible sites that aligned with my interest in rural medicine,” Larry said. “I always was a country boy at heart, and when I found Onida, I knew it would be a good fit.”
Larry signed up for a one-year continuation after completing his initial two-year service commitment. His NHSC service ends in July, but he has no plans to leave his clinic or community. “The thing I find most rewarding is when you integrate into a community like this, you really get to know the people,” he said. “Closeness develops between you and patients unlike any other place. It’s a rewarding feeling to have a community that you are responsible for.”
Dr. Joel Fleischman eventually came to the same conclusion as Larry – but it took him six seasons.