Small town country doctor eases into full retirement
PICTURE ROCKS – Setting sights on retirement was not an easy task for Dr. Michael Gross, a local physician who has made strides in this small community in so many ways. Since 1975 his presence here has contributed immensely to the growth of the medical community.
From his origins in Maplewood, New Jersey to a medical degree from the University of Chicago, a post graduate program in Rochester, and a residency program for internal medicine in New York City, a colleague finally led him to the rural parts of north central Pennsylvania.
“I was in Baltimore at the time, looking for the perfect job,” he said. By that time he was married to his wife Rikki whom he met at Swarthmore College. They had two sons and were ready to make a move.
Having completed formal training in family medicine and obtaining a master’s degree in public health, Michael and his family set sights on a rural setting after a friend told him about a job opening at Williamsport Hospital. He added, “The hospital had just started a family residency practice and they were looking for a second faculty member to teach.” At the time, David Ross was director of planning for Williamsport Hospital.
1975 was his landmark year. “I became a hometown doctor pioneer in the residency practice program,” said Dr. Gross. The concept of family practice was a new specialty along with bringing in physician assistants. So Dr. Gross found it advantageous to jump on these two concepts. At the age of 33, along with a board of directors, Dr. Michael Gross started the Valley Community Health Care Center located on Railroad Street in Picture Rocks, Pennsylvania for Williamsport Hospital. As a medical director, he was also teaching for Williamsport Hospital’s Family Practice residency program. The center provided primary care, medical services and routine lab tests.
While he was teaching for the physician assistant program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Dr. Gross met Dr. Ron Mezick and asked him to become a practicing physician also at the Picture Rocks Community Health Care Center. Mezick readily accepted and is still here, currently residing in Huntersville. “Our specialty was in family medicine,” Dr. Gross added.
The two original physicians were on the community board of directors, and to this day still remain friends. Michael also stated that he is still close friends with some of his elementary and high school friends. “In October we got together in Cape Cod. We are an impressive group, an unusual group of kids who went through everything together.”
In 1980 the Health Care Center closed down. “Both jobs disappeared,” said Dr. Gross who did not want to leave. “We like it here,” he responded and he had just built a new home for his family. This was his dream job. He referred to Picture Rocks as “an amazingly stable place, with the cemeteries and phone books dominated by the same names.”
Michael said he is pleased to be here and for the past 40 years made Picture Rocks home for Rikki and their two sons. His first residence was a rental on Boston Road before purchasing 300 acres on Pine Tree Road.
After the center’s closing, Dr. Gross went into private practice in Hughesville and rented space for 6 months from Dr. George Callenberger. He practiced by himself from 1981 to 1995. Later he moved into the building at 265 S. Main Street where he practiced from 2001 to 2008 with four other doctors.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Gross said he started to cut back his hours. “It’s been a long slow process.”
His caring for others won’t stop. During his interview with the Luminary he took a phone call from a former neighbor and patient trying to help him from becoming homeless. Over the years his patients have become his friends. “What I did not expect was the enjoyment the practice of family medicine would give me. It has been a fascinating run, with experiences as a health center medical director, a solo practitioner, a hospital employee, and a member of two different group practices, all without leaving Picture Rocks, my staff and my patients.”
“When you live in a small town, everybody knows everybody. If I wanted to know about a patient or neighbor, someone in the office would supply it. My ignorance of rural matters helped me get closer to people.” He said he learned a great deal about living in the country. His patients taught him about gardens, tractors, cars, septics, firewood and slowly he came to realize how much their sharing helped him in his medical practice.
For the past few years, Michael has been going to his office two half days a week at The Family Practice Center P.C. now located at 246 S. Main Street, (the former Buick dealership) where there are three practicing physicians and three physician assistants. Services include disease management, pediatrics, medicare wellness, and onsite labs and x-rays.
“My patients are like old friends. I can still help them, although I won’t be practicing medicine after December 31st.”
His loyalty has always been to his patients. It is important to him that a physician remain in Hughesville as when he first arrived here, there was only one elderly doctor in Sonestown and a few in Hughesville. “There is a lot to be said for giving consistent good care rather than a mix of mediocre and excellent. Chances are there wouldn’t be a doctor here in Hughesville if it weren’t for the Health Center.”
He feels that private practice seems to be disappearing for many reasons, from the capital cost of practice to the complexity of billing and referrals and the burden of school debts, despite the fact that current clinical research is available almost instantly in the exam room or on a cell phone.
“I am honored to have worked with him and have him as a doctor and friend for so many years,” said Joani Yagel Office Manager for the Family Practice Center.
Meanwhile, Michael plans on spending more time enjoying the outdoors. Part of his land was donated to the Merrill Lynn Conservancy in Union County to preserve its natural vernal glacier pools, vegetation and wildlife. Michael and Rikki established walking paths for all to enjoy. Many like to come and hike, take photos, bird watch, and just get some enjoyable low-impact recreation. The trails are open all year long for everyone’s enjoyment.
Another favorite past time for Dr. Gross is playing the violin. Michael has been playing in the Williamsport Symphony for 34 years and proudly stated that he is the longest senior member in the symphony. “I got much better and really improved a lot,” he said. “I practice a lot because I need to play well enough to stay in the group.” At one time, as a young boy, Michael contemplated becoming a violin repairman. “It was either that or get a PHD in Philosophy” which he does have.
“I prefer being an ordinary doctor,” he added, “rather than a philosophy professor.”
“From the start the knowledge of medicine and the human aspects and craft sucked me in. I love it, and won’t stop learning it and sharing it. Although I can’t be their doctor anymore, I can still give my patients information and friendship.”