Dr. Bill Mahon was a young pediatrician in the early 1970s when he fell in love with the rugged coast and majestic redwoods of Mendocino County. Like other people who have moved to Mendocino from around the country, settling here for him was a personal choice that prioritized lifestyle over money.
The prospect of practicing medicine in a small community also called to him. In 1977 he left his well-paying job at Kaiser Sacramento to join a practice with two other pediatricians in Fort Bragg.
Still, the move was a risk.
â€œThere were no guarantees coming to the coast. This was a practice that started from scratch, and I just trusted the fact that it would increase and everything would be fine,â€ Mahon, now 68, says. â€œMy first month of work here I made $200. That was it.â€
Over time, the private practice grew to include any patient regardless of ability to pay, says Mahon. Some patients were not insured. Many had Medi-Cal, the stateâ€™s health insurance program for lower incomeÂ residents, which â€“ until Mahonâ€™s office gained rural health clinic status in the 90s â€“ provided reimbursements that were â€œpretty meager.â€
â€œEarly on we actually did trades at the practice,â€ says Mahon, with a chuckle. â€œWe would trade a visit for a salmon or pottery or some other commodity, which, in the end, felt good from both sides.â€
For more than 35 years, Mahon examined patients day in, day out at his small clinic, next to Mendocino Coast District Hospital, the only hospital for miles. He handled everything from regular check ups to broken bones to very sick kids who might need a spinal taps or IV treatment. He got to know families closely. Going anywhere in town almost certainly involved bumping into a former patient.
â€œIt really is the personal aspects of practice here,â€ says Mahon. Â â€œThe connection with the parents, the connection with the kids and then how that connection spilled over into the largerÂ community.â€
Sometimes, he was roused out of bed in the middle of the night to attend to a newborn after a complicated delivery or speak with a distressed parent with an urgent question. Then those kids grew up â€“ and many had kids of their own and brought them to see Mahon.
â€œI frequently tell people that I had a dream practice,â€ he says. â€œI took care of at least two generations of children. I wouldnâ€™t trade a minute of it.â€
Now Mahon is mostly retired. He only works at the hospital on call a few days a month. Families in most of the Mendocino Coast region no longer have access to a pediatrician who lives there permanently. The doctors that Mahon joined in the 70s have long since retired, and other pediatricians have come and gone.
Until recently, a nurse practitioner and physicianâ€™s assistant at the clinic handled most cases. But, with no pediatrician in the office, if a patient showed up very sick or with a complicated case, the clinicâ€™s staff sent them to the hospitalâ€™s emergency department, which has on call access to a pediatrician.
â€œThis community deserves better,â€ says Mahon. â€œFor me itâ€™s rather sad. For all these years there have been resident pediatricians and now for the first time in 40 years, there is none.â€
Mendocino Coast Clinics, which absorbed Dr. Mahonâ€™s practice a few years ago, contracted an outside agency to bring in a temporary pediatrician for three months. He started last week.
â€œThis is a stop gap measure,â€ says Paula Cohen, executive director at Mendocino Coast Clinics. â€œWe would love to find someone who wants to move to this community and make it their home.â€
Their search to find someone permanent has a few leads. Cohen says she interviewed an out-of-state doctor last weekend, and her staff is reviewing resumes. However, itâ€™s hard for tiny Fort Bragg â€“- population 7,300 â€” to compete with metropolitan areas when recruiting physicians.
Cohen says physicians might prefer the amenities â€“ cultural activities, department stores, even supermarkets â€” of bigger cities. A physician who is married might need to look in areasÂ that offer career opportunities for their spouses â€“ who if they work in financial services or tech, say, might not want to move to Fort Bragg.
The practice of medicine has also changed since Mahon came to the coast. Today, new physicians might not want to practice by themselves and independently treat the wide range of diseases and behavioral disorders in babies and children that Mahon did.
Most new physicians are educated in metropolitan areas, with a large suite of specialists available, says Janet Coffman, associate professor at the Institute for Health Policy Studies at UC San Francisco.
â€œIf you are in a rural area and the only pediatrician,â€ says Coffman, â€œpeople are expecting you to do a wider scope of practice. New physicians might not be prepared for that kind of medicine.â€
Another big challenge is that most new doctors are looking for higher salaries that help them repay their debt from medical school. Graduates of public medical schools owed a median debt of $170,000, while private medical school graduates owed a median debt of Â $200,000, according to 2014 figures from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Rural areas serving a majority of Medi-Cal patients, such as Fort Bragg, might not offer competitive salaries.
Coffman said that the state could help rural communities recruit new physicians by expanding programs that help doctors repay their debt if they practice in a medically underserved area. One such program, the Steven M. Thompson Physician Corps Loan Repayment offers up to $105,000 in financial assistance. Medical schools could also expand programs that train physicians for the daily challenges of practicing in a rural setting.
The issue is pressing in Mendocino County and other nearby Northern California counties, where more than half of all doctors practicing are 56 or older and nearing retirement age, according to a 2009 report by the California HealthCare Foundation. Statewide, the physician workforce is one of the oldest in the nation, with only New Mexico having a greater proportion of active physicians overÂ 60, based on AAMC data.
Meanwhile, families in Fort Bragg are dealing with the lack of a regular pediatrician they trust.
Cassandra and Milo Young now driveÂ their three children 60 winding miles inland to a pediatric practice in Ukiah. The road is so twisty that the kids sometimes get sick on the way. The trips usually take an entire day and represent additional costs in gas and time off work.
â€œItâ€™s definitely a downfall to the area,â€ says Cassandra Young. She moved to the coast after working as a creative director at a large advertising firm in New York City.
â€œWe made certain concessions to give this lifestyle to our children. We gave up the big career and department stores. But giving up good quality pediatric care doesnâ€™t feel like something we should have to give up,â€ Young says.
She says she likes the pediatric practice in Ukiah well enough, but misses Dr. Mahon.
â€œHeâ€™s just wonderful, the kind of doctor we all wish our kids could have,â€ Young says. â€œIt would be amazing to get another Dr. Mahon to move out here, and be our country doctor.â€
This story is part of our series Vital Signs. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.