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For those who may not yet know it yet, Dr. Robert Denton is an Eastern Sierra icon, a local legend as a country doctor. Though heâll soon be turning 90, Denton said, âIâm the youngest of them,â referring to country doctors, âthe last.â
Indeed, the passage of time seems meaningless to Denton when he animatedly recounts childhood adventures, medical exploits and strongly-held political, philosophical and spiritual beliefs.
Pretty near everyone has seen Denton; his likeness is on the mural atop Dwayneâs Friendly Pharmacy in Bishop. For many area locals, Denton is the first person they ever saw in this world. During his 57-year tenure, from 1950-2007, he delivered âgenerations of Bishopites,â said granddaughter Naomi Jensen Garcia.
So what exactly is a country doctor? Country doctors âoften practice solo,â said Denton. âThey are non-specialists who treat fractures, perform operations, deliver babies, treat psychiatric disorders, everything.â Doc Dentonâs wife, Betty, summed it up, âHe treats the skin and its contents.â
The youngest country doctor, born Dec. 2, 1922, will become a nonagenarian tomorrow. âWe will be having a big cake for him (after the 10 a.m. service) at the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street, where Dr. and Mrs. Denton have been members for 60-plus years,â said Garcia, who coordinated the little gathering. âHe seems to hold a special place in so many peopleâs hearts here in Bishop,â added Garcia. âHe represents a bygone era of old fashioned, wholistic âcountryâ medicine, (caring) for whole families for their entire lives (and) he has always been a very loving and supportive grandfather, with a great sense of humor.â
The legend began in the Mojave Desert mining town of Randsburg when Denton was born to mother Vivian delivered by father Dr. William Denton. âDad had to use all of his obstetrical skills to deliver his wife and me âŠ âsunny side up,â with a harelip,â states Dentonâs 2009 autobiographical narrative, âStories of a Country Doctor.â That story kicks off a rollicking ride that has been Dentonâs life journey, which according to Amazon.com, includes gun fights, plane crashes, backcountry rescues and political intrigue in his capacity as a ââdo everythingâ country doctor.â
Dentonâs unvarying role model is his father. âIâd chase around after him whenever I could. He had it all. I knew Iâd be a chemist if I were a doctor. I could be an engineer if I were a doctor â you have to be able to fix medical equipment if it breaks down â and Dad was friends with all his patients. What better job could there be?â The adventure of early mining-town life also fueled Dentonâs quest for knowledge. âI knew the inorganic chemistry of potassium chloride, ATC and borax before I went to high school âŠ Look at my training âŠ As a youngster, I knew the whole (mining) plant. What a lucky kid.â
Because there was no local high school, Denton had to move to Bakersfield without his family. With his usual silver-lining outlook, Denton decided to work extra hard at his studies to stave off horrendous homesickness. In 1943, he enrolled in âDadâs alma mater,â Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. âWorld War II came alongâ forcing students to complete four years of study in three. In 1947, he began internship at Cook County Hospital, âthe best internship I could have gotten,â Denton said. With only two doctors on a huge ward, they had to take turns sleeping and working to cover 24-hour shifts. âYou get self-respect and self-confidence.â
Later he âwent across the street and got a Ph.D in physiologyâ at University of Illinois. Thatâs where he met Betty Spaeth and they wed in âthe best deal I ever got,â said Denton. In 1950, the newlyweds âcame home to Bishop.â They had three children, teacher Susan, chef William and doctor Margaret.
When the last of their children left home, empty nest syndrome hit Betty big time. âI decided to run off to Indiaâ on a Christian mission as a medical lab technologist, she said. From 1975-1995, the Dentons went on 10 two- to three-month missions in India, Taiwan, Nepal, Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico and Lesotho and on a Mediterranean-to-India mission ship. âBetty is our missionary. Iâm just the physician who went with herâ â and country-doctoring suited the diversity of missionary work.
Denton retired in 2007, tired of all the paperwork, insurance, etc., said Betty. âHe had always worked 24 hours a day. To keep him occupied, his kids said, âWhy donât you write a book. So he did.â
âI love my wife more than I could possibly love anyone. How she stood by me all these years, I donât know,â said Denton misting up a bit. He said he could never have had the career and family he did, without his Betty. It was her goal to provide âBobâ with a âloving and united familyâ added Betty. She did, confirmed Bob.
But there are a few other things that ignite Dentonâs passion, too: the way doctors are educated, the way insurance and pharmaceutical companies run medicine and the way the government interferes in medical practice today. Dentonâs prescription for contemporary medical industry woes is simple: less legal and government interference and more practicing of medicine.
âIf a doctor is in California and hasnât been sued, he hasnât been practicing medicine,â said Denton. âLawyers have made hash out of doctors,â creating diseases in order to create lawsuits and forcing âmore and more doctors to get post-graduate education. In one yearâs practice, I think I learned more than I would have in 10 years in graduate school.
âGovernment doesnât know anything about medicine and the problem is they think they do. Itâs dangerous to think you know everything about medicine, even if youâre a doctor. The practice of medicine is the practice of medicine year after year, month after month. Hour after hour, you have a brand-new case âŠ Youâve got to use your wits all of the time,â explained Denton.
And doctors have to get a patientâs history and get their confidence, he added. âIt takes time to make a diagnosisâ but todayâs medical practices donât allow for the building of that kind of intimacy. In the 1950s, government stepped in with insurance companies controlling pharmaceuticals, triaging, requiring their OK to hospitalize patients, Denton said. âDoctor/patient relationships are impaired âŠ Get government out of medicine or you wonât have any doctors left,â surmised Denton.
âPut that in your notes,â added Betty, âHe feels passionately about it.â
No wonder Denton has a town full of friends. Just as a for-instance, three of the current 11 Inyo Register employees were Denton babies. âHe delivered everyone in my family,â said one. Hearing that statistic, Denton said, âThose three people are friends of mine, even if I donât remember them. People stop me in the street. âHey, you were my doctor.â I say, âTheyâve been feeding you, youâre six feet tall,ââ chuckled Denton. Eyes a-sparkle with merriment, he punctuated with a happy hand clap and leaned in inclusively, âIâve only seen some people once and theyâre my friend. Isnât that wonderful.â
How does one get to 90? âFamily obviously, heredity has a lot to do with it. Also, especially in childhood, infections help build up the immune system. (Barring) accidents or fatalities, you make it,â Denton said. Having a passion for oneâs profession and staying interested and involved in life is part of it, too, added the nonagenarian.
Betty added, âThere is another aspect, a basic Christian faith. âGod will provide.â Thatâs his basic mantra, thatâs how heâs lived his life.â Denton agreed, âIf Abraham can believe God will provide then so can I. Being a Christian doctor, believe me, it makes a difference.â When a case âisnât coming out right, who else do you turn to?â