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 he’ll soon be turning 90, Denton said, “I’m the youngest of them,” referring to country doctors, “the last.”
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 Dwayne’s 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 “generations of Bishopites,” said granddaughter Naomi Jensen Garcia.
So what exactly is a country doctor? Country doctors “often practice solo,” said Denton. “They are non-specialists who treat fractures, perform operations, deliver babies, treat psychiatric disorders, everything.” Doc Denton’s wife, Betty, summed it up, “He treats the skin and its contents.”
The youngest country doctor, born Dec. 2, 1922, will become a nonagenarian tomorrow. “We 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,” said Garcia, who coordinated the little gathering. “He seems to hold a special place in so many people’s hearts here in Bishop,” added Garcia. “He represents a bygone era of old fashioned, wholistic ‘country’ 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.”
The legend began in the Mojave Desert mining town of Randsburg when Denton was born to mother Vivian delivered by father Dr. William Denton. “Dad had to use all of his obstetrical skills to deliver his wife and me … ‘sunny side up,’ with a harelip,” states Denton’s 2009 autobiographical narrative, “Stories of a Country Doctor.” That story kicks off a rollicking ride that has been Denton’s life journey, which according to Amazon.com, includes gun fights, plane crashes, backcountry rescues and political intrigue in his capacity as a “‘do everything’ country doctor.”
Denton’s unvarying role model is his father. “I’d chase around after him whenever I could. He had it all. I knew I’d be a chemist if I were a doctor. I could be an engineer if I were a doctor – you have to be able to fix medical equipment if it breaks down – and Dad was friends with all his patients. What better job could there be?” The adventure of early mining-town life also fueled Denton’s quest for knowledge. “I knew the inorganic chemistry of potassium chloride, ATC and borax before I went to high school … Look at my training … As a youngster, I knew the whole (mining) plant. What a lucky kid.”
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 “Dad’s alma mater,” Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. “World War II came along” forcing students to complete four years of study in three. In 1947, he began internship at Cook County Hospital, “the best internship I could have gotten,” Denton said. With only two doctors on a huge ward, they had to take turns sleeping and working to cover 24-hour shifts. “You get self-respect and self-confidence.”
Later he “went across the street and got a Ph.D in physiology” at University of Illinois. That’s where he met Betty Spaeth and they wed in “the best deal I ever got,” said Denton. In 1950, the newlyweds “came home to Bishop.” 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. “I decided to run off to India” 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. “Betty is our missionary. I’m just the physician who went with her” – and country-doctoring suited the diversity of missionary work.
Denton retired in 2007, tired of all the paperwork, insurance, etc., said Betty. “He had always worked 24 hours a day. To keep him occupied, his kids said, ‘Why don’t you write a book. So he did.”
“I love my wife more than I could possibly love anyone. How she stood by me all these years, I don’t know,” 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 “Bob” with a “loving and united family” added Betty. She did, confirmed Bob.
But there are a few other things that ignite Denton’s 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. Denton’s prescription for contemporary medical industry woes is simple: less legal and government interference and more practicing of medicine.
“If a doctor is in California and hasn’t been sued, he hasn’t been practicing medicine,” said Denton. “Lawyers have made hash out of doctors,” creating diseases in order to create lawsuits and forcing “more and more doctors to get post-graduate education. In one year’s practice, I think I learned more than I would have in 10 years in graduate school.
“Government doesn’t know anything about medicine and the problem is they think they do. It’s dangerous to think you know everything about medicine, even if you’re 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 … You’ve got to use your wits all of the time,” explained Denton.
And doctors have to get a patient’s history and get their confidence, he added. “It takes time to make a diagnosis” but today’s medical practices don’t 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. “Doctor/patient relationships are impaired … Get government out of medicine or you won’t have any doctors left,” surmised Denton.
“Put that in your notes,” added Betty, “He feels passionately about it.”
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. “He delivered everyone in my family,” said one. Hearing that statistic, Denton said, “Those three people are friends of mine, even if I don’t remember them. People stop me in the street. ‘Hey, you were my doctor.’ I say, ‘They’ve been feeding you, you’re six feet tall,’” chuckled Denton. Eyes a-sparkle with merriment, he punctuated with a happy hand clap and leaned in inclusively, “I’ve only seen some people once and they’re my friend. Isn’t that wonderful.”
How does one get to 90? “Family 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,” Denton said. Having a passion for one’s profession and staying interested and involved in life is part of it, too, added the nonagenarian.
Betty added, “There is another aspect, a basic Christian faith. ‘God will provide.’ That’s his basic mantra, that’s how he’s lived his life.” Denton agreed, “If Abraham can believe God will provide then so can I. Being a Christian doctor, believe me, it makes a difference.” When a case “isn’t coming out right, who else do you turn to?”