(Story credit: Greg Peters with KU Medical Center)
Michael Machen laughs easily when he talks about what all it means to be a doctor in a small rural town in Northwest Kansas. For more than three decades he’s been one of the primary health care providers for the 900 or so people in the farming community of Quinter and many others living in adjoining counties on the High Plains, where trees are sparse and the wind is your constant companion.
During his tenure in this tidy town nestled alongside Interstate 70 halfway between Denver and Kansas City, Machen has become an integral part of the fabric of daily life, sharing in their joy, caring for multiple generations of several families, and mourning the loss of loved ones. He jokes that he has been in Quinter long enough that he is now delivering the babies of babies he brought into this world years ago and watched mature into women old enough to have children.
“I’ve checked moles in the grocery store and looked in throats at the Dairy Queen,” said Machen, who recently received the 2018 Family Physician of the Year from the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians at a ceremony in Overland Park. “I’ve had a whole medical history given to me at the gas station. It’s all part of the deal. In a small town you know people well, and knowing a person’s social situation and extended family history can be a big plus in the office when you’re trying to figure out complicated problems.”
Finding his sweet spot
For Machen, Quinter is that perfect fit where patients are like family, the hunting and fishing are good, and a slice of his nurse’s outrageously rich fresh pear pie slathered with butter and cream or a bowl of warm tapioca made by another co-worker are the perfect touch to brighten a day or provide the salve required to best soothe a troubled soul.
“It’s the people,” said Machen, who is a partner at Bluestem Medical and on staff at Gove County Medical Center. “The people are your patients, and they become your friends. It might sound cliché, but you’re taking care of the salt of the Earth. These are people who work hard, and they love life and look out for each other. They would give you the shirt off their backs and ask for nothing, just because it’s the right thing to do.”
In Machen’s case, fish biology’s loss was medicine’s gain, and ultimately a huge windfall for rural family medicine. Born in Smith Center and raised in Concordia, Machen has always been interested in biology; however, a failed Civil Service exam to become a fish biologist early in his academic career steered him toward medical school.
Machen transferred after a year at Cloud County Community College to the University of Kansas where he graduated in 1977. He met his wife, Susan, while they were both working at a Lawrence IGA grocery store in a classic checker-meets-bagger love story. It’s a relationship that is still going after 39 years, four kids and two grandchildren.
Machen attended the KU School of Medicine, finishing in 1983, and from there it was on to Tulsa and a residency in family medicine at the University of Oklahoma, Tulsa Medical College. In Tulsa, he was classmates for two years with Victor Nemechek, M.D., with whom he would later partner with at the clinic in Quinter.
“It was purely serendipitous,” Machen said of how they ended up in Quinter. “We interviewed together in a half a dozen places, and we were in Osborne when the CEO from Quinter called and wanted to know if we didn’t want to just stop by and take a look.
“We had an extra day, so we pulled into town and looked around. The town was warm and welcoming. And the hospital had a relatively new addition with big, wide halls and nice, spacious rooms. Everyone was extremely nice.”
Both doctors had Kansas Medical Scholarships at the time and part of their obligation was to work in an underserved area of the state, and Quinter fit the bill. “We said, ‘we’ll go there for four years and see what happens,'” Machen recalled. “That was 32 years ago.”
During the time when the two young doctors were sorting out their decision, Carl Gunter, M.D., and his wife, Mary, made a special trip to Oklahoma to woo the two candidates to Quinter. “When they were leaving, Mary’s parting words were, ‘you can make a life for yourself in Quinter and live life the way you want to,” Machen said. “You can have a great life. It’s a great place to raise kids, and you’ll enjoy it.'”
Mentoring the next generation
Machen has a seemingly boundless commitment to the next generation of medical students, whether it’s serving as network site director for KU Medical Center in Northwest Kansas or his association with the Scholars in Rural Health program. Machen has helped turn his corner of the Sunflower State into a place to be for medical students. So much so that there is a waiting list of students who want to serve preceptorships in the 15 to 20 towns that take part in the program. During his time in Quinter, more than 150 students have spent time in Northwest Kansas.
“If you can get students involved in a rural situation, it sells itself,” said Machen, who counts the Doug Parks Rural Preceptor Award and Rural Preceptor of the Year in Kansas among his many awards. “Probably the best recruitment tool in the world is to get them involved in a practice where they get to do everything. They deliver babies. They do some surgeries. They take care of traumas. That’s exciting stuff.
“And when they see how a community supports a physician, and how the nursing staff and everyone are working together, it’s hard to walk away from it and not be positively affected.”
The family business
Machen and Nemechek bought their practice back in the day for a dollar but ended up earning a million bucks worth of life lessons in their first six years together. Their predecessors had set the bar high for patient care, and the new doctors shared that same committed to service. To get that done, they shared the non-stop workload, including the unenviable task of splitting on-call duty year around.
With four kids at home and a burgeoning medical practice taking root, a lot of the parenting duties fell to Machen’s wife, for which he is forever grateful. Despite having a ringside seat to all the challenges and compromises that a life in health care can bring, three out of the Machens’ four children are joining the family business and heading into medical-related careers.
Oldest daughter Samantha Alsop, who scrubbed in with dad for C-Sections while still in high school, just finished her vascular surgery fellowship and will be setting up practice in Kansas City this summer. Daughter Alexandra is working on her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology at KU Medical Center. Edward, their youngest son, will be starting medical school at KU this summer. And Ben, their oldest son, is a senior international tax analyst for Southern Pacific Railroad.
“It’s a good feeling when they see what all your job entails and they are still attracted to it or inspired by it,” Machen said. “They’ve seen the long hours. They’ve seen the bad stuff. They’ve seen the no sleep and the things that don’t end up well. It’s a good feeling they are interested in medicine.”
Machen has treated the ordinary, the famous and the infamous in Quinter, but regardless of the circumstance, he is there for whomever needs him. To even the most casual observer, it’s obvious he loves taking care of his patients and will probably practice medicine until someone tells him it’s time to stop – or the siren’s song of his young grandchildren growing up in Kansas City proves too strong to resist.