Living Healthy magazine: ‘Dr. Sam’ brings passion to teaching and caring

The Caldwell doctor - respected by patients, peers and the public - epitomizes what the WWAMI medical program is all about.

SPECIAL TO LIVING HEALTHYSeptember 7, 2013 

  • 11TH ANNUAL WWAMI MINI-MEDICAL SCHOOL

    WHEN: Wednesday evenings: Oct. 2, 9, 16 and 23

    6:30 p.m. — Pre-med session with UWSOM and WWAMI students

    7-9:15 p.m. — Session

    WHERE: McCleary Auditorium, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center

    SIGN UP: $25 for all four sessions; registration required. Deadline is Sept. 20. Register at (208) 364-4544 or www.uidaho.edu/boise/wwami/mini-medical-school

    WHAT: This popular program offers a series of evening lectures for the general public, health care professionals and pre-med students on a variety of health issues. Each year the program centers around a specific topic.

    This year’s theme is infectious diseases. Topics this year will include pathology, influenza, antibiotic resistance, probiotics, foodborne illness, HIV, biological weapons and exotic infections in outdoor Idaho.

    Previous years featured discussions on geriatrics, the immune system, dermatology, women’s health, endocrine system, musculoskeletal system, digestive system, mental health, lung disease and heart disease. (In the past, the event was held in February.)

    Presentations are given by Idaho physicians, various faculty members and others, including Idaho State Epidemiologist Christine Hahn. Two lectures are scheduled per session, and medical students are also in attendance to discuss their experience with WWAMI.

    Seating is limited to about 100 people, and early registration is recommended. The $25 registration fee includes all four sessions, presented on the first four Wednesday evenings in October. A certificate of completion can be provided by request.

    LEARN MORE ABOUT WWAMI

    www.uidaho.edu/academics/wwami and in the story on page 27, which explains the WWAMI program and its importance in more detail.

On this Wednesday morning, about 10 people sit around a table in a small conference room in the basement of a medical clinic on the backside of West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell. They are all diabetes patients from a variety of doctors. They know each other, because they are about two-thirds of the way through a six-month class to learn more about their condition and how to fight it.

The door opens and an unassuming man in a Hawaiian shirt walks in and greets everyone. This is Dr. Sam — Samuel Summers. And you might not realize at first just how important he is to his patients, his community and the state of Idaho.

“He’s basically an icon,” said West Valley Medical Center CEO Julie Taylor. “A lot of people can achieve greatness, but not with the same level of authenticity.”

This cheerful 61-year-old has lived in Caldwell most of his life. He grew up here, went to medical school at the University of Washington under the WWAMI program (a regional medical education program for students from Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho), and then he returned to Caldwell — the hometown where his father once owned a stationery store.

He’s on the board of too many organizations to name here. He’s been on some of them for nearly 30 years. How can one man do all this?

“It’s easy. I don’t say no,” Summers said.

It’s probably not even possible to list all the awards he’s received over the years.

Here’s a sample: He’s been Physician of the Year, Medical Student Mentor of the Year, Preceptor of the Year, Citizen of the Year, Outstanding Clinician, and a recent winner of the WWAMI Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching, Mentoring, Leadership and Clinical Care, and the HCA First Humanitarian Award for a body of work and activity in the community given in recognition of the caring spirit and philanthropic work.

Yet here he is in this basement working to save the lives of everyday people trying to understand their diabetes. And remember, some of them are not even his patients. He’s got more than 3,000 patients of his own, yet he spends three hours, three times a month, with his diabetes classes, including one-on-one sessions with each patient after every meeting. After five years, close to 200 patients have graduated from this class.

“It was a life-changing experience for me,” said diabetes class graduate Judi Gardea, a Caldwell hair stylist. “I’ve sent tons of clients to his class.”

She said Summers always praises you whether you did well or not and then encourages you to keep it up and do better.

“You have to make life changes, if you want to live,” she said.

“He’s pretty convincing, and he doesn’t try to scare you,” said class member Terry Johnson. In front of him sits his class notebook, a huge, heavy-looking thing. It probably qualifies as aerobic exercise just to carry it to class.

And while everyone mentions Summers’ great sense of humor, diabetes is a very serious subject. Those born after 2000 have a 25 percent chance of being diagnosed with diabetes at some time in their life. And 76 percent of those with diabetes will die of stroke or heart attack.

The class members must be listening, because they’ve lost 34 pounds since the last meeting and together have lost 69 pounds since the class began.

Bob Stone is attending the class with his wife, and he says Summers’ presentations have a very appealing and accessible style — easy humor interspersed with some sobering real-life examples. It can be very compelling. The informal setting works as well.

“The classes are good, because they’re a group mentality, and you don’t feel like you’re in it alone,” Stone said.

Summers is not in it alone either. His assistant is Laura Lindsay, a registered nurse and certified rehabilitation registered nurse. She has been with him for 14 years and has known him since his residency more than 30 years ago. As an important part of Summers’ team, she gets her share of accolades, too.

“She is a force with him,” Gardea said. “They are a pair. They work with each other very well.”

“The highest recommendation you can give Dr. Sam and Laura is that they care,” Stone said.

‘WIRED THAT WAY’

Some people are just meant to be doctors. Others are meant to be mentors or community leaders.

Dr. Sam manages to be all those things with an uncommon ease and a winning sense of humor.

“He has a genuine sense of caring and commitment to people,” Taylor said. “He’s wired that way.”

And he was likely always wired to be that kind of doctor. Even at an early age, he was headed toward a medical future.

“Ever since I was little, I was fascinated by it,” Summers said. “I was always the kid when we’d go pheasant hunting trying to figure out what went where.”

What went where was Summers heading to the University of Washington School of Medicine and the WAMI program. The WAMI program was established in 1971 to help four rural states — Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho — attract much-needed doctors to their states. (Wyoming joined the list in 1996, creating today’s WWAMI.) Getting Summers to return to his home state was never going to be a problem.

“There’s no place like home,” he said. “What I like to do is easily available here — fishing, hunting, golfing … .”

He married a woman from Homedale — Leora — in 1976. They have two grown daughters, two grandsons and “four granddogs.”

He graduated in 1979 and completed his residency in 1982. For more than 30 years, he has practiced full-spectrum family medicine in Caldwell.

He is also the founding site director for the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho’s Rural Training Track in Caldwell. Today he works at the Family Medical Clinic, adjacent to West Valley Regional Medical Center in Caldwell.

Summers started his career as “second fiddle to a bunch of older partners,” and then inherited their patients as they retired, building his client base quite quickly. As is typical of most general practitioners, he had plenty of younger patients and delivered plenty of babies. As his clients aged, so did his practice. The last baby he delivered was six years ago — to a woman he also delivered.

As his patients grew older, their needs changed. The rise of diabetes in this country — and among his patients — led him to create the diabetes classes, open to anyone willing to listen.

His patients love him, and 90 percent of them call him “Sam” or “Dr. Sam,” because many of them have known him their entire lives, Lindsay said. Many won’t see anyone else, and if he’s out of town, they just wait till he returns.

“He’s recognized as someone who is very passionate about excellence in clinical care and quality and has taken on the role as diabetic educator,” said Dr. Michael Roach, who works in the same office with Summers. “He’s a pretty complete physician. He connects with patients and has excellent clinical judgment and knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Summers never forgot his WWAMI roots. His continued dedication to the WWAMI program over the years earned him the Alumni Award for Excellence earlier this year for his nonstop involvement and widely lauded mentoring skills with students in the program. He’s also heavily involved with continuing education programs.

“‘Physician’ in Latin actually means ‘to teach,’ and he uses his own time and energy to teach our future doctors who are going to practice in Idaho, which is a gift you can’t even quantify,” said Dr. Mary Barinaga, who is with the WWAMI program here in Idaho. “He has taught hundreds of residents and students.”

Roach says Summers embraces the role of educator of both patients and medical students, and he is also a learner, which he says goes hand-in-hand with teaching.

“If you go to a conference with him, he’s one of the ones asking a lot of questions of the speakers,” Roach said.

“He leads by example,” Lindsay said. “And he’s probably one of the best physicians I’ve ever worked with in my life.”

She also says he’s “a riot” to work with, and his sense of humor is “worth more than anything to work with every day.” That sense of humor is also why you may hear him described as “the World Famous Moderately Popular Sam Summers.”

He, along with his wife, also took that popularity and dedication to the community to create a Local Legends event.

Local leaders dressed up as celebrities and put on a talent show to raise money for the Idaho Youth Games. (Lindsay says Summers does a mean Joe Cocker and an even better ZZ Top impersonation.) The event ran for 13 years and was a major fundraiser for the games — raising about $15,000 a year.

“It’s vitally important for physicians to be involved in the community,” Summers said. “It gives you a sense of community and makes your community better.”

“Dr. Summers is a model of what we hope all WWAMI graduates become,” Barinaga said. “Not only has he taken care of his community medically, but he and his wife and family have been extremely involved and engaged in their community, making it a better place for other people to live.

“He really gives back to the community, he gives back to the state, and he gives back to his patients,” she said. “He’s a superstar.”

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