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.
Hes 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.
Hes on the board of too many organizations to name here. Hes been on some of them for nearly 30 years. How can one man do all this?
Its easy. I dont say no, Summers said.
Its probably not even possible to list all the awards hes received over the years.
Heres a sample: Hes 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. Hes 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. Ive 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.
Hes pretty convincing, and he doesnt 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 theyve 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 theyre a group mentality, and you dont feel like youre 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. Hes 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 wed 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 todays WWAMI.) Getting Summers to return to his home state was never going to be a problem.
Theres 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 Idahos 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 wont see anyone else, and if hes out of town, they just wait till he returns.
Hes 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. Hes 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. Hes 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 cant 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, hes one of the ones asking a lot of questions of the speakers, Roach said.
He leads by example, Lindsay said. And hes probably one of the best physicians Ive ever worked with in my life.
She also says hes 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.
Its 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. Hes a superstar.