This month, Gilbert pediatrician Dale Guthrie, M.D. begins a two-year term as board president of the Arizona Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. A father of six and grandfather to eight, he talks about the hip injury that led him to pediatrics, the long-term impact of a mission trip in Central America and what parents of special needs kids need to know.
What are your earliest memories of visiting the doctor?
My parents really didn’t believe in doctors…so I only went in when I was sick. I had a sinus infection, I can remember, one time. And I had a very serious rare pediatric hip disorder when I was a teenager. Then I had to get some intervention.
Any specific experience you could point to that influenced your decision to practice medicine?
Probably that episode in my life when I was playing basketball and didn’t know I had this hip problem. My hip dislocated and broke. Some really wonderful people came to my assistance. I’ve had four operations on my right hip, including a hip replacement. I really enjoyed orthopedics but it just didn’t turn out to be what I wanted to do. But I think that probably influenced me most.
How did you select pediatrics?
The nice thing about medical school is that you don’t just get on one track and then have to stick to it. You do all your rotations and you find out what you like. And when I did my pediatric rotations I just fell in love with taking care of kids.
You attended medical school in Juarez, across the border from El Paso. Talk about studying medicine in Mexico.
It was a different culture. But for me it wasn’t a big difference, because I’d already served a two-year LDS [Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] mission in Central America. I was a fluent Spanish speaker. In fact, that is probably why I kept that option open, to be able to go to Mexico at a time when I thought my chances were not that great of getting into an American medical school.
Did this experience have any lasting impact on you personally or professionally?
I think more than being in Mexico it was being on the mission in Central America. It taught me that everybody is important. No matter where you’re born, no matter what your circumstances, you’re an important human being.
What is your biggest concern about children’s health issues today?
My biggest concern is access to care. Frankly, not all kids have that option. Anything that draws a child out of his or her medical home—where children know their pediatrician, that pediatrician knows their medical history, their vaccine record, they know everything about them—that decreases the quality of care.
How has the role of the pediatrician changed or evolved since you began practicing?
In private practice pediatrics, where you are running a business, it has been harder and harder to make ends meet, to control vaccine costs and to manage the business side of the practice. And the more time I have to devote to that, the less time I can devote to what I really love doing, and that’s taking care of the kids.
What is it that families might not understand about the management and expense of vaccines in a pediatric practice?
In Arizona, we’ve had two pediatric practices in the last two years go out of business. They didn’t realize that insurance companies weren’t compensating them even for the costs of vaccines. In our office, we have at any given time about $125,000 worth of vaccines in two refrigerators in two offices. If you can’t keep track of that and the way the insurance companies are compensating you for that, you could lose your shirt.
Talk a bit about your own family. Your two youngest children have special needs. Describe the challenges they face.
My wife Jo and I had five daughters in a row by birth. Our first four daughters are all married. Candace was born a little bit premature after a very difficult pregnancy. She had a severe developmental delay and is nonverbal. She’s 21 now. Will is adopted, he’s 14. He has a really rare chromosome disorder. In fact, when he was diagnosed, they told me there were only two [children with the same disorder].
Young parents with special needs kids tend to seek you out as a pediatrician because of your own family background. What pearls of wisdom do you offer?
The families are still kind of feeling sorry for themselves, for the bad hand they were dealt. So my advice in that setting, initially, is to say in a very soft way, “We need to leave that. You can grieve for as long as you need to for the loss. That is a normal grieving process. But you need to focus on that child. And if you have other children, move ahead and be positive.”
Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids and through her own company, Small Change Productions. This interview was first published in the July 2012 print magazine.