HALFWAY — For those who chose to make their homes in the far northeastern corner of Baker County, 53 miles from the nearest hospital, the reality of a reliable health care provider is part of their everyday lives.
Community leaders began working together decades ago to protect the health of their residents, first with an ambulance service. And then, starting in 1975, according to a compiled “History of the Pine Eagle Clinic,” those same leaders began working to start a medical clinic to serve those who live and work in the area as well as those who are drawn to the beauty of the region and the recreational opportunities that abound.
The Clinic has grown from its beginnings in 1977 in a house purchased by the Halfway Lions Club to the current 5,783-square-foot building constructed in 2003.
The Clinic is in Halfway, population about 300, the hub of the Pine Valley, close to the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon.
The Clinic serves residents living in Pine Valley as well as in Richland, in Eagle Valley about 13 miles to the southwest, and in Oxbow, along the Snake River in Hells Canyon about 20 miles northeast. The Clinic handles about 2,100 to 2,500 visits per year, administrator Terra Lewis said.
The area also attracts visitors year-round, in particular, outdoor recreationists during summer.
Destinations include Hells Canyon, renowned for whitewater rafting and jet boat trips, and the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowa Mountains, the largest wilderness area in Oregon at 365,000 acres.
Hunters on the search for deer, elk, big horn sheep and other game animals are common in the fall. The area also attracts visitors looking for mushrooms or berries or sometimes, gold nuggets.
For those who visit the area, the availability of health care services might not be at the top of their list of priorities. But most do understand how quickly a relaxing visit to the backcountry can turn panicky should an accident or illness interrupt their trip.
From the Coast to Hells Canyon
The Clinic not only provides examination rooms for use by Susan Berry, a family nurse practitioner, but it also houses a two-ambulance garage for the all-volunteer Halfway-Oxbow Ambulance service, the Backcountry Dental Docs (two dentists) and Pine Eagle Physical Therapy. A medical director from Baker City visits the Clinic once per month.
Berry brings a love for her work, a sincere interest in her patients and a relaxed attitude to her role.
She eschews a white coat, donning instead seasonally decorated scrub jackets, such as the snowflake-covered top and sparkling snowflake earrings she wore for a recent mid-January day of appointments.
Berry and her husband, Jeff, were drawn, as many are, to the area’s scenic beauty and recreational opportunities when they were looking for a place to retire.
And as luck would have it, the Clinic was looking for a medical provider just as the Berrys were looking to make a move.
Susan, 63, joined the clinic staff about a year and a half ago. She said she and her husband were familiar with the Halfway area, which they had enjoyed visiting on scouting and hunting trips for some years. Her husband’s family had hunted the area since he was a kid.
So when she began looking for a job and a place to take her into retirement, she looked toward Baker County and found an opening at the Pine Eagle Clinic.
She is working to build up her patient load as people get to know her and appreciate her skill level and willingness to take time to listen to their health issues.
Berry brings 19 years of experience as a nurse practitioner in rural areas, including the past nine years she's spent at the Oregon Coast working for Providence Seaside Clinic.
Although she was reluctant to retire in a town where snowfall is routine most winters (about 2 feet was piled up around town in mid-January), Berry says her husband is dedicated to clearing the snow off her vehicle and making sure she stays comfortable.
Berry talks enthusiastically about her job and the close relationships she’s able to build with her patients at the Clinic.
She’s especially appreciative of the Clinic’s medical assistants. Both Dana Simrell and Samantha Dyke also are certified as EMTs.
“It’s rare to have two staff members who are EMTs,” Berry says. “That’s a big, big plus.
“I’m used to it being me and me — and them being scared in the background,” she says of her past rural clinic experiences.
“We have good teamwork here. It’s awesome,” Berry says.
When she made the call to inquire about the position in Halfway, Berry said she was surprised to hear a familiar voice. Terra Lewis, the Clinic administrator, moved to Halfway in October 2017 from Warrenton where she had managed the four Providence Medical Group North Coast Clinics serving that area.
Lewis and Berry tell the same story: Berry said, “Terra? This is Susan,” and Lewis replied in a similar way.
The 49-year-old Lewis also serendipitously found herself employed at the Pine Eagle Clinic.
She says she was looking for work when she decided to move to Halfway, where her dad, Paul Herb, has lived for the past 12 years.
“When I moved, that particular week this position opened up,” she said.
Lewis oversees Clinic operations, which she says includes knowing the ins and outs of “lots of regulatory requirements.”
Berry says her patient load can vary from as many as 11 to 12 per day down to as few as four.
In the middle of winter, many are coming in for help coping with symptoms of cold and stomach flu, she said.
As her practice expands, Berry hopes to continue to provide education on how lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, exercise and working to quit smoking can improve the overall health of her patients.
“It really helps when you have time here to really get to know your patient base,” Berry said.
Slight changes in speech patterns or energy levels that other providers might miss can be more easily noticed by providers who know their patients well, she said.
Patients appreciate a shorter trip for care
Sherry Bogen, 73, left the milder weather of her home at Richland to travel the 13 miles over a pass to drop into the frozen Pine Valley on a recent January visit in order to re-establish herself with the Halfway health care providers.
Bogen said she would prefer to make the shorter drive instead of turning her wheels in the other direction to travel the 42 miles into Baker City over the winding curves of Highway 86, a trip that can take about an hour in good weather.
Halfway residents Sue Forrester, 76, and her 96-year-old mother, Nellie Forrester, are pleased with the service they receive from the Clinic. Sue moved to Halfway from Colorado Springs in 2001 to be closer to her mom.
Nellie recently recovered from a bout of pneumonia and returned home after spending 10 days with her daughter.
Thanks to the Clinic in their community, Sue Forrester said she felt confident in caring for her mother.
“I had that support and I knew what to do,” she said.
Judy and Dan North, two other patients who live at Richland, don’t hesitate to seek health care at the Pine Eagle Clinic.
“We’ve got the best thing going,” Judy North says of the Clinic. “We’re pretty proud of it.
“If something goes wrong, we go to Susan,” she said.
Judy, 72, retired from work as a caregiver in May 2019. Dan retired from Behlen Manufacturing, a Baker City livestock equipment factory, in May 2019 after about 15 years with the company.
Judy has been visiting the Clinic more than usual over the past year. Since last May, she routinely makes the 13-mile trip for allergy shots to calm the itchy welts she’s been dealing with. Berry first referred Judy to a La Grande allergy specialist who then sent her back to Berry for the weekly shots.
“It’s a nice setup,” Judy said. “We’re not very formal around here.”
Paying to keep the Clinic open
Although Richland residents are welcomed along with the Halfway and Oxbow residents, they do not contribute to the taxing district formed in 2010 to help keep a provider at the Clinic.
The first proposal to form a taxing district to provide financial support for the Clinic was in 2008 and would have included the same property owners who are taxed to fund the Pine Eagle School District, including residents in the Pine and Eagle valleys and the Oxbow area.
That proposal was narrowly defeated, 451-444, in the May 20, 2008, election.
Results were dramatically different between the Pine and Eagle valleys.
In Eagle Valley, the majority of voters opposed the taxing district — 265 to 76. Pine Valley, by contrast, supported the measure by a vote of 343-167. The majority of voters in the Oxbow area cast their ballots in favor, 25-19.
Had it passed, the 2008 ballot measure would have set a permanent tax rate of up to 65 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
When that effort failed, community leaders were sent back to the drawing board to form a new plan, said Carolyn Coble, who served on the Health Planning Committee and later was elected to the Pine Eagle Health District Board, on which she serves as treasurer.
“We redrew the boundaries so (Richland) wasn’t included so we could get it passed,” Coble said.
Two years later, in the May 2010 election, voters approved by 266-197 the Pine Eagle Health District, which includes the Pine Valley and Oxbow area. The District has a tax rate of 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
Five people were appointed as board members for the new district — Frances Gulick Vaughan, Coble, Linda Collier, Chuck Peterson and Julie Stromer.
The current members remain unchanged except for the replacement of Peterson by Joan Sprague after Peterson moved to Baker City.
The management of the clinic is left to the Pine Eagle Health Planning Committee. Shirley Meger was named chairwoman to replace Loren Goracke, who died in June 2019. Other members are Brian Pennock, Jake Roe, Dave Schmitt, Tom Nash and Steve Sharp. A seventh seat remains vacant.
Meger, 62, moved to Halfway three years ago from Minnesota with her son and his family. She retired from a 30-year career in restaurant management, including 15 years as owner.
Meger says it didn’t take long for her to discover that Goracke left some very big shoes for her to fill.
Lewis praised the work Meger does in her leadership role to ensure that the clinic is operating smoothly.
“With her management experience, she brings a lot to the table,” Lewis said. “It does help out a lot.”
Range of medical services
Let's revise this section to say what services are available at the Clinic without the other details or names. Just keep it simple. And I want to move this higher in the story and end on the quote from Judy.
A medical director is required to make one visit to the Clinic per month. Dr. Nathan Defrees of Baker City, 53 miles to the west, has filled that role for the past year while Dr. Daniel Smithson, also of Baker City, was on sabbatical in New Zealand. Smithson is expected to return to the role this year.
Two dentists replaced Dr. Warren Whitnah, who retired last spring after working part-time from an office in the Pine Eagle Clinic for 16 years. They are Dr. LaVonne Hammelman and Dr. Hillary Berry (no relation to Susan Berry).
Rob Bachman, who also operates Baker Valley Physical Therapy in Baker City, travels to Halfway on Tuesdays and Thursdays to provide physical therapy at the clinic.
Bachman pays $235 per month for his space in the clinic and the dentists, who opened their practice in July under the name Backcountry Dental Docs, pay $600 per month for their space.
They are in the office Tuesdays and Wednesdays and an occasional Thursday.