Mountain Medicine: Healthcare in Leadville
Colorado history buffs may have heard the name Doc Susie, an American doctor who tended to thousands of early settlers in and around the Fraser, Colo. area.
Known as one of the foremost female Pioneer physicians, Susan Anderson, M.D. (1870-1960) practiced medicine in the rugged mountains, treating families, ranchers, loggers, railroad workers, and even an occasional horse or cow, which was not uncommon at the time.
Often paid in firewood, food, services and other items that could be bartered, Doc Susie never became “rich” practicing her skills, but she was beloved by her community who was grateful to have a doctor on hand in such remote, harsh environments, with danger lurking around every mountain pass.
Today, injuries and ailments incurred in small rural communities like Leadville might range from altitude sickness and mining accidents to gunshot wounds and car crashes. And while new highways of communication allow rural doctors access to pertinent medical information, miles of physical barriers still stand between Leadville, and the state-of-the-art medical equipment and expansive staffs that facilities with bigger bank accounts can offer. Therefore, when winter conditions close mountain passes, limiting road and air traffic, even today’s Doc Susie must be adept, adaptable, and available.
For nearly two decades, Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger has been that doctor in Leadville. In fact when she arrived in 1998, she was Leadville’s first female physician. So in the spirit of Pioneer physicians, Leadville Today is bringing readers this three-part series about Dr. Lisa, as she is affectionately known by the thousands of patients she has served throughout her 18 years of practicing medicine in Lake County.
Leadville’s First Female Physician: Breaking Down Barriers
by Brennan Ruegg, Leadville Today Contributor
Lisa Zwerdlinger was raised in the small town of Conifer located in Jefferson County just off Highway 285 if you take the “back way” down into the city. Her father was a career military man of the United States Air Force who retired when his daughter was born, and died only twelve years later. Zwerdlinger’s mother carried no formal education and supported her three children working as a receptionist.
Zwerdlinger left for the city to attend the University of Colorado for eleven years, but she always knew she’d return to a small town in the mountains. She completed her four years of undergraduate studies in Boulder, graduate school and respective residencies in Denver.
In 1998, having graduated from medical school and ready to enter the workforce, Dr. Lisa was offered jobs in all of Colorado’s most affluent cities and mountain towns. But after attending a rural health fair and finding the greatest need for high-standard evidence-based care in Leadville and Lake County, Zwerdlinger decided to return to a place much like Conifer, much like home. Arriving in 1998 she became Leadville’s first female physician.
Dr. Lisa’s goal was to provide the same standard of care for the people of Lake County that anyone would receive in Denver or Aspen. She joined Dr. Wayne Callen and Dr. John Perna at the private practice of Lake County Medical Center, where for six years she formed relationships with the community she would continue to serve for nearly two decades now.
As Dr Perna motioned to retire in 2004, Zwerdlinger was pregnant with her first child and posed with decisions about her future and that of her family. She was once again offered a high paying position in the city of Denver, but already 1,000 feet higher and 100 miles away from the metroplex, Zwerdlinger reflected on the six years she’d already spent in Leadville, and again on its needs in healthcare.
Dr. Lisa recalls a heartfelt conversation with her husband, Jeff Foley, that year in the parking lot of the local hospital, where they weighed the decisions before them, against the future they wished to have for themselves.
“Jeff and I looked at each other and said ‘We love it here. We like Leadville. We don’t want to move to the city. We don’t want to raise kids in the city. We want to live here,’ So we hawked everything we owned, and built this.”
Dr. Lisa is of course, referring to Rocky Mountain Family Practice (RMFP), which she and her husband began in 2005, and which continues to operate today as Leadville’s one and only private healthcare practice.
Next week, in this three-part series, Leadville Today will bring readers Part Two: Giving Birth To Babies and Businesses. Stay tuned and stay healthy.
Rocky Mountain Family Practice is located at 735 Hwy 24 South, and may be contacted by phone at (719)486-0500.
LT Contributor Brennan Ruegg is from Akron, OH, birthplace of marbles and Judy Resnick.