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Leaving behind a legacy of caring

“Dr. Joe” Beuning represents a dying breed of general physician who appreciates the importance of getting to know their patients personally and employing that power of familiarity as another tool essential to helping heal patients. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

When Joe Beuning walked through the front door of what was then Holy Family Hospital in 1976, he could not have imagined how important a part of this community he and his family would become nor how beloved.

He would spend the next 40 years healing generations of families, earning their trust one story, one embrace, one answer at a time.

“Dr. Joe” represents a dying breed of general physician who appreciates the importance of getting to know their patients personally and employing that power of familiarity as another tool essential to helping heal patients.

Joe Beuning grew up a farm boy in Melrose, a small town in central Minnesota. Like many of his contemporaries, his education started in a country school with two classmates.

““I went to a country school in grade school. There were three of us in my class. I went to Melrose High School and then on to St. Cloud State. After my first year, they were building I-94, so I took a year off to make $4 hour, which was huge money back then, driving a semi truck on 12-hour shifts hauling crushed rock. I signed up in the reserves and thought to myself, ‘This farmboy’s good.’ Well, I wasn’t,” Beuning recalled.

Beuning was drafted into the Army and spent two years serving with the 188th Military Police in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Vernice Evans congratulates Dr. Beuning on his retirement. (Tom Lindfors photograph)“I got on a bus with 72 other people from central Minnesota. I probably knew a half dozen guys on that bus ride. Our unit was very small and our job was to keep Hwy. 1 open. We dealt with some of the early versions of IEDs as a part of our job and a lot of other crap that goes along with it,“ said Beuning.

His experience in Vietnam made a lasting impression on Beuning which would motivate his work with veterans later in his life.

Following his discharge, he returned home and began looking for a job.

The journey begins

“When I got back in 1965, I went back to school and I needed to find a job. My great uncle was a physician in St. Cloud, Dr. John. He was somebody we went to as kids. I hadn’t really thought too much about medicine until I was back in college. There was an ad in the paper looking for floor orderlies and ER techs at the St. Cloud Hospital. So I applied and got this job working in a hospital. The next thing I know, I’m working on the orthopedic floor, I’m working on the urology floor and then I ended up working full-time in the emergency room,” recounted Beuning.

Technically “Dr. Joe” is a Certified Physician Assistant (PA-C) having earned degrees in biology and health care science from St. Cloud State University. Following the end of the Vietnam War, there was a severe shortage of doctors working in family medicine. Beuning found himself in the right place at just the right time.

“One of the physicians I worked with at the hospital, Dr. Neva Gonzales, was starting this new program at St. Cloud State. The program was going to train students to fill this brand new medical profession. It was the first program of its kind in the Midwest,” said Beuning.

The physician assistant (PA) program, as it came to be known, evolved from a military program called MEDEX.

MEDEX was designed to take advantage of an existing resource, people who were medically trained in the military. The focus of the program was to produce physicians assistants trained in family medicine to address the need for more doctors.

“It was new idea in medicine where they could kind of fast track people. They would train you for X-number of years with no residency. It was called Healthcare Sciences at the time. When you finished with school, there would be on-the-job training (OJT)). I thought, ‘what the heck,’ so I interviewed and boom, I was off and running,” said Beuning.

In between finishing his degrees and working at the hospital, he married his high school sweetheart, Beverly Denne.

“We essentially met in Spanish class in high school. She readily admits that, she’s the only really good thing I got out of Spanish class,” said Beuning.

Headed to family medicine

In the 70s, nearly all of those coming out of PA programs were going into family medicine because of the shortage of family doctors. There were challenges along the way. Everything had to be legalized, including prescriptive privileges. Insurance issues had to be resolved like whether Medicare and Medicaid would reimburse for a PA’s services. Beuning and his classmates were pioneers, the first PAs to actually attempt to work in the medical field.

Dr. Beuning greets those who attended a special party. (Tom Lindfors photo)“I don’t think there were 20 or 30 PAs in all of Wisconsin when we first got started in the 70s. I’d walk into an interview and say, ‘Well, I do this,’ and the doctors would say, ‘That’s what I do.’ I remember this one doctor said, ‘I don’t need a pseudo doctor,’ recalled Beuning.

Beuning started working in Austin, Minn., in 1975. He had been working there for about a year when his buddy and classmate, Reid Berger, who was working in Baldwin, called.

“I was at a county medical society meeting and the guy from New Richmond asked about you. Why don’t you give them a call,” said Berger.

Beuning met with Dr. Craig and two weeks later he started at the New Richmond Clinic.

In the fall of 1976, Buening moved his wife Beverly, 3-year-old daughter Andrea and new infant son Craig, from Austin to New Richmond.

A new community

The New Richmond Clinic operated out of what is now the Associated Eye building. It was home to four physicians: Dr. Jim Craig, Dr. Louis Weisbrod, Dr. Joseph Powell and Dr. Neal Melby.

When Dr. Melby left to do a surgical residency for five years, Dr. Colin Drury became the staff surgeon. The hiring of Beuning made them five.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“The first couple of years, number one, I was a brand new person, in a brand new profession, in a brand new community and everybody was looking at me. You come out as a doctor, and you’re the guy. You come out as a PA and you’re a what? It took a fair amount of time, not so much from the community [thanks to my patients], but more for the medical community, for the doctors and nurses, to develop their trust in me. I had to earn that, it wasn’t just given to me because I had this title,” said Beuning.

Beuning moved into a community that felt familiar to him, a small town. Home to four sizeable industries, Doughboy Packaging, Friday Canning, St. Croix Press and Doughboy Feeds, New Richmond was more interesting and had more potential than your typical small town.

Over the next 40 years Dr. Joe endeared himself to this community by practicing medicine the best way he knew how. His rural roots dictated his down-to-earth approach to his patients -- ask questions, listen to the answers, don’t pretend to know everything, and a little bit of humor can help the healing process.

Earning a patient’s trust was essential to his success.

“Your patients are putting their trust in you and that’s a two-way street. You can’t pretend that you know something. They are coming to you with their child or for themselves looking for answers. I have always told my patients over and over again, ‘I don’t know everything. But if I don’t know the answer, my job is to find someone who does.’ It’s a big responsibility, that connection. They depend on you to do this,” said Beuning.

The unusual prescriptions

Over the course of 40 years Dr. Joe has grown up with this community treating generations of families. His reputation for writing unusual prescriptions is just part of his legacy.

“Grandpas and grandmas, parents and kids, yes, it’s fun. I see kids that grew up with my kids and now they come in with their kids. I had a young man in yesterday. His parents were friends of my oldest daughter and now their son is 10 years old. So I wrote him a prescription for Reese's Pieces. I write out a lot of weird prescriptions. I’ve written out a lot of prescriptions to dads for mustang convertibles,” Beuning said with a big smile.

Beuning believes in spending time with his patients.

“I get accused of spending way too much time with my patients. But I think it’s more of an individual choice. Some doctors are ‘take this and you’re good to go.’ That’s not me. You’ve got the professional side of the equation and the personality side. I rely more on the personality side, that’s just me. It takes me five minute to figure out what’s going on with a patient and another 15 minutes to talk about John Deere tractors. We’ve shared a lot of hunting and fishing pictures over the years. It’s part of healing. That’s the part I’m really going to miss,” said Beuning.

Major changes

Dr. Beuning cuts the cake at a special party held in his honor. (Tom Lindfors photo)Beuning believes two major changes have impacted medicine immensely in the last decade: the advent of corporate medicine and the implementation of electronic medical records.

“Corporate medicine happens when you become a part of a much larger organization so you no longer control your own destiny. Someone else controls that destiny. This community has grown tremendously and it’s going to grow a lot more. If you’re not part of a bigger organization like Health Partners or Mayo or Marshfield or Allina, you’re not going to make it any more. You can’t keep up with the costs to purchase new technology alone or the millions of hours it takes to implement electronic medical records. The change from writing and dictating notes, to going to electronic medical records was a huge change. People are under the impression that electronic records really speed things up. Instead, it has actually slowed the process of medicine down because now so much more information is required. Where I used to see 25 to 30 patients a day, now we’re working a lot harder to see 20,” said Beuning.

Temperature of the community

You don’t get to be a great doctor without caring about your community. To take the temperature of your community, Dr. Joe believes you must participate in your community, volunteer, share in the experiences of your friends and neighbors.

Over the years Dr. Joe has served on the board of directors for Westfields Hospital, the New Richmond Community Foundation board and the chamber of commerce. He is a member of the VFW and Rotary. He also volunteers his time as a provider at the Free Clinic of Pierce and St Croix County in River Falls. He believes in paying it forward having mentored more than 60 PA students over the course of his career. As an avid runner and bicyclist, he has participated in numerous fundraising events including the Minnesota Tram Ride benefiting MS and the bicycle ride from New Richmond to the Highground Veterans Memorial in Neillsville in honor of Vietnam vets.

The recent passing of his mother added some perspective to what’s coming next for Beuning.

“With the passing of my mother, I realized that she didn’t do that much with the last 10 years of her life. Here I am pretty close to 70. I figure I’ve got about a dozen years if I want to go fishing and do a few hunting trips and I want to do a bunch of road trips. We’ve got some places we want to see and things that we have kind of put off that we want to do. I don’t know what they all are yet, but we have a little bit of a list started. We want to go to more national parks. We like to downhill ski so we want to do a little bit of that the next couple of winters. And I think we’ll stay here. I’ll go south for a week or two, but I’m not moving to Arizona or Florida. The five grandkids are already on the schedule,” said Beuning.

Dr. Joe recognizes that 40 years of service cannot be accomplished without a lot of help.

“I came here and I kind of grew up with the community and my kids grew up with the community. This is where my family and my patient family is and my fellow employees and co-workers live. You just can’t walk away from them. It’s more of a marriage, that’s why I stayed for 40 years,” said Beuning.

Thanks for trusting

“Number one, I would thank the physicians that took me in back in 1976. Dr. Craig, Dr. Wisebrod, Dr. Neal Melby and Dr. Powell. They put their trust in a young person that they didn’t know and trusted in a brand new profession that we were all still unfamiliar with and that was still evolving and developing. Dr. Craig was really the guy I sat down with. Corrinne Elkin, she was the young lady at the desk. Thank you to the patients that I‘ve gotten to know and who have put their trust in me. I’ve been quite involved in the community and you get to know all of these people. To all the people I served on boards with, played softball with, to the Trollhaugen ski patrol, I just want to thank the entire community for embracing us and for allowing us to embrace you,” said Beuning.

“My peers who put their trust in me, my patients, I can’t thank them enough. And my co-workers. We providers do a lot of wonderful things, but I’m here to tell you we wouldn’t get a damn thing done if it weren’t for these ladies out here who are holding our hands. Some of my biggest thanks goes out to these young ladies that we work with on a daily basis. I’ve known many, many of them over the years. My life would be miserable without them. Honest to God, they are our right hands. They set things up for us and when we are done, they clean up after us. They make our phone calls, call in our prescriptions. I’m going to be lost for a while. My God, they are wonderful people,” said Beuning.

Dr. Joe is confident he is leaving his legacy in capable hands.

“I look at the wall out there and see all the new faces on it, see how it has grown. To be a part of that growth has been very rewarding,” said Beuning.

In the end it is all about time, about having enough to do what makes you happy.

“I want to be able to get up in the morning and if the sun is shining say, ‘Man, I think I’m gonna go fishing today.’”