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A doctor's vocation comes to a close


Bob Schultz is looking forward to a summer at his farmhouse in upstate New York, walking his dog, peering into the heavens with a telescope and settling down with Sudoku puzzles.

"I haven't had a summer off since grade school," said Schultz, who turned 64 last month and is retiring in April as chief of the medical staff at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center.

Schultz's 30-year career as an obstetrician-gynecologist and administrator parallels Kaiser's growth from a clinic at Creekside Plaza in 1980 to a medical megacomplex that handles 141,000 patients at facilities in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Petaluma, accounting for about 44 percent of the county's privately insured residents.

In addition, Kaiser treats 25,000 Sonoma County Medicare patients and 15,000 people enrolled in Medi-Cal and other public programs.

With 2,666 employees, Kaiser is also the largest private employer in Sonoma County.

His first morning at Kaiser's Creekside clinic, Schultz saw 23 patients, and said he was "thrilled to work hard" after a brief stint in private practice in Oregon.

Schultz went on to deliver about 2,500 babies, working an obstetrician's long and unpredictable hours. As physician-in-chief since 1995, overseeing 300 Kaiser doctors and 1,100 other health care workers, Schultz works 60- to 70-hour weeks.

He's a bachelor half the year, as Priscilla, his wife of 42 years, lives on the 30-acre upstate New York farm from May to October.

That's all going to change, as Schultz, a slender man with gray hair and beard, is leaving Kaiser eight months before hitting mandatory retirement age of 65. He'll be with Priscilla and Butte, his black Labrador "walking buddy," in the countryside near the Berkshire Mountains when the fall colors — Schultz's favorite sight on Earth — explode in October.

He worked in his father's butcher shop as a teenager, as a park ranger while attending Santa Clara University and as an electrical engineer for Raytheon in Massachusetts before finding his calling. He enrolled in UC Berkeley's public health graduate program in 1970, and then switched to medical school at UC Davis and finished there in 1976.

His stint in private practice in Lebanon, Ore., lasted just six months as sawmill shutdowns crushed the local economy, forcing Schultz to close his obstetrics office. A medical school classmate invited him to join Kaiser in Santa Rosa, and Schultz found his place, or, as he said, "You come for a job that turns into a career."

Greg Rosa, a Sebastopol family practice physician, said that Schultz is as responsible as anyone for Kaiser's success in Sonoma County.

"He has produced one of the crown jewels of health care in Northern California," said Rosa, who opened the Occidental Area Health Center in 1976 and is now medical director at the Palm Drive Medical Center.

Schultz is known for an "informed, calm, deliberate" management style, said Rosa, a classmate of Schultz at Santa Clara University.

Leonard Klay, a Santa Rosa obstetrician-gynecologist since 1971, said Schultz is a "very conscientious physician" who "always had good rapport with his patients."

Both doctors delivered babies at the old Community Hospital before Kaiser built its own facilities here.

Schultz, who has an "easy disposition," Klay said, was "always open to listen to other people's viewpoints."

Klay credited Schultz with getting Kaiser doctors involved in the Sonoma County Medical Association and in establishing treatment for uninsured children at Kaiser.

Schultz said he did not originate either effort, but "nurtured work started by others." Kaiser in Santa Rosa now cares for 3,500 uninsured children.

Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest not-for-profit health plan with more than 8.6 million members (75 percent of them in California), 35 hospitals, more than 15,000 physicians and $42 billion in annual revenue, was born in the Mojave Desert in 1933.

Sidney Garfield, a young doctor, found he was going broke in treating the 5,000 workers building the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which tapped the Owens River to quench Los Angeles' burgeoning thirst. Charging the laborers a nickel a day in advance, Garfield reversed his own fortune and created the nation's first prepaid health care plan.

A visionary who believed in preventive care, Garfield invented hardhats for construction workers and went into the field, pounding down nails to prevent puncture wounds, a potentially fatal injury at the time, Schultz said.

Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser hired Garfield in 1938 to care for his 15,000 workers on the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, and tapped the doctor again for medical services at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, where up to 90,000 people built Liberty ships during World War II.

In 1945, the Kaiser Permanente health plan was opened to the public and, boosted by labor union support, enrolled 300,000 Northern California members in the first 10 years.

Kaiser's integrated system combining health insurance, hospitals and physicians groups is the only one of its kind, and Schultz said it is "absolutely" the model for American health care.

The system maximizes efficiency and eliminates the chronic conflict between health care providers and the insurance companies that control their compensation, he said.

Kaiser membership is growing despite the economic slump, propelled by a 3 percent to 4 percent margin of revenues over expenses, he said.

"Each year we are getting better," Schultz said, referring to his bailiwick in patient care. When officials identify a deficiency, he said, "We say let's nail it this year — and we do."

Schultz also has been involved in community service, including leadership positions with United Way, the Sonoma State University Academic Foundation and the Sonoma County Medical Association.

In retirement, Schultz, who has two grown children and two grandchildren, plans to literally expand his vision by "spending some time stargazing" through a telescope. He also wants to visit Italy and the south of France, hone his woodworking skills, take cooking classes and get to more San Francisco Giants baseball games.

A prep pitcher and first baseman in Capitola, Schultz got an offer to play minor league ball and a baseball scholarship to St. Mary's College in Moraga. He turned both down to focus on academics at Santa Clara, and never regretted the decision.

"I loved my patients," said Schultz, who now meets people he delivered decades ago and gets introduced to their children.

With 16 years in Kaiser administration directing 20 department heads, Schultz said he may also do some executive coaching as a retiree.

But now, New England beckons. The Appalachian Trail is 15 miles from Schultz's farmhouse.

Spectacular as it is, California has nothing to match the radiance of a New England autumn, he said. "Back there, the whole mountain is covered with color."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.