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In the era of corporate medicine, the solo, independent family physician is rare. But eight years ago, Dr. Jan Sonander made the decision to buy office space in Santa Rosa to start a practice on his own.

"People were surprised," Dr. Sonander said, with his usual understatement.

Backed by an associate physician, a nurse practitioner and an office staff of up to half a dozen, Sonander has built a roster of 4,000 patients.

Sonander had been practicing medicine in the Santa Rosa community since 1989, originally joining another doctor's small practice, which gradually grew into a large medical group and ultimately disbanded in 2004.

"During that time, there was a lot of jockeying for position in the professional community. There were a significant number of large doctors' group failures for a variety of reasons," Sonander said. "It was a challenge to buy a building and put in the infrastructure to run my own practice."

He can trace his motivation to a job shadow program when he was a student at Tamalpais High School in Marin County, his first exposure to the medical profession.

"I was fascinated by the way the doctors thought about things," Sonander said. "They were interested in individuals. They were deliberative about what they did."

If all Sonander, now 57, had done is start a nearly solo practice when most of the medical profession seems headed in the other direction, that would be notable enough. But there is much more than that to the doctor his peers informally call Jan (pronounced "Yon").

"Jan does it all," said Gary Mishkin, an emergency room doctor at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, who first met Sonander at medical school at UC Davis in 1980.

"He's in his second term as chief of staff at Memorial Hospital. He also has been president of the Sonoma County Medical Association," Mishkin said. "This guy is tireless in his service to the medical community."

And Sonander still makes house calls, serving the developmentally disabled at group homes scattered across Sonoma County.

"He gets no sleep," said Elizabeth Wheless, a registered nurse and case manager with Dumolin Community Living, a group of nine homes serving 60 clients, more than half of Sonander's developmentally disabled patient list.

"He comes to our homes after he does everything else," Wheless said. "He does home visits for all of the clients every 60 to 90 days. That's a lot of house calls."

Sonander sums up his dedication to serving the disabled simply: "They're really interesting individuals, and they have a lot of personality."

Wheless described attending these patients as a challenge not every doctor could handle.

"You'll not find a more compassionate, understanding physician," she said. "He has to diagnose people who have limited ability to speak or hear. He truly cares about each one, and he knows their stories."

Sonander's commitment to all of his patients shows in the doctor's careful and detailed work, Mishkin said.

"When I come across a patient in the emergency room, and I need to get some data, I log onto the computer and there might be 20 reports from 20 different doctors over the years," Mishkin said. "If I see Jan's name on one of those, I will click on that. I know I'm going to get the whole story on that patient."

It might be tempting to conclude that a doctor as busy as Sonander must be a bachelor and a hermit, with no home life. But Sonander has been married for 31 years to Oresia Korin, a part-time doctor with the Sonoma County Indian Health Project. Their son Kaj (pronounced "Ky"), 18, is a junior at Montgomery High School. The family has been able to squeeze in some backpacking, skiing and sailing over the years, Sonander said.

Born in San Francisco, Sonander also has fit in some varied work experience during his long college career — pursuing his bachelor's, master's and MD degrees at UC Davis. He worked as a ski instructor, ambulance driver and emergency medical technician.

He even took time between his master's degree and medical school to teach math, science and English during the 1979-1980 school year at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Asked how his friend Sonander could fit in so much work throughout his career, Miskin replied, "Jan is always doing no less than five things at once."

(You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.)