Hanging up the stethoscope
Recently retired local pulmonologist honored by Enloe Medical Center colleagues
If you haven’t heard of Dr. Dale Wilms, don’t feel too bad. It could be because you’re fortunate enough to breathe normally and, thus, haven’t needed to see a pulmonologist. It also could be because Wilms isn’t big on self-promotion or media attention.
Even so, a few months after his retirement following 24 years of practice in Chico, he was thrust into the spotlight when selected as a recipient of the Physician Legacy Award at Enloe Medical Center. He’d eschewed a going-away dinner (though he couldn’t say no to the Enloe nurses who threw him a potluck lunch); he did, however, attend the medical-staff meeting where a previous honoree, Dr. Eugene Cleek, presented him the award.
Cleek, medical director of the Enloe Trauma Program, went on at length during a phone interview when asked why Wilms merited the recognition.
“He’s proved himself to be certainly one of the best physicians in the North State,” Cleek said. “We talk about three qualities a doctor should have: [being] affable, available and able. He has all those in spades.
“Affable: He’s a great guy to work with. There’s no argument; you can discuss anything with him. There’s no hidden motive—he just does the very best he can for the patient every time.
“Available: In critical care, things don’t normally happen at 11 a.m. on Monday through Friday; they happen at very bad times of the day. He’s one of the people you’ll see in the emergency room at 2 or 3 in the morning without any complaint. I’ve called him multiple times over the past 24 years with particular problems, and he shows up right on the spot.
“Able: He’s very smart, very capable, very diligent, very well-trained. He’s the epitome of what you would want for a doctor to take care of you.”
Wilms has made a comparable impression on the nursing staff of the Intensive Care and Coronary Care Unit. Linda Hunsinger, a day charge nurse, wrote a two-page letter to the CN&R saying how she and her colleagues “miss him every day” since his retirement at the end of August.
“His unique sense of humor got us through many stressful situations that are common to an intensive-care unit,” she continued. “The nurses put together a book called Daleisms [with] remarks that he frequently made that made us laugh. … Many nurses miss the donuts that he reliably delivered to us every Saturday morning.
“He is the type of man [who] is great at what he does but never wants to draw too much attention upon himself. … His retirement was inevitable, but we wish to thank him for making us better nurses and making this a better community in which to live.”
Wilms, 65, grew up in Wisconsin. Medicine does not run in his family—his father was a carpenter, his mother a teacher. He was exposed to the profession in his teen years by a member of his church, a nurse-anesthetist who brought him along to observe operations.
“Whenever he got a call that he had to go to a surgery during church, he would invite me to go with him,” Wilms recalled in a phone interview. “That was in the’60s; it was a lot more casual. If the surgeon said it was OK, you could go in and watch surgery. That was where I developed my interest.”
A Seventh-day Adventist, he headed to Southern California for medical training at Loma Linda University. Wilms completed his residency at Loma Linda, worked full time for two years as an emergency-medicine doctor, then went to Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan for a fellowship in pulmonary and critical-care medicine.
He finished that program in 1982. He spent the next seven years at Loma Linda, working in the university hospital as well as the nearby Veterans’ Health Administration medical center, until he decided to move closer to a physician friend who had relocated to Red Bluff.
Wilms joined North State Pulmonary Critical Care Associates as well as the Enloe medical staff. In Chico, he met his wife, Linda, an intensive-care nurse who became chief of nursing at Chico Community Hospital, which was absorbed by Enloe in 1998.
Wilms has treated many patients over the years, but one in particular encapsulates the quality of his care. Cleek recalls the night a young person fell into a canal and came to Enloe in a severe state of hypothermia. The patient desperately needed treatment at a more expansive trauma center but was in too fragile a state to travel.
The patient “should have died,” Cleek said, but Wilms stayed bedside all night, adjusting medications and monitoring progress. “A lesser man might not have spent the time,” Cleek said, but because Wilms did, that individual “is now normal and healthy.”
After two dozen years answering late-night calls, Wilms hung up the stethoscope. He says he might fill in for an absent colleague in a pinch, but otherwise he plans to spend time with his wife and in the great outdoors. He’s an avid hunter and fisherman who, since autumn, has already taken trips to South Dakota, Colorado and Mississippi.
“I decided that I was a success at being retired,” Wilms said. “I quit on Friday, and by Wednesday I didn’t know what day of the week it was, so I thought that was working out OK.”
As for the Physician Legacy Award: “It’s certainly a special honor to be recognized by your peers. I did not expect it; I think there are people more worthy. It’s definitely a humbling experience.”