It was September 1975 when a 28-year-old, freshly minted pediatrician loaded his pregnant wife, two children and the family’s basset hound into a compact BMW 2002 and steered it toward Billings.
He was home.
Flu season was at full tilt at the Children’s Clinic where the young Dr. Rick Stevens reported for work on North 28th Street. He had an instant caseload of nearly 40 ill children each day.
“It was just chaos,” Stevens said with a smile.
He was indeed home.
He savored his new life.
It set the tone for the next four decades as he matured in his role and grew his practice to provide medical care to “thousands” of children, from birth to adolescence.
It wasn’t exactly how Stevens envisioned his career. Though he knew as a sophomore in high school that he wanted to become a doctor, he had designs on becoming an administrator once he had some hands-on experience.
After a month of his pediatric residency, working 16-18 hour days and logging little to no sleep, he was in love with the profession.
“The difference between playing doctor, which is what you do as a medical student, and being a doctor, having that life in your hands, it was like, wow, this is serious stuff,” he said.
“I never turned back to wanting to be an administrator. I shudder to think what it would be like. I do better one-on-one, me and the patient. That was my real calling.”
On March 25, the curtain falls on Stevens’ storied career. The “difficult” decision to retire has been at least a year in the making. And, there are still days he’s not sure he’s ready to leave.
“It’s just a rich environment,” said Stevens, 68, the patriarch of the Children’s Clinic. “It’s intellectually stimulating, but it’s time. I have 10 grandchildren in town. I want to spend more time with them. I always felt I didn’t have enough time to spend with my own children during the early years of work.”
He also wants to make time for the birds — watching them, that is.
Jennifer Schneider of Billings has placed her trust in Stevens for the care of both of her sons, Beckett, 3, and Lawson, 9 months.
“I don’t think anybody will ever be able to take his place,” Schneider said. “I’m just really, really sad to see him go.”
As a first-time mom, Schneider said she tended to over-react to her routine childhood illnesses and especially Beckett’s hip dysplasia. Stevens’ gentle fatherly and grandfatherly bedside manner and his deep, boisterous laugh calmed her anxiety and her child’s.
“With his experience as a father and grandfather, he had this laid-back and easy-going approach to parenthood,” Schneider said. “He was just so wonderful.”
His approach to children and their parents came with a price that he rarely disclosed.
“Actually, my first grandchild was born quite deformed and died at seven days of age,” Stevens said. “It really has made me a little more sensitive to things like that. I’ve been able to put myself in other people’s shoes, view things the way they are viewing them and feel their pain and their concerns. I do have that capacity.”
To help center him, Stevens, a self-described strong, Christian believer, rises in the pre-dawn hours to spend at least a couple of hours reading spiritual devotions. He favors Catholic writers, including Francois Fenelon, a Catholic bishop.
Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author, is his “hero.”
“It starts my day,” he said. “I find that personally helpful.”
In his four decades of practice, Stevens has watched the profession morph into something nearly unrecognizable in terms of both science and practice, he said. In the early days of his career, there were a “handful” of antibiotics available to pediatricians and there were no CT scans or MRIs.
“The way I’m practicing now is pretty much totally unrelated to how I was trained,” Stevens said. “It’s just been remarkable.”
But the most important change in pediatrics has been the number of life-saving childhood immunizations that are now available, including vaccines for pneumonia, polio, mumps, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and more.
“For all of the grief that they take, the immunizations that we have now have probably saved more lives than we can count,” Stevens said. “It pains me that they have been assaulted as harmful. The data is so tight. It’s unquestionable that they are safe and efficacious. Polio has been eradicated. We take them for granted.”
There was a time in the early years when infectious diseases dominated the pediatricians’ caseload. Now uncommon, they have been pushed to the back burner, Stevens said. Today, pediatricians deal with more social, psychiatric and emotional diseases such as depression, learning disabilities and hyperactivity.
About 20 percent of his caseload is devoted to such maladies; his colleagues’ caseloads are even greater. Children’s Clinic just hired a nurse practitioner to help with the ADHD issues. More female physicians have been added to care for adolescent girls with depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems.
He attributes the spike in social and emotional distress among children to the disintegration of the nuclear family.
“Unfortunately, there are so many kids now that are raised in fatherless homes,” he said. “The structure that provides nurturing healthy attitudes and healthy mental health is shaken. The really important institutions like family have just been ignored and crushed. It’s terrible.”
The Children’s Clinic started with one receptionist and two registered nurses. As Stevens prepares his exit, the clinic has grown to 25 employees and 10 physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. His departure will leave an obvious void, according to Dennis Sulser, clinic administrator.
“His faith in God and trust in the human condition has been a constant in our clinic and our community,” Sulser said. “Dr. Stevens is respected, admired and called upon for daily inspiration. Each working day at our clinic provides a greater appreciation of the life-saving effect that every encounter with Dr. Stevens has on the children.”
Two days after retiring from the Children’s Clinic, now located on the West End, Stevens and his wife will embark on a two-month birding tour to follow the warblers and watch the bird migration. They will travel to Arizona, across Texas, down the Rio Grande Valley, up the Mississippi toward the Great Lakes.
Then he will return to where it all started — home.