Homer doctor celebrates 50 years caring for community

Editor’s note: McKibben Jackinsky is a former Homer News reporter who currently writes as a freelancer for the paper. This article was commissioned from Jackinsky by South Peninsula Hospital.

From a sheep farm in Montana to the shores of Kachemak Bay, with stops in between to earn a medical degree and provide care for residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta as a U.S. Public Health Service doctor in Bethel, Paul Eneboe of Homer is marking 50 years of practicing medicine in Homer. Now serving as South Peninsula Hospital Long Term Care Unit’s medical director, the 80-year-old physician is showing no signs of slowing down.

“I’m most proud of watching it grow,” Eneboe said of Homer’s hospital and the medical services that have expanded since he was the small town’s only doctor. After a moment’s thought, he modestly added, “And there have been some saves over the years and I think, ‘OK, I did make a difference.’”

Eneboe graduated with a bachelor of science degree from Montana State College in 1960. He went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Minnesota in 1964 and then completed his residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, before coming to Alaska.

Medical professionals, patients, and neighbors who have come to know Eneboe since his arrival in Alaska eagerly seconded his observation. Yes, indeed, he has made a difference.

Anchorage cardiologist Dr. George S. Rhyneer first met Eneboe in Bethel while Eneboe was serving in that Western Alaska community from 1966-1968.

“I would travel to Bethel a lot doing TB (tuberculosis) work and got to know all the doctors and one of them was Eneboe,” said Rhyneer, also a USPHS doctor at the time. During the 1960s, Rhyneer also made visits to Homer, where there was the start of a hospital, “a tiny little two-story, with a little kitchen and two hospital rooms,” but no permanent doctor.

In Eneboe, Rhyneer found someone who shared his Montana roots and, more importantly, “a good, all-around, compassionate doctor” who developed and maintained a network with specialists around the state to the benefit of his patients.

“He really thinks about his patients, listens to them, pays attention to them.” Rhyneer said. “He worries about them when he’s taking a shower in the morning and going to bed at night. And that’s recognized by his patients.”

Enlisted in the Commissioned Corps of the USPHS and assigned to Bethel in 1966, Eneboe, his wife Bette, who is a nurse, and their young son Paul arrived in Alaska a few days before he had to report for work. Having driven the Alcan Highway in their Ford Bronco and with time to spare, they continued their drive down the Kenai Peninsula, their sightseeing leading to the top of the hill overlooking Homer. Before them stretched the blue water of Kachemak Bay and the snow-capped Kenai Mountains. To the west was Cook Inlet and the silhouette of volcanoes rimming the inlet’s far shore.

“We came up over the hill and — wow! — this was the place we wanted to go,” Eneboe said of the view’s impact.

First, however, was fulfilling his obligation with USPHS.

“Bethel was a pretty sophisticated hospital. It covered the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and has about 15,000-20,000 people. It’s a huge area. I think the hospital had 30 beds and there were six or seven doctors,” Eneboe recalled.

The delta’s size required doctors to make visits to the outlying villages. Sometimes medical issues could be addressed on site. Sometimes patients had to be brought to the hospital. Sometimes situations refused to wait until doctor and patient were within the hospital’s walls. Births, with their uncertain timing, were especially challenging.

In once instance, Eneboe and a pilot were transporting a woman who was having trouble giving birth to the hospital, but before reaching Bethel, the doctor found himself hanging over the back of the Cessna 180’s front seat, delivering the baby in the plane.

“And once I delivered a baby on a boat on the Kuskokwim,” he said.

Shortly after fulfilling his USPHS commitment, Eneboe heard a doctor was needed in Homer. By August 1968, he and his family had made the move.

“I walked in the back door of the hospital and there were four ladies sitting here,” Eneboe recalled of the welcoming committee of nurses. “Helen Alm looked at me and said, ‘Do you suppose he’s as dumb as he looks?’ I was smart enough to say, ‘It’s worse than it looks.’”

So began Eneboe’s 50-year tenure at the end of the road, as Homer’s position at the end of the Sterling Highway is frequently described. Homer offered a stark contrast to Bethel’s “sophisticated” medical environment.

“The old hospital had two patient rooms with two beds in each room,” he said. “In the middle (of the building) were two beds for OB (obstetrics). There was a kind of delivery-operating room and a little room for an X-ray machine.”

The quality of the X-ray machine was so poor as to barely make a bone visible. Eneboe’s Saturday mornings were spent mixing solutions for developing X-rays. Using a microscope he’d brought from medical school, he was able to do a few simple blood tests.

“Homer was basically a glorified first-aid station,” he said.

Annie Gangl, a nurse who came to Homer in 1965, takes credit for suggesting Homer’s 1968 search for a doctor include looking within the USPHS ranks.

“I had worked with Public Health and I said to check if anyone was leaving. That’s when we got him, and we got a good doctor. He was good at everything. He just fit in,” Gangl said, pride evident in her soft Scottish brogue. Echoing Rhyneer, Gangl recalled Eneboe’s ability to network with specialists around the state. It resulted in specialists visiting Homer to hold clinics.

After becoming Cordova’s only doctor in the 1970s, Art Tilgner soon realized the value of networking with others, and was thankful to connect with Eneboe.

“What I found with Paul was one of the nicest people I ever met. Just a genuine guy. The real McCoy. I would call him up and ask what he thought about doing this or that in case management with my patients,” said Tilgner. Years later, Tilgner retired, relocated to Ninilchik, and became one of Eneboe’s patients. “He really was helpful to me particularly when I first came (to Alaska) because I had to learn how to operate in a place like this, how to function as a country doctor. Paul was a perfect role model for that.”

Having moved to Homer in 1967 with her husband Charlie, Margaret LaVigueur worked as a nurse at the Homer hospital. In addition to nursing duties, LaVigueur and her co-workers, along with the Homer Hospital Auxiliary, cooked, cleaned, did laundry and whatever was needed to keep the small hospital going.

“I liked (Eneboe) right off. I liked the way he took care of his patients,” said LaVigueur. “He was a good person. And still is. That man has a wealth of knowledge. If he doesn’t know an answer, he’ll find it or send you to someone who could help you.”

Her confidence in Eneboe grew even more after her husband suffered a heart attack. In spite of Charlie having “partly blown” the pump action of his heart and having a 99 percent chance of not surviving, “Eneboe wouldn’t let us touch him,” said LaVigueur. “He just let him be and let him rest and he made it. And then within two or three weeks, (Charlie) was out digging ditches for the city of Homer.”

When Jack and Susan Cushing’s young son became ill, none of the specialists who saw their toddler could diagnosis the problem. Eneboe, however, immediately recognized the cause as water-borne bacteria.

“He was a good diagnostician,” said Susan Cushing, whose father, Dr. Francis J. Phillips, along with then Homer Mayor Leo Rhode, laid the cornerstone for the Homer Hospital in the mid 1950s.

A thoracic surgeon, Phillips and his family came to Alaska in 1950 so he could treat tuberculosis patients at the sanatorium in Seward. While there, he made trips twice a month to Homer to provide medical care to the community and considered moving his family there; however, the family settled in Anchorage when the sanatorium closed.

Barbara and Lance Petersen arrived in Homer in 1969 and moved into a place not far from the Eneboe residence. After running through the earnings the couple had accumulated working at a fish cannery, Petersen put her nursing training to work at the Homer hospital. Her first day at work, Petersen became immediately aware of the wide range of responsibilities that came with working in a small-town hospital. No sooner had she walked in the door than she was told she’d be accompanying a patient being flown to Anchorage.

It also wasn’t long before Petersen discovered she had something to offer the hospital: her training as a Lamaze instructor.

“Eneboe and his family had gone to New Orleans and he was doing some additional training so we kind of got (Lamaze) going before he came back,” said Petersen. When Eneboe returned, he didn’t share her enthusiasm for that method of prepared childbirth.

“He said, ‘I don’t believe in this sort of stuff, but I’ll bear with it,’ and so we got to the point where we didn’t have to take patients into the surgery room. We could just deliver in the bed. After a month, Eneboe said, ‘I’m sold,’” Petersen said of Eneboe’s reaction.

In fact, Eneboe became a strong proponent of accommodating women’s wishes for how and where they wanted to give birth.

“At that time having family in the delivery room or having kids in the labor room was just unheard of. It was sacrilegious. We did it because there were several folks in town that wanted it and Barbara bullied me into trying it. … We ended up, Barbara and I, going to Anchorage and Palmer and talking to the medical staff up there about our experience and how the world didn’t end,” Eneboe said of learning and sharing with others that birth could safely be something other than an operating room experience.

Being the only doctor in town required Eneboe to be available round the clock, seven days a week, making it hard — but not impossible — to find time for favorite past times, like skiing and skating. Without the convenience of today’s cell phones, it sometimes was challenging to reach him. But not impossible.

“One thing I do remember, he seemed to have intuition when something was going wrong,” said Mary Sheppard-Fries, a nurse who worked with Eneboe between 1977 and 1990. “He was incredibly suited to be a small-town doctor. Everyone in the middle of the night will have their moments, but he was always available.”

When Eneboe’s intuition failed, hospital personnel or police were sometimes called upon to summon the doctor.

In a small hospital with a small staff, it wasn’t just the doctor who had to be ready to respond when needed.

“Eneboe used to say, ‘If I’ve got to come in, you’ve got to come in.’ I kind of didn’t take it too well when he said it to me, because I’d grumble under my breath, but I got used to it,” said Bob Shroyer, a radiologist who began working at the hospital in 1979.

The work demands on Shroyer and his wife, Marilyn, a nurse, required the couple be creative to meet their family responsibilities.

“When Marilyn was working and I had the kids, I would have to bring the kids with me. So I had a big cardboard box I’d put them in and bring them along,” Shroyer said of a solution that worked until their son Spencer managed to get himself out of the box and crawled down the hospital hall.

“Then we actually got a babysitter to be on call,” said Marilyn Shroyer.

In 1974, Dr. Larry Reynolds was looking for a place to practice medicine, a place smaller than the area of California where he and his wife, Cheryl, were from. Someplace that offered a simpler way of life. After they arrived in Homer, Eneboe suggested they consider Seldovia. It turned out to be the type of setting the couple were seeking. A pilot, Reynolds would fly patients in need of hospital-level care across the bay to Homer and then fly back and forth to care for them.

“Eneboe is a wonderful gentleman doctor who is knowledgeable and has devoted many years to what he does. He’s an amazing man. I’ve always had great respect for him,” said Reynolds.

Soon before their son Shaun was born in August 1980, Reynolds and his wife flew to Homer. When 10 other women also went into labor, more than Eneboe and Reynolds could handle on their own, Eneboe’s networking came in handy and an Anchorage doctor flew to Homer to help out.

Dr. Guilia Tortora followed in Eneboe’s footsteps in Bethel, working there as a USPHS doctor from 1990-1992. In 1994, attracted by Homer’s natural beauty and hearing a doctor was needed, Tortora came to Homer.

“(Eneboe) and I had this thing in common, working in Bethel. He could remember a lot of the elder patients I took care of. It was a really nice connection,” Tortora said.

Asked what makes Eneboe a good small-town doctor, Tortora told the story of Eneboe telling a patient with a number of medical problems that, “Everything looks wonderful today.”

“Oh, I could just kiss you on your little bald head,” the patient said.

Eneboe responded by leaning forward and accepting his patient’s appreciative kiss.

Along with praise, nurses’ comments about Eneboe invariably turn to his handwriting.

“He doesn’t like computers, but the nurses do because at least then we can read his orders,” said Sue Brooks, clinical care coordinator of the hospital’s Long Term Care unit. “We’d try and then finally have to say, ‘Go to Jane (Varney) — she’ll know.’”

Varney said after working with Eneboe for a number of years, she learned to decipher his writing. She also learned of his fondness for raspberry pie, and, before her retirement, made sure she had enough homegrown berries set aside to ensure Eneboe’s favorite treat was available on special occasions.

Part of a community known for residents speaking their mind, Eneboe has joined in the public debate over the years, and not always on the winning side. In the 1980s, his arguments against introducing football as a sport at Homer High School drew the attention of Homer News cartoonist Mike O’Meara.

“There was lots of community pressure to establish football in and out of local schools,” O’Meara said. “(Eneboe) was way ahead of his time, understanding how dangerous such head-bashing was for people. He struggled valiantly to oppose the movement through educating everyone about the potential harm playing the game could cause, especially in the young.”

Before the hospital’s most recent hospital expansion, Eneboe spoke out in opposition to the two-phase project. In 2003, a borough ballot asked voters to weigh in on $17 million for capital improvements and the issuance of up to $10.5 million in obligation bonds to fund the first phase. In 2007, they weighed in on Phase II with a price tag not to exceed $14.7 million.

“There’s no question expansion was needed and in retrospect it worked out very well,” said Dr. Randy Wiest, former Homer Medical Center physician who was the hospital’s chief of staff at the time. “I think he … was kind of remembering Homer as it was, not how it was going to become.”

When both propositions passed, Eneboe “was respectful, the community went for it and it’s been good since then,” said Wiest. “He spoke his mind, but in a way that didn’t offend others.”

Wiest, whose father also was a small-town doctor, found in Eneboe a father-figure and an admirable communicator, “a peacemaker. He could smooth ruffled feelings, is a soothing kind of guy that could placate big egos and people who had their ire up. He was very good at that.”

Eneboe’s care for others and his communication skills have bridged a gap sometimes evident in hospitals.

“He’s really interested in what’s going on in your life,” said. “Yes, he sees the residents, but if you have something going on in your life, he’s interested in you, too.”

Sheppard-Fries had a similar memory of her time working with Eneboe.

“When I was director of nursing, he’d stop every morning in my office and chat. Sometimes about something medical, sometimes it was just two friends chatting,” she said. “I think that was my first introduction working as an equal with a physician.”

Eneboe now reigns as medical director of South Peninsula Hospital’s 28-bed, 4,693-square-foot Long Term Care unit.

“A lot of my patients were getting older and I got interested in geriatrics,” said Eneboe, who did his geriatric boards through the American Geriatrics Society in the late 1980s and now focuses on geriatrics, with an emphasis on dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Susan Shover, a nurse who has worked with Eneboe in numerous settings in the hospital, including LTC, said in addition to him being a good advocate for residents, Eneboe’s relaxed manner makes him approachable.

“It’s kind of funny because people might have a loved one in LTC and they’ll come in and look for Dr. Eneboe and he’ll be sitting there at the nurses station, wearing his bib overalls, splattered with pottery, and we’d say, ‘That’s Dr. Eneboe right there’ and the people get used to it because he’s so down to earth. He draws people in and they feel comfortable sharing with him,” said Shover.

As a youngster in Bozeman, Montana, Eneboe became fascinated with pottery while watching an artist at work.

“My work is chaotic, confused, sometimes sad. Pottery is very peaceful; you get centered and can kind of regroup. It’s meditative and at the same time creative,” he said. “There’s something useful in the end. It’s always been my ‘psychiatrist,’ where I go to regroup.”

The resulting platters, cups, and bowls, affectionately known locally as “Enebowls,” line the shelves of Eneboe’s studio, are frequent donations for fundraisers and are coveted items in homes of friends and fans, alike.

After Homer potter Paul Dungan found himself in need of a studio, Eneboe invited him to share space in the studio Eneboe has built next to his home. The two — Dungan a gifted, commercial potter and Eneboe a full-time physician who has turned to pottery simply for the enjoyment it brings — found a rhythm that allowed them to work side-by-side. Sometimes the conversation would focus on Eneboe’s grandchildren and Dungan’s children. Sometimes on potting techniques. Sometimes the conversation would drift off as the two became immersed in the shapes taking place in their hands, only to be picked up again later. When Dungan began building his own studio, Eneboe lent a hand. Out of that time together has come “a lovely and unique relationship,” said Dungan.

In 2006, the two potters applied to exhibit at Bunnell Street Gallery.

“They said we were both highly respected in the town and they wanted to give us each solo shows. We said, ‘Sorry, that’s not our proposal,’” said Dungan of the resulting two-artist exhibit that allowed the community “to see two Pauls.”

On Aug. 8, 2018, 50 years from the day he saw his first Homer patient, Eneboe was surprised with a celebration honoring that landmark and organized by the Long Term Care unit.

Kim Greer, acute care services director for SPH, put together a skit that poked fun at the doctor’s notoriously poor handwriting. The squiggly lines Greer had written across the page in imitation of Eneboe’s penmanship could only be “read” when an actual tried-and-true method was disclosed.

“We used to turn the paper upside down and we could get more out of it, so that’s what we did,” said Greer, laughing.

Uncomfortable with being in the spotlight, Eneboe took the event in stride.

“Afterwards he sent a very gracious note that usually he sees diabolical plots developing, but he hadn’t seen that one,” said Helen McGaw, LTC nursing director.

In the years since Eneboe first walked in the back door of Homer’s fledgling hospital, there has been considerable growth in the medical care available to the expanding population. In 1970, Homer was a city of less than 2,000 and now has more than 5,000 residents; the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area boasts slightly less than 14,000 residents. The result of a partnership between the City of Homer and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the hospital has expanded to 22 medical beds and 28 nursing beds. It employs more than 400 local residents, has 20 physicians and two surgeons on staff, and boasts a state-of-the-art imaging department and lab that far exceed what Eneboe was able to do with his X-ray machine and medical school microscope.

“One of the things, as I look back on my life, is having been part of something that started from basically nothing, was very modest, and has evolved into a full-service, complex hospital with MRI and CT-scans, a pretty sophisticated hospital,” Eneboe said.

What has allowed Homer to develop such a strong medical presence while other Alaskan communities of equal size have not?

“Over the years that’s one of the things that’s puzzled me and I’ve thought about it a lot,” said Eneboe. His answer lies in the trust residents have in the care that’s provided. As Eneboe put it, “I think it’s basically because the people in town use the hospital here in Homer.”

In addition to the wide network of medical professionals Eneboe has drawn upon to provide Homer with the care needed, he also encouraged medical students to come to Homer. One of those was Dr. Bill Bell, Barbara Petersen’s brother. Bell came to Homer to work in a cannery with his sister, met Eneboe, and, at Eneboe’s invitation, returned as a third-year medical student.

“(Eneboe) was the only doctor in town. Twenty-four/seven is a lot to ask for anybody. … We got a bonus when Dr. Bell came. If there was an emergency, he was there,” said Mary Raymond.

Now retired, Raymond worked as a nurse after coming to Homer in 1977, when Eneboe was the only doctor in town.

In 1981, Eneboe welcomed Bell into his practice of family medicine in Homer. A few years later they launched Homer Medical Clinic, moving from their hospital ground floor offices into a new building a block away. On the back of a 1985 photo that shows the clinic still so new it lacks signs is noted the clinic’s medical staff. It includes doctors Eneboe and Bell, Eneboe’s wife Bette as the clinic’s one nurse, and two midwives: Bell’s wife Mary Lou Kelsey, as well as Stephanie Struber.

The clinic has continued to grow over the years, along with the area’s population and advances in medicine. It now boasts 16 providers and is the largest family practice on the Kenai Peninsula.

Looking back at more than 30 years of working together, Bell says the greatest lesson Eneboe taught him was “how to interact with people, a wide variety of people. … Even now he’s still a mentor. We’ll sit down and talk about cases, run through different ideas.”

That decades-long partnership and resulting friendship is equally valued by Eneboe.

“I have been extremely fortunate to have two great partners in my life. One is my wife. She’s foremost and has been the most wonderful wife in the world, I could not have survived without her,” said Eneboe. “The other is Bill Bell, my medical partner who is another super person that really made the practice of medicine fun and worthwhile. I’ve been very fortunate to have those great partners in my life.”

Bette Eneboe’s importance in her husband’s life and Eneboe’s importance to Homer are evident to those who, in the past 50 years, have come to know them.

“A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were driving around out on the Spit and I don’t see Eneboe’s wife Bette very much, but both he and Bette were out there taking a walk,” said Varney. “That, to me, is a good picture. If he’s been at the hospital 50 years, I don’t know how long he’s been married, but you can just feel that there’s a deep love there. He’s a good guy.”

Eneboe’s first impressions of the area he has served for more than a half century come to mind. In 1966, having driving to the tip of the Spit, a 4-mile stretch of gravel reaching out into Kachemak Bay, Eneboe, Bette and their young son Paul were enjoying a picnic of fresh crab they’d purchased for $1 from a local cannery.

“And we said we were going to move to Homer. This was it,” Eneboe recalled.

The connection he felt then still burns bright.

“It doesn’t look like he’s slowing down,” said Bell. “He continues to look really good.”

In addition to working in Bethel and Homer, Eneboe was on staff at Alaska Native Service and Providence hospitals in Anchorage in 1968. He has been active with the Alaska State Medical Association and been a member of the Kenai Peninsula Medical Society, Alaska State Medical Association, American Medical Association and American Academy of General Practitioners.

By McKibben Jackinsky for South Peninsula Hospital. For more information, contact Derotha Ferraro, SPH Marketing and Public Relations Director, 907-235-0397, dbf@sph.org.