Dr. Robert Smith

Jun 4, 2024

The Richland Hospital and Clinics will be turning 100 years old in 2024. As part of our centennial celebration, we’re highlighting staff members whose long commitment to the organization has helped shape who we are. Without dedicated team members like these, we couldn’t do what we do.

Dr. Robert Smith started caring for patients at the Richland Medical Center in 1980. In total, he’s been a part of our organization for over 40 years, having had a “brief sojourn” teaching at a family practice residency in Iowa.

Originally from northern Illinois, Dr. Smith and his wife set out on another sojourn of sorts as he was nearing the end of his family practice residency. “We had a map of Wisconsin,” Smith recalls, “and there was an ‘H’ in each town that had a hospital. We researched all the hospitals in southern Wisconsin and visited the communities that seemed most promising.” The couple wanted to find a place to settle down not too far from their extended families. Richland Center seemed like a good fit, and during the interview process, Dr. Smith heard what he needed to solidify his choice: “The doctors were interested in medicine for the right reasons—they were interested in caring for patients.”

After 40 years of practice with TRHC, Dr. Smith seems to have made the right choice. “It’s been so rewarding to work here through the years, to be able to work with so many wonderful nurses and therapists and other staff members—every department, really, the people at TRHC over the years have been exceptional.”

Working with patients, of course, has also been a source of deep fulfillment for Dr. Smith. His years of experience have affirmed the huge benefit that having personal relationships with patients has on their outcomes. “A personal relationship changes the whole dynamic,” he says, “and it helps patients get better.” Smith says when patients have gotten to know a doctor over many years, they trust them in a different way. It’s a difference that can reduce anxiety and speed up treatments.

These kinds of relationships, which have made his career so fulfilling, have some unique features in rural health, according to Dr. Smith. Living in a small community, providers see their patients outside the medical environment, such as at the store, at games, and other events. They also meet with them more frequently than a doctor might in a large facility with many specialty departments.

Dr. Smith also notes that a close relationship with a patient can add a layer of complexity. “If there’s a patient who you have a pretty strong bond with, and they have a test that comes back with bad news, it’s a difficult thing,” he says. Being emotionally present with patients in those moments is difficult, but it makes a difference to the patient and to the provider. “It’s a very deep feeling,” Smith says.

Over the years, Dr. Smith has had to share many difficult moments with patients, but he’s also been present for many joys. At the beginning of his time here, he had an active obstetrics practice, even performing c-sections. Over the years, his focus changed.

In the late 80s, Dr. Killian Meyer of the Richland Medical Center retired. Dr. Meyer had a large practice at Pine Valley Nursing Home. Dr. Smith took over those patients and “discovered a huge passion for geriatric care.” In 1988, a new specialty exam was offered for certification in geriatric care. “For a year I got up early every morning to study for 30 or 45 minutes before the kids were awake.” The exam was very challenging, and Dr. Smith was pleased that he was able to pass.

Since that time, his practice has focused on caring for older patients. In 1999, Smith worked with Philomena Poole, Mary Collins, and Ryan Elliot to open the Geriatric Assessment Clinic, which provided assessments and resources for people experiencing memory loss and dementia. It was one of the first of such clinics offered in a rural area within the state and was affiliated with the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute.

Decades of working with older patient populations has sharpened Dr. Smith’s sense of time’s fickle nature: “There’s no guarantee your health is going to hold up, so you better do the things you want to do now.” For Smith, that includes traveling to visit his children and grandchildren who are dispersed around the country. He and his wife are also trying to visit as many national parks as they can. So far, they’ve visited more than 30. Smith says Rocky Mountain National Park has a special place in his heart. He described a “magical hike” in the park: “You come around a bend in the trail and all of a sudden there is this pristine lake and these snow-covered mountains reflecting into the lake,” he pauses dreamily. “It’s just a magical, mystical experience.”

We’re grateful that first magical, medical tour Dr. Smith and his wife took through Wisconsin brought them to Richland Center.