Reception for the recently retired Dr. Lesley Fernow will be Oct. 28 at the Center Theatre
DOVER-FOXCROFT — As of the end of last month, Dr. Lesley Fernow of Dover-Foxcroft has retired from the practice of medicine after 38 continuous years in the region. Patients, family members of patients and others are invited to a community reception for Dr. Fernow — who will be staying in town and said she looks to get more involved in the community in various volunteer capacities — from 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28 at the Center Theatre.
An internist, Dr. Fernow operated her Fernow Medical Associates private solo practice from 1979 to 2017. She started Fernow House Calls, PC, a house call only practice, in Maine and in Norwalk, Conn. in 2006. In 2009 she closed her office to handle only house calls, palliative care and hospice and nursing home care. Dr. Fernow continued to have the house call practices in both states until closing the Connecticut branch in June. Her last day before retirement was Sept. 30.
Severals weeks into her retirement Dr. Fernow said it is only now that she realizes how busy she was with the many scheduled and unexpected demands of her time. “It didn’t really get to me until recently,” she said. “Once I made the decision it was time to retire, which was hard, I wanted it done. So I was ready.”
The year before Dr. Fernow came to Dover-Foxcroft Mayo Regional Hospital was built. “They were looking for doctors to fill the hospital so they were advertising,” she said.
Dr. Fernow said she and her husband Dr. David Frasz, an ophthalmologist, “were both in our residencies and we answered an ad in the Journal of American Medical Association. There were two ads, they were about a quarter of an inch high and they were about two lines and one said internist needed in central Maine and the other said ophthalmologist needed in Central Maine. They were right next to each other and he and I looked at each other and said ‘this has got to be for us.’”
“So we came up here in March 1979. Now March is not the best season,” Dr. Fernow said with a laugh. “We got off the plane in Bangor and there was a snowstorm and there were people heading down from the Greenville direction with a foot of snow on the hoods of their car and we thought ‘Are we in the right place? Is this really for us?’”
She said they stayed at the Blethen House and Mayo Regional Hospital staff “were so good to us and so real, so genuine.” Dr. Fernow continued, “We had been looking in other states and other places so we had a fair amount of experience meeting hospital administrators and doctors in various communities and this community just clearly won our hearts.”
In 1979 Dr. Fernow, who had her residency in internal medicine at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, and Dr. Frasz moved to the area. She said Mayo Regional Hospital paid their moving expenses and offered the couple office space in the second floor of what is now the old hospital building, rent-free and set up to meet the doctors’ needs.
“That’s all, there was no guaranteed salary, no salary at all, we just hung up our shingles and went to work and we earned what we made,” Dr. Fernow said. “We didn’t have to pay rent but we had to pay our own employee, and that was OK with us.
She said today doctors have guaranteed salaries and other benefits but “we were satisfied with that, we felt rich, we felt like we had fallen into this great deal.”
Starting in the area, Dr. Fernow said she had a number of patients as many residents preferred to stay in the area rather than travel to Bangor or elsewhere.
“I did have a little trouble with some of the older docs that were here then,” she said. “When I walked into the doctors’ lounge, conversation stopped. They didn’t talk, they just said nothing. There would be complete silence until I left the room.
“But overall I would say it’s been real exciting and fun and what I tell medical students (Dr. Fernow has worked as both an associate and adjunct professor) if you want to practice medicine where you can do pretty much what interests you this is the kind of place to come because in a big city I would not have been able to do any of the interesting things that I did over my career because there are too many other people doing those interesting things that are specialists, subspecialists.
“For example, I started out with a real interest in oncology. Here I was able to run the oncology clinic with the support of the Bangor oncology group my whole career.
“I was able to start a substance abuse treatment program, I was interested in it, I had experience in it and we had some training when I was in New York in that and so I sort of just said this is something I want to be a specialist in and people were referred to me and I started this program in Dexter which ultimately folded because of not enough paying customers, they had Medicaid.
“I was able to do intensive care medicine. I was able to do a lot of high-level medicine and when I felt I wanted to make a change I was able to do that easily.”
Dr. Fernow said the hospital would later start Mayo Practice Associates. “I briefly thought about working for the hospital, I would have probably made more money honestly,” she said. “I interviewed and I realized their values and mine were not really completely aligned and what I really liked about mine being a solo practice was the independence I had to make decisions whenever I wanted to.”
“I was very innovative, I was big into quality and I got involved with various organizations in the state that dealt with quality of medicine and improvements in medical delivery,” she said.
“I started doing open access scheduling, where I basically would leave my schedule completely open for the day,” Dr. Fernow said. She said she first had all time slots filled in advance “but the problem with that if somebody has an emergency they can’t get in.”
“People have had difficulty with access and I started this open access — I had read about it — and basically told my secretary you are going to have 10 slots during the day that are unbooked until the day arrives ,” Dr. Fernow said. “We will let people know they will be seen the day that they call if they have an emergency, so we did that and it worked out fine.”
Dr. Fernow said she started group visits for diabetic patients a decade and a half ago, and now the hospital is doing this as well as open access.
“I had scribes, somebody in my office who would come into the exam room with me and take notes when I was seeing patients so that I didn’t have to type,” she said. “I started with computers in the 1980s, Dr. Frasz and I had computers at that time when it was still DOS.”
“I started giving my patients copies of their medical notes on every visit back when I started,” Dr. Fernow said. She said this is now required but she has been providing patients with their medical information her whole career.
“I was always interested in being on that cutting edge, I always thought that was kind of fun,” Dr. Fernow said.
She said she loved “the connections I have had with patients, I spend time with people if they need it.” Dr. Fernow said even though she was always productive, she saw more patients in a day than other doctors.
“I did it because I had a scribe in my office, I did it because I had two medical assistants instead of just one,” Dr. Fernow said. “These people knew what I had said to the patient because I said it when they were in the room so when the patient called back later and said they had a question they knew.”
“Fortunately Dr. Frasz supported me and I didn’t need to have the kind of income a practitioner here might need if they had a family to support,” she said, as the couple raised three children.
“I’m still doing hospice consultation and I’m still consulting for the Charlotte White Center for their behavioral health home,” Dr. Fernow said. “I still read cardiograms for the hospital. Those are things I can do, there’s a really limited time requirement for those.”
Dr. Fernow has been the president of the Maine Highlands Senior Center for the last half decade. “I’m really eager to get that finished,” she said about the adult day services center to be housed on the first floor of Central Hall.
“It’s a great project,” she said. “It’s within reach, we can see it. We don’t have the money to finish yet. Ultimately we need another $300,000 to really finish the project the way we want to. We have the money to get it open, so we are just waiting on that.”
“The senior center is going to take a lot of time from me and I’m really looking forward to being able to do some things as a volunteer that I have been doing,” she said, such as with Pine Tree Hospice which she helped found three decades ago.
Dr. Fernow said in retirement she is looking forward to being involved in the community and working with others on a number of new improvements. She said while she has always traveled, “I’m hoping to travel with a little less pressure to get back.”
“I’m looking forward to taking better care of myself, I have been the last person on the list of who comes first in my life,” Dr. Fernow said, with patients, family, children, husband, obligations to colleagues and hospital all having been above her.
“Since I have retired I’m kayaking every day or biking or going to the Y or walking, I’m doing that every day and when the sun is out I’m in that kayak or I’m on the bike,” she said. “Balance is the most difficult thing I have had to deal with, balancing all of the responsibilities and obligations. That has been a lifelong project and it’s been very difficult.”
“I think if I were to do it over, I still love internal medicine, I would do more naturopathic medicine,” Dr. Fernow said. “I would do more alternative medicine, I have always been interested in it but I just never could squeeze out the time to do the necessary training.”
Dr. Fernow said she is looking forward to the Oct. 28 reception. “I would really like to see not only former patients but also families of former patients, maybe families of people who are no longer alive,” she said. “I would love to see people whose lives and mine have crossed. Even if they drop in just to say hello and give me a hug, those are the people who have sustained me.”
“I have learned a lot from my patients,” Dr. Fernow said. “When I came here I was brash, I had a lot of rough edges. I was smart, I was a good doctor but I wasn’t very open to human stuff. It’s not that I didn’t believe in it, I just didn’t have time for it.”
She said when she began her career there was still a culture resistant to women doctors and those working in the medical field had to continually prove themselves. “So I had that mindset, scrabbling to get ahead so I was very focused on work and very focused on medicine and gradually over the years my patients have taught me a lot and I maybe just mellowed as people do as they get older,” she said.
“The art of medicine is the important conversations that happen,” Dr. Fernow said. “The opening up to the unspoken conversations that need to be spoken but aren’t and that’s where the magic is. That’s where the soul of medicine is.”
“The soul of medicine is being destroyed right now, in that eight- to 12-minute time slot where a doctor cannot do it,” she said. “They aren’t being given the time or the freedom to do it.”
“I had a gratifying career partly because I allowed myself to be in that soulful space in medicine,” Dr. Fernow said. “I want to thank everybody for allowing me to experience soulful medicine. I just loved what I did and I loved the connections and I just wish there was a way to keep it going.
“I don’t look at this as a party for me, I look at this as an opportunity for me to reconnect with people that made my life so rich.”