Josh Wagner struggles to find the right key to unlock the door to his mother’s clinic on First Street in Hamilton. But like so much of the effort he’s undergone since Alexis Wagner died, he perseveres and eventually opens the door into his mother’s family practice clinic.
It’s quiet and empty this morning, but the walls are a warm sage color in the building owned by his mother, which also houses chiropractic, naturopathic, and holistic health care services. Josh Wagner first goes into the basement, a subterranean sitting area warmed by a small stove and lit by white lights in wine bottles. This is where Alexis Wagner took refuge and found peace after busy days of caring for others.
“She defied a lot of social conventions,” he says with a smile. “She was curious; a scientist, a lover of literature and art, a traveler and adventurer who was always pushing the envelope.
“She also was a bit of a prankster,” he adds, climbing up the stairs past a sign that warns “No stupid people beyond this point.”
Josh Wagner, who is a writer and editor, was researching a book in Japan when his mother took her life in October. Initially, he wasn’t sure how to move forward.
But like his mother, who knew medicine was never a closed book and the body was one of the great mysteries, Josh Wagner decided that with the help of others, he would preserve her legacy of providing low-cost, holistic health care by keeping her practice open.
“My first thought, being very emotional, is that no matter what happens I’m keeping the clinic open, keep mom’s legacy alive,” Josh Wagner said. “But once the dust settled and reality set in, when I put together the numbers, I realized it was mom’s income that floated this place. She gave people cheap rent, and with her patients, she only marked items up by $3, or $5, just to keep health care as affordable as possible.”
He expected that finding someone like his mother would be difficult, and prepared for a long search. But the moment he met Dr. Angela Haugo — the first doctor he interviewed — everything fell into place.
Haugo will join Sharon Demorest, Rene Goddard and Jim Kostecki at the clinic, and they’re hosting a grand re-opening from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 19.
“Angela used to be a medical practitioner, but got out of the field because of the headaches and bureaucracy,” Josh Wagner said. “She became a wellness coach, but told me she missed seeing patients and wanted to do both. She told me her philosophy about medicine, and I thought, ‘That sounds just like mom.’”
Demorest added that everyone pulled together to keep the clinic open.
“The public was wondering where to go when they are ill,” she said. “They spoke out, saying through tears that when you’re sick, this is where they want to go.”
Alexis Wagner was born in Japan, and traveled the world as an Air Force brat. She earned two degrees, one as a nurse practitioner and the other as a physician assistant. She moved to Hamilton in 1986, working in the emergency room at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital and at the Bitterroot Clinic before opening her own shop in 2004.
She left, but returned to Hamilton in 2010 and started a new clinic in 2013.
“Alexis ran an excellent practice; it was all about giving the community affordable health care,” Demorest said. “People could come in here — it didn’t matter if she had a full load already, but she would stay for the person with an ear ache or whatever.
“She treated each individual as a human being. There was no ‘get in, get out,’ but she would find out what’s going on in their lives. If a health coach, a chiropractor or a naturopath was better for that client, she would refer them. She practiced holistic, integrated care.”
Alexis Wagner's spirit of giving without seeking much in return will live on at the clinic.
“We want to keep people well,” Demorest said. “Compassion is big for this community. I really feel Dr. Haugo will fit the bill, and she also has the energy to take this on.”