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'An honor and a joy': Bitterroot Valley doctor retires after nearly 50 years

'An honor and a joy': Bitterroot Valley doctor retires after nearly 50 years

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Dr. Walker Ashcraft has retired after nearly 50 years of providing medical care in the Bitterroot Valley.

“It has been an honor and a joy,” Ashcraft said on Wednesday. “I am the luckiest guy in the world to have had the opportunity to work at Marcus Daly for so many years with such a great and competent medical staff, and care for so many amazing patients.”

Ashcraft started at a time when general practitioners were “country doctors” performing every needed medical service from surgery to baby delivery - taking care of every aspect of a person’s life.

Ashcraft was born in Missoula and grew up in Western Montana. He went to a surgical resident program at the LDS hospital in Salt Lake City, then was drafted from medical school during the early part of the Vietnam War. He completed his three-year Air Force commitment in Spain as a base surgeon.

He was set to return to his surgical resident program, when he received a call from his old family doctor, who had moved to Hamilton.

“He said ‘Come into practice with me. You can do all the surgery here you wanted to do,’” Ashcraft said. “I always thought Hamilton was the best place in the state and I couldn’t pass that up.”

Ashcraft said that doctor left to join the Peace Corps, and he had two partners who didn’t last at the demanding job.

“It was hectic. You were on call every other night and every other weekend,” he said. “Then Dr. (John) Moreland came along around the time we moved into the new hospital, about 1975.”

Ashcraft said the pace was not sustainable and was relieved with Dr. Stephen Ellis came to town. Other doctors followed and Ashcraft’s job changed a bit at a time.

“We didn’t have CAT scans, MRIs or even ultrasounds. We had to rely on physical diagnosis and x-ray,” he said. “We were doing procedures that are no longer done – like exploratory laparotomies – meaning if someone had something wrong with their abdomen, you simply opened them up and looked to see what was wrong.”

Ashcraft said technology made the practice of medicine simpler and the specialists coming in made his life less hectic.

“Little by little our lives became somewhat easier,” he said. “The big changes came with the advent of hospitalists and electronic medical records. Initially, I thought I would die in my office, but when the workload decreased I decided I might survive to retirement.”

Ashcraft said he guesses he has delivered more than 2,000 babies, and isn't really ready to retire. Yet he has land to work, hobbies to pursue and will continue as Medical Director of Hospice as well as oversee the satellite clinics in Darby and Victor. 

“I was really lucky to have found something I really like,” he said. “The love for my job hasn’t changed. I could do this job as long as I was physically and mentally capable of doing it. There’s nothing I’d rather do but when you get close to 80-years old people regard you as ready to retire.

“I can’t think of a profession that you have a feeling of accomplishment and the gratitude you get from patients as a reward for what you do."

Nurses Karen Wolsky and Judith Nordman started working for Ashcraft in 1999.

“That’s 18 years,” Nordman said. “I wore my track shoes just to keep up.”

Emily Denney, a doctor of osteopathy (DO), will replace Ashcraft.

Denney was a former major in the Air Force on active duty in Delaware. She said she is looking forward to getting to know the community and multiple generations of families.

“We wanted to come to the mountains and this is a great place to raise our girls,” Denney said. “My patients call me engaged, compassionate and determined.”

Denny said her practice focuses on a holistic approach.

“We look at the whole body structure, function and mental health - all interacting for wellness,” she said. “We do a bit of manipulation, it’s a different approach. We do everything including surgery and a bit of acupuncture.”

That holistic approach also includes treating the whole family, from women's health and to pediatrics - kind of a "cradle to geriatrics" approach.

“I’m a young mother so I can relate to the complexities of motherhood," Denney said. "I love babies – that’s where my heart is. I balance work and life and motherhood.”

Kim Suckow, director of Physician Services at the hospital, praised Ashcraft.

“Thank you for all of your years of dedication to this hospital, the community and the patients you have served,” Suckow said. “You will be greatly missed.”

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