Two years ago, Dr. Roy Miller, who in 1980 helped launch the Sheepscot Valley Health Center (SVHC) in Coopers Mills, stopped delivering babies. The family practitioner said, “I can’t get up at night and also spend the day at the health center.” Moreover, time really telescoped when he started delivering the babies of women he had delivered decades ago.
Miller started out 30 years ago in a small space – a trailer, staffed with a nurse, physician’s assistant and secretary. Today, he still has a “roommate,” a recently hired doctor, in his tiny cramped office.
But space restrictions appear secondary to the intimate circle created by face-to-face interaction with patients, coworkers and others. Miller seems, over the years, to have taken in stride the tight quarters and hovering staffers closely packed into a 19th century retrofitted Baptist church.
SVHC is the oldest of 11 health centers run by HealthReach Community Health Centers, based in Waterville. Now with six providers, seven nurses, a manager and seven front office and medical records workers, it has a patient load of more than 1000 visits a month.
Miller was recently honored at a special luncheon and presented a plaque for his years of service, not only as a doctor but as a dedicated community member. Next door in Somerville, he and his wife Lisa built their home 29 years ago and raised a family.
He has also been a school and summer camp physician and served long terms, as has Lisa, on the local school committee. More recently, they’ve established college scholarships for Cony High School and Erskine Academy students.
The Whitefield Lions Club and the Windsor Ambulance service, in whose vehicle most of the young men were dying, worked alongside a community board to find a solution. The need to treat an underserved population and the availability of federal funds led to the establishment of SVHC. It offers patients a sliding fee scale for payment and still welcomes “folks who wouldn’t be able to afford healthcare otherwise. That’s really satisfying,” Miller said.
“We bought equipment and set up in a house trailer in the parking lot. The first year the pipes froze.” A board member, Elizabeth Jameson, “came and wrapped them,” Miller recalled.
As if indicating he doesn’t have a monopoly on dedication, Miller said many original board members still serve, “off and on,” on the volunteer panel, including Sam Birch, Sharon Parenteau, and Karen Boynton.
Dedication is the word that pops up for Connie Coggins, CEO of parent company Health Reach. Between 2000 and 2004, Coggins was the SVHC practice manager. And yes, she too shared an office with Miller.
“When I think of him, it’s his dedication to the community, his longevity there. And he’s energetic.” Of the doctor’s longtime service to friends and neighbors, she said, “It’s an incredible legacy, and it’s unusual in today’s world to live in the community where you practice.”
In addition, Miller has given back to his profession by helping to train the next generation. Medical school students have shadowed him, as have residents at the Augusta-based Family Medicine Institute with which the health center partners.
“I don’t know how much longer we’ll see that as people move around more,” Coggins said. “People who go into family medicine are mission driven. They want a long term relationship with patients and to get to know them in the context of their social structure.”
Choosing family practice over a specialty, which can pay from five to eight times more, is tough for today’s medical students, who graduate with huge debts, Miller said. “They get seduced into specializing.”
In family medicine, the focus is on prevention – Pap smears, diabetes testing, smoking cessation programs, and cholesterol screening, for example. Next is treatment of minor illnesses, figuring out the cause of rashes and sore throats, and then potentially life threatening situations that require immediate treatment to prevent a tragedy. There is also “just watching.” Prenatal care is offered up to the 36th week of pregnancy.
Other common problems involve behavioral health, especially family violence – an unrelentingly “huge problem,” Miller said, along with alcohol and drug abuse. In the last several years, he has been encouraged by a new drug treatment that satisfies the addict’s longing while he or she undergoes counseling to kick the habit.
Miller said Suboxone, in contrast to methadone clinics, is not a narcotic and its aim is to “get people drug free in two years.” Miller described the center’s program, which requires professional training and which is full at present, as innovative “and exciting” for a health provider 30 years into his career.
Miller also serves, not surprisingly, on the board of the Boys and Girls Club, in Augusta. Right now a key project is to finish a skateboard park in the Capitol City.
Skateboarding isn’t just a kids’ sport, guys in their 30s do it, Miller has learned. His focus, however, is on getting school kids outside, away from the computer screen. “If you keep them busy after school, they aren’t doing drugs. Keep them safe and active.”
Sitting in the center’s lunchroom, which is furnished with surplus sofas, a secondhand table and mismatching chairs, Paul Audette, the practice manager since last December, said, “Roy is the same with everyone, rich, poor, wherever you’re from.”
He still comes to the center when on call, like the Sunday he came in to see two youngsters instead of diagnosing over the telephone. “Roy keeps fresh with everyone. It’s rare to see that…You’d think after 30 years you’d develop skepticism, hardness, but no. What we may see as a red flag in someone, he’ll point to as the strides that person has made,” the manager said. “He’s been a pioneer in seeing that patients with drug problems get the care they need.”
Now that the center has received federal stimulus money to renovate primarily the first floor, earlier talk of finding a new location for the growing practice has subsided.
“Roy is very interested in seeing this progress” – and in seeing his patients progress. Every time one of his Suboxone clients graduates, Audette said, “Roy makes up a diploma, a nice one, that they’ll actually want to put on their fridge.”