Dr. Tom Birkey, ’61, Celebrates RPAP’s Anniversary by Starting New Student Scholarship

Dr. Tom Birkey

Every summer, a young Tom Birkey, ’61 MD, spent two weeks with his grandparents in an Illinois township of 70 people. There, he grew fond of two cultural aspects that, later, became the focal point of his career — the friendly wave and chit-chat from almost everyone in town and the impactful leadership of the “small town doc.”

“I remember that I ended up in the doctor’s office two years in a row. One time, I caught a rotten apple in the eye, and the other time, it was a fish bone in my throat,” Dr. Birkey laughed. “I loved that my grandfather knew the doctor and had known him for years. I thought if I could make it happen, I’d like to be a general practitioner, too.”

Originally from Milwaukee, before moving to the Twin Cities area at the age of eight, Dr. Birkey knew, eventually, his big city roots would find new ground in small town Minnesota. He just needed the grades.

“I wasn’t on the honor roll or anything like that, so I wasn’t sure if I would make it into medical school to actually become a physician, but I worked hard,” he admitted.

That dedication landed him a spot in the 1961 class of about 100 medical students at the University of Minnesota Medical School. After graduating, he interned at Hennepin County Medical Center for one year, where he “rode the ambulance for a while, experienced surgery, internal medicine, otolaryngology and ophthalmology, too,” he noted. Then, the Vietnam War draft called.

“They said as soon as my internship ended on July 1, they planned to issue me a draft letter within 10 days,” Dr. Birkey said. “It was bad timing because my wife and I had already booked a four- or five-week trip to Europe for right after my internship. The draft board recommended I start visiting with different programs to find ones that had a delayed start.”

Six months post-internship, Dr. Birkey began his service to the U.S. as a Naval flight surgeon, where “they actually taught their flight surgeons how to fly,” he said. Two and a half years later, in 1965, Dr. Birkey completed his time with the Navy and moved to Montevideo, Minn. He joined Norman L. Hagberg, MD, at only one of two family medicine practices in town, finally, beginning his childhood dream of serving as “the small town doc.”

“One day, we got a call from the dean of the Medical School, saying they had a problem,” Dr. Birkey recalled. “He told us they were starting to see this trend that, once students finished their medical degree, they wanted to do a speciality, so that they could make more money and live in a bigger city.”

This trend was not unknown to Dr. Birkey and Dr. Hagberg who had been discussing the idea themselves, knowing that, one day, they would need to retire.

“The dean mentioned that Dr. Jack Verby wanted to start a program that would create a network of rural physicians who could help medical students experience the good things of being a small town doctor,” he said.

That network, the Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP), began in 1971. Dr. Birkey and Dr. Hagberg became two of the very first preceptors, who for nine months every year, hosted a third-year medical student to experience the lifestyle of a rural family medicine physician. Until 2000, when Dr. Birkey retired, the duo had welcomed more than 24 students to their clinic over the span of 29 years. Their contributions through RPAP, now celebrating its 50th class, has helped influence the trajectories of more than 1,600 medical students.

But, Dr. Birkey’s legacy to RPAP did not end there. In fact, it will continue, now in perpetuity, thanks to his $50,000 gift to create an endowed scholarship for students who completed RPAP and are interested in a career in rural family medicine.

“I still think medicine is falling short of getting doctors to small town family practices,” Dr. Birkey said. “But, RPAP continues to chip away at that problem by interesting medical students in a career that has a real variety of practice — taking care of adults, taking care of children, doing some surgery, doing some obstetrics. Supporting this program is one of the first things that came to my mind.”

For more information about RPAP, to make a gift or to share an RPAP memory, visit the program’s anniversary page. To create your own scholarship, contact Elsa Scheie, Development Officer, at escheie@umn.edu or 612-625-7947.

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