Kolanchick to hang up his stethoscope, pick up a kayak paddle
HILLTOWNS — After 32 years of tending to others, Dr. Gary Kolanchick plans to take some time for himself. The longtime Hilltown doctor announced this week that he’ll spend the next year helping a new doctor learn the ropes at his rural practice and then he’ll move to Kittery, Maine, where he and his partner, Patrick, have a home.
Kolanchick, who is 61, knew he wanted to be a doctor since he was a boy. “When I was 10, I almost died of appendicitis,” he recalled.
He fell ill the weekend that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, riveting the nation’s attention. “My appendix ruptured,” he said.
He then spent most of fifth grade in Albany Medical Center. When Kolanchick left the hospital to go home, he recalled, “I turned to my mother and said, ‘I want to be a doctor. I know most of it already.’”
After graduating from Guilderland High School in 1971, he entered a pre-med program, majoring in biology, at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and then went to Albany Medical School, returning to the very hospital that had nursed him back to health as a child.
He went on to complete a three-year residency in family medicine in Syracuse at St. Joseph’s Hospital before joining Dr. Margery Smith in her family practice in Berne. Smith, an icon among country doctors — Good Housekeeping named her one of the country’s top family doctors in 1979 — practiced from the farm of her husband, Harry Garry.
“I was there for 13 years, with the cows looking in the back windows, and no air-conditioning,” said Kolanchick. “I’d go back to those days in a minute.”
He went on about medical practice in the United States, “It’s not what it used to be.”
Kolanchick set up his own practice in Berne, on the Helderberg Trail, right next to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools.
Asked, looking back over the years, if he had one shining moment that stood out in his career, Kolanchick said, “There were many, many twinkling moments, little victories here and there.”
He described running into patients in the grocery store and being told, “You said to lose weight,” or some other piece of advice and the patient was happy to have followed the advice and now had improved health.
Kolanchick described one patient he first saw in 1996. He told the man he should walk every day. Then, the next day, he saw the man walking by his office. Kolanchick saw him the next day, too, and the day after that.
“Nearly 20 years later, I can set my watch by him, going by the office,” said Kolanchick. The man hasn’t needed any further health care.
Another aspect of his job he has valued is “making friends” with his patients, “being part of people’s lives for a long time,” he said.
“A lot of my patients have been with me the whole time,” Kolanchick said, noting he’s treated four generations of some families. “And they’re still with us,” he said.
But such responsibility creates a strain. “I promised myself, when I was doing seven days a week, 24/7, carrying a beeper, I’d retire young,” said Kolanchick. “I knew I would not be able to retire here. I still have people drop trou in the Price Chopper,” he said of patients seeking diagnoses.
He took a long walk in 2010 with Dr. Chester Caster, a part-time associate, older than Kolanchick, who told him, “You’ve given a lot of years. You don’t owe them anything. Give a year’s notice.”
So that is what he’s doing, but it has been a four-year search to find a doctor who would replace him. Kolanchick teaches at Ellis Hospital and had a series of young doctors do internships at his Berne practice to try it out.
“They would spend a month and say, ‘I love the patients, the staff is great, but I don’t want to run a business. I don’t want to work from seven in the morning to seven at night,’” he recalled. “After three or four tries, it was apparent no doctor would come.”
So Kolanchick contacted CapitalCare Medical Group, which assumed his practice in 2011. It was a smooth transition, he said, with CapitalCare giving his staff members the seniority they had earned.
“In July 2011, we became part of this huge corporation,” he said. “That January, by the grace of God, Ellis called and said a fourth-year medical student wanted a rural rotation.”
Kristin Mack arrived on the scene and, said Kolanchick, “In two weeks, I knew God sent me my replacement.” She grew up in the country, said Kolanchick, and is married to a “brilliant pianist” and opera composer. They live in McKownville and have two young sons — Carter, 5, and Henry, 2.
“She’s very bright. She’s going to do OB,” said Kolanchick of obstetrics, “which Berne has never had…We’ll keep families as a full unit.” (The Enterprise will run a feature on Dr. Mack before she starts practicing in Berne on Sept. 3.)
Now Kolanchick is anticipating his future in Maine, where he hopes to teach at a nearby hospital. His partner is also retired, from General Electric. They’ve been together for 33 years, and got married in 2011 as soon as same-sex marriage was legal in New York State.
“It took us six years to find the corner of the country where we wanted to be,” said Kolanchick. They would take long weekend trips to scout out the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the South.
The couple bought a beach home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi just before Hurricane Katrina hit. “It got wiped out,” said Kolanchick.
Their house in Kittery is “40 feet off the water, built on rock instead of three feet off, built on sand,” he said, and it’s on a peninsula.
“Pat wants to get a boat,” he said but Kolanchick is not sure he wants that much responsibility.
“I just want to get out in my kayak and explore the inlets,” he said, “or ride my bike up to Bob’s for a lobster roll.”