Just days into his new job, Peter Karlin already looked at home, bouncing between his office and exam rooms, balancing a growing load of patients.
He seemed to feel at home, too.
Perhaps that’s because he is home.
Karlin, 30, is Eatonville’s newest family doctor and also a native son. He grew up in the Mount Rainier foothills community.
Now he’s joined the MultiCare Eatonville Clinic on Washington Avenue North – the only family practice for miles. He already has a sizeable waiting list.
Karlin said his hometown hasn’t changed much since he left for college more than a decade ago. It gained about 700 residents but still hovers below 3,000. For him, that’s part of the draw.
“You feel like you can make an impact when the community is this small,” he said Tuesday, sitting in his office on a break between patients.
His presence will help fill a need locally and nationally. Experts forecast a growing shortage of physicians in the U.S. over the next several years, including those who work in primary care.
Karlin’s return hasn’t gone unnoticed in the place where his path to medicine began.
People are excited to hear he’s joined the Eatonville clinic, said Dr. Elizabeth Neuhalfen, the other physician who works there. “They tell me all these stories about (his younger days).
“He’s going to be busy.”
The clinic sits on one of Eatonville’s main drags, a few blocks from both the high school and Town Hall.
It started as a private practice in the 1970s and later became a Good Samaritan Hospital clinic. (The Puyallup hospital now is part of MultiCare.)
Thirty to 40 patients are seen at the clinic each weekday, a number that likely will double as Karlin builds up his patient load, Neuhalfen said.
Karlin grew up north of the town limits in a house his parents built on land that once belonged to his grandparents.
His dad, Tom, who now lives in Lakewood, ran a furniture business from the family home. Karlin helped out growing up and at one time imagined taking over the business.
While his dad taught him craftsmanship, his mother, Ida, provided early exposure to the world of medicine. She was a pediatric nurse.
She died in 1994, not long after being diagnosed with cancer.
That also made an impression.
“I think I was able to see the people who took care of her ,” said Karlin, who was nearly 13 when his mom died. “I think that had some influence on me in terms of wanting to work in a profession in which you’re able to help people.”
Karlin said both his parents also demonstrated the importance of community involvement. They helped with groups such as Habitat for Humanity and valued working for social justice, he said.
Karlin went through local public schools, graduating from Eatonville High in 2000.
After college and medical school, he entered a three-year residency program in the South Sound, at MultiCare’s Tacoma Family Medicine.
He finished this summer. Before his residency ended, he met Neuhalfen, from the Eatonville clinic.
Things seemed to fall into place.
Karlin and his wife, Laura, were looking to settle in a small community, outside the city but not too isolated. They have a nearly 2-year-old daughter, Ida, named for her grandma, and they envisioned a home with land where their kids could grow up learning to pitch in.
“Eatonville is kind of ideal,” Karlin said.
The family moved there in July.
As Karlin gets to work in the small foothills town, other young doctors are beginning their residencies through the Tacoma Family Medicine program. Its goal is to train family physicians to work in underserved rural and urban communities.
MultiCare also has a residency program based in Puyallup. East Pierce Family Medicine welcomed its first group of residents this year.
“As we graduate residents, our hope is that a fair number of them will stay in the area,” said Dr. Bill Kriegsman, medical director.
More primary care physicians are needed in the region and across the country. The population is aging, and health care reform also means more people will become insured.
A survey from 18 months ago showed a shortage of 44 primary care physicians in the eastern Pierce County area, according to MultiCare.
Nationally, the Association of American Medical Colleges projects a shortage of 62,900 physicians, including 29,800 primary care physicians, by 2015.
A NATURAL FIT
Karlin said family medicine seemed a good fit for him. In Eatonville, he’ll treat pregnant women and infants, the elderly and everyone in between.
One of his former science teachers feels he’ll succeed. Jim Clague, who’s taught at Eatonville High for 32 years, remembers when Karlin was in his biology and anatomy classes.
Karlin was a good student and also mature beyond his years, the teacher said.
“He was very empathetic with people. That’s why when I think of him as a physician – (I think) he’ll do wonderful things for his patients,” Clague said. “He’ll be a person for them rather than only a doctor for them.”
Karlin cited Clague’s anatomy class as an inspiration on his road to medicine.
He also recalled a boyhood experience that might also have planted some seeds: He helped an uncle remove toenails that were infected because of a medical condition. It’s possible pliers were involved, Karlin said with a laugh.
On Tuesday, Karlin ended his workday at the Eatonville clinic with patient Bonnie Beckstrom. The 66-year-old, who lives in town, said she’s been searching for a doctor for a while.
She hadn’t met Karlin before her checkup, but she said he seemed to be “a nice young man.”
She liked hearing he has local roots.
“With his training, he could go anywhere. But he came back here and is raising his family,” Beckstrom said, sitting in an exam room. “I think that’s nice.”
ALWAYS FELT LIKE HOME
Karlin and his wife are renting a place now but hope to build on part of the property where he grew up.
They plan to stick around.
The young physician has spent time in recent weeks getting reacquainted with his hometown – visiting the local pharmacy, stopping by the local bakery for lunch.
He’s run into people who knew him long before he had an “M.D.” behind his name.
He’s run into people who remember his mom. He likes being back in the place where she lived.
“To be able to go back to your hometown, where you already have that history and your family has been for years – it’s pretty fortunate,” Karlin said.
“To me, Eatonville always felt like home.”email@example.com 253-552-7058 blog.thenewstribune.com/street @TNTschilling