Elder Speak: At 90, retired surgeon Dr. Jerry Gibbons hasn’t slowed down
At 90 years young, Dr. Jerry Gibbons hasn’t slowed down much. He still rides his bicycle, although he now sports an e-bike to help him keep up with his friends on road rides around the valley.
Life has been a series of adjustments for Gibbons, who grew up in Ephrata and who had a distinguished medical career as a surgeon at Wenatchee Valley Clinic, which would later become Confluence Health.
I interviewed Gibbons as part of the 2021 group of individuals participating in the Elder Speak program put on by the Ripple Foundation. He joins Helen Rayfield, Dr. Francis Collins and Jan Wallick.
Gibbons describes growing up in Ephrata with great fondness. For a kid growing up in the 1940s, he knew the names of the shop owners. “You could go into the baker and get broken cookes. You could go into the butcher shop and get a weenie,” Gibbons recalled. “It was just a wholesome, friendly way to grow up,” he said.
Ephrata was the birthplace of the notion that a dam could be built at the head of Grand Coulee, irrigating more than 500,000 acres of land in the Columbia Basin. His health teacher in junior high was the wife of Gale Matthews, one of the four key leaders responsible for getting Grand Coulee built.
Mrs. Mathews told Jerry that she thought he’d make a fine doctor one day. He took that piece of encouragement and never hesitated in following through to realize that dream. “By the time I graduated from high school, everybody in town knew I wanted to be a doctor,” Gibbons recalled.
One of the defining experiences was being a Boy Scout. “It just molds you as an individual,” Gibbons told me. It gave him goals to reach and Gibbons followed through and worked to earn those merit badges. The experience taught him discipline and persistence.
Born in 1931, World War II created opportunities for him to develop. The Ephrata Army Air Base was being developed and activated following the bombing of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. This brought a large number of airmen into small town Ephrata. With a shoeshine box made by his father he would spit shine shoes for 10 cents.
Later he acquired the Wenatchee Daily World route for Ephrata. The papers came on the afternoon Seattle to Spokane train and even when late, which occurred often in the winter, his mother told him to buck up and get those papers delivered. As he covered the whole town, he did it on his bicycle.
His mother was demanding and told him to always complete any project or goal you begin. It was an important lesson. He also delivered papers to the Base hospital, gym and Link Trainer building where he developed a friendship that led him to attend his first 2 years of college in Pennsylvania, then transferring and graduating from the UW. Medical school in Rochester, NY followed. In school, Gibbons put his studies and the dream of medicine in the forefront of his life and worked to build his future.
His father Everett worked for Washington Water Power and then became superintendent of the fledgling Grant County Public Utility District. “He was a stable, honest, hard-working guy” and a dedicated Boy Scout volunteer, said Gibbons. He also introduced him to the outdoors, hunting game birds, fishing the lakes of NCW, skiing and camping.
With his wife Barbara, a nursing student he met and married during medical school, he started his internship and then surgical residency in Seattle at Harborview/UW. 1 son and 2 daughters were added to the family. He then joined the 2 man surgical department at the Wenatchee Valley Clinic – the 18th physician in the group.
The outdoor activities available in NCW have been a big part of his life. Major interests besides hunting and fishing were running, backpacking and skiing. He was on the original Mission Ridge ski patrol for over 20 years. He was an early sail board and then kite board enthusiast. He was also an instrument rated pilot. Cycling and the YMCA pool and fitness center are his current physical activities.
Gibbons has enjoyed exploring his roots and is active in the Wenatchee Area Genealogical Society, more recently picked up the Ukulele, took lessons and plays regularly. He feels strongly that to age successfully you need to remain physically and mentally active, and that requires you to give up some of those things you love to do and find challenging things that you can do. Computers give you endless opportunities.
Family is another important part of Gibbons’ life. His son Wally is a urologist at Confluence Health, daughter Cathy in Spokane and Becky in Seattle. He has 11 grandkids and to date 10 great grandkids and they are all active.
What he values most about his long medical career is that he had the opportunity to build relationships with patients and get to know them and their stories. Being a doctor in today’s medical climate requires much more attention to working within the rules set by the regulators which reduces greatly personal time spent with each patient. You then miss the opportunity to find and treat those stressful life situations that might be impacting their health.
Persistence, dedication, a commitment to helping human beings and putting his family first are the valuable lessons Gibbons’ life teaches us.