Lopez Clinic History

Editor's note:  This article was originally published in 1994 to celebrate Lopez clinic's 30th Anniversary. Dr. George Dengler, often quoted here, passed away in 2007.

Ground breaking crew - 1973
Clockwise: Don Poole,
contractor; Jerry Eads,
donor of the clinic property;
John Ottenheimer,architect;
and Charlie Washburn,
Catherine's son, break
ground for Lopez clinic in
Picture this. It's 1971 on Lopez Island. There are about 600 year-round residents. If you get sick, you go to Friday Harbor to see Dr. Heath – or wait until he flies to Lopez to see patients at the barbershop. There are no EMTs, paramedics or Med Flight, no pharmacy, no dentist, no Hospice and Home Support and no veterinarian either.

It was that absence of medical care that spurred Pat Roe to propose building a medical clinic on Lopez in 1972. Shortly after Catherine Washburn's death in September 1971, Pat, one of Catherine's co-workers at Washington House Realtors, worked with her family to form the Catherine Washburn Medical Association (CWMA), the non-profit
that not only would build our clinic but continues to this day to fund it, guaranteeing that excellent healthcare stays right here on Lopez. 

"Pat knew the time was right," says Charlie Washburn, one of Catherine's sons and the first president of the board of the CWMA. "He was very organized, a hard worker and committed to making it happen."  

The Lopez Village Corporation Board, donated land in the village for the clinic. "Fundraising was ongoing, but we didn't have a goal because we didn't know how much a clinic would cost," says Charlie.  In 1972, architect John Ottenheimer developed a design and an estimate for just under $40,000 to construct a 900-square-foot clinic.  "Once we had a goal based on a cost estimate, some people made substantial donations and others made matching donations," Charlie remembers.  "When we got to around $30,000, we said 'Okay, it's time to start construction.'  We trusted we'd get enough money to finish."

The original plan was to hire a nurse practitioner to work with Dr. Heath.  In 1973, a Lopez woman went to Seattle to study to fill that position, but fell in love there and never returned.  "The whole idea of a nurse practitioner evaporated," says Charlie.

Dr. and Mrs. Dengler - 1974
The Denglers: early days
at Lopez clinic.
Little did the CWMA Board know that Seattle physician George Dengler was ready to leave his busy family medicine practice in Mountlake Terrace and move full-time to the island.  Dr. Dengler approached the Board about becoming Lopez Island's first full-time physician.  "We were surprised and elated that a doctor was interested," Charlie recalls. "Although we didn't know anything about George, we liked him and felt he would be a good fit."

Dr. Dengler and his wife Hildegard ran the clinic single-handed that first year and stayed with it for nearly twenty years. The clinic opened its doors on April 12, 1974. Hildegard recalls, "George was his own nurse – he gave all the shots, drew the blood and took X-rays." Dr. Dengler adds, "The first years were rough, but they were good years.  I had to go with the flow.  A lot of mealtimes were interrupted."

It's fitting that Charlie Washburn was the first scheduled patient.  "I really needed a physical; I hadn't had one in years," he says.  "George told me it was the only physical I'd get on the house."

Dr. Dengler recalls he was busy from the very first day.  "There was a huge backlog of untreated and undiagnosed chronic disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. There were plenty of tragedies, too – plane crashes, motorcycle deaths, suicides.  There wasn't a vet on the island. People would call about injured pigs, dogs, cats.  It was tempting, but I never treated them."  Without a pharmacy on the island, Dr. Dengler had to be creative about getting prescriptions filled.  If he called prescriptions in to the Friday Harbor pharmacy by 3 p.m., the medicines would be on the 4 p.m. mail plane to Lopez. Patients made the pick-ups themselves.

Dr. Wilson joined us in 1997
Dr. Bob Wilson became the clinic
physician in March, 1997.
Another important event happened the year the clinic opened: Dr. Ted Phillips and his wife bought property on Lopez.  "I went in to introduce myself to George," Dr. Phillips remembers.  "He said he knew about me because I bought Dick Navarre's property."  Over the next fourteen years, Dr. Phillips served as Associate Dean and Acting Dean at the University of Washington School of Medicine where he developed the Department of Family Medicine. One of his goals there: to increase the number of doctors in rural areas.  "Every time I saw George I'd say something like - sometime I'll want to get back into family practice."  In 1988, Dr. Dengler was ready for a long vacation.  He smiles, "I paid the Dean to work for me."

"It was fun," Dr. Phillips says, "like my seven years of solo practice in Alaska.  I did house calls, again – I missed them in the city."  Ted continued as George's back-up for five years.

Dr. and Mrs. Dengler in 2004
George and Hildegard Dengler reminisce
about their 20 years together at Lopez clinic.

Dr. Dengler retired December 31, 1993, but filled in occasionally for Dr. Bob Wilson, who joined the staff in 1997.  "It was like déjà vu!" Dr. Dengler explained.  "It still felt much the same. I saw some of the same patients – including adults I took care of as children. And Bob still uses my old wooden desk in his office."

"My mother would be really proud," Charlie says of today's 5800- square-foot clinic.  "There was always a giving spirit  – everyone gave something extra."  That spirit is alive and well at Lopez clinic today – honoring Catherine Washburn's powerful legacy.


Clinic Turns 30 - Looking Back, Looking Ahead - Health Matters Newsletter, Summer 2004
Read full article

Third Groundbreaking at Lopez Clinic Kicks Off Expansion- Islands Weekly - December 1999
Read full article

This portrait of Dr. Dengler, by Lopez artist Christa Malay,
hangs in the clinic lobby.

First Clinic, First Doctor for lucky Lopez Island - Friday Harbor Journal, March 31, 1974
Read full article

Lopez Welcomes their Doctor - Friday Harbor Journal, March 31, 1974
Read full article

Clinic Grand Opening - Lines From Lopez, a Special Section of the Orcas Island Booster, Spring 1974
Read full article

Florence Burke Letter about starting the Thrift Shop - which has provided ongoing support to CWMA as well as many other local groups.
Read letter

Dr. Dengler's obituary - November 9, 2007.