June 13, 2023 at 1:16 p.m.
Caring takes on new meaning for Dr. Kurt
Dr. Kurt Schwieters’ story is in a new chapter.
He treated patients at CentraCare-Melrose 23 years.
For his caring ways and community interactions, he was awarded the CentraCare Foundation 2023 Caduceus Award May 18.
“He would put his hand on the patients and, in true understanding, say ‘I understand how you feel’ or ‘I’m sorry for what you are going through,’” Leah Vornbrock, Schwieters’ long-time clinic nurse, said during a video at the May 18 La Gratitude event at The Park Center in St. Cloud, adding, “He will be missed for his tenderness and his compassion.”
Receiving the award was bittersweet. Schwieters is now taking care of himself. In January he retired after dealing with a brain injury and cognitive deficit caused by Lyme disease. It was not an easy decision for him and wife, Mary, also a physician, but something he knew he had to do for his patients and himself.
“Sometimes the Holy Spirit takes over and that’s the way I accepted it,” he said May 30. “This is my life and I will adapt.”
A faith-filled man, the Holy Spirit has had a hand in many aspects of Schwieters’ life.
After graduating from St. John’s University in Collegeville, he searched for his dream job – a biology teacher.
“I was the most fired up teacher, but I couldn’t find a job,” he said.
Thanks to friend Karen (Sieben) Backes, a Melrose graduate, he became an admissions counselor at St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict.
Schwieters met Mary Litchy in college, and they had similar teaching stories. After finding information at the campus ministry office, Mary traveled to Honduras in 1989 to volunteer her medical skills at an orphanage, and Kurt accompanied her in 1993.
“That changed our lives,” he said. “We’ve been going ever since.”
The two were accepted into the University of Minnesota Medical School and got married. They completed medical residencies in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, before moving to Melrose to start their family physician careers, where each had a commonality – Mary’s grandparents, Phil and Agnes Theiler, and Kurt’s grandparents, Nick and Helen Schwieters and Sylvester and Francis Zech, lived in Melrose.
Raised in small communities – Kurt in Waseca and Mary in Montevideo – and wanting to be small town doctors, they became Melrose Hospital/CentraCare Clinic physicians July 19, 1999.
“It was a really good match … with a good team,” he said. “It was like a dream.”
With two Dr. Schwieters on staff, they were Dr. Kurt and Dr. Mary.
They raised three children, John, Joseph and Caroline, in Melrose.
“By far, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else,” he said. “This will always be home.”
Both of their parents – Glenn and Ann Schwieters and Jim and Carol Litchy – also moved back to Melrose.
Schwieters’ medical practice focused on patient-centered care and building relationships.
“Patients are starving to be heard, to be understood,” he said. “In this society, where people are feeling overwhelmed, that idea, that someone cared and was with them, was very important to me.”
Alongside Schwieters, caring for patients, was Vornbrock.
“She knew who was related to whom, what the significance was between a Hellermann and Hollermann, and how many Frielers there were,” he said. “What I was able to do wouldn’t have been possible without Leah.”
He knew his patients in everyday life.
“These were people I stood next to in the store, sat next to in church or at a game,” he said. “Maybe there was a conflict, but people accepted that relationship. I wasn’t just their doctor; I was with them and we were in it together.”
He appreciates his family accepting his passion for caring for patients with their “that’s just Dad,” attitude, even when he had to leave or miss family functions.
“It’s not like it was heroic. Dairy farmers have the same commitment” he said. “It’s just what I did.”
He was nervous when word got out about his medical condition, but people were so “good, accepting me and helping me.”
Six years ago, he started experiencing severe fatigue and symptoms of illness.
“At first, I couldn’t even walk up and down a hill, and I’d fall asleep at lunch time,” he said.
Fellow Melrose physician Dr. Dante Beretta diagnosed him with Lyme disease.
“It was a brain injury that destroyed my visual cortex, and I lost the ability to do specific things. It was like I had a little stroke, but it wasn’t a stroke. The biggest problem was there was a mismatch in the parts of my brain that work the way it used to and the parts of the brain that are damaged,” he explained.
He cites the example of being in an emergency room with eight people with an overload of information being stressful for his condition.
He took his wife’s advice.
“Mary said, ‘What would you tell patients? And then you need to do that,’” he said.
At first he cut down on his patient load. When issues with declining brain impairment continued, he decided to retire.
“The catalyst was patients’ safety,” he said, adding, “In the big picture, my brain can function in controlled environments.”
During a “very hard three-day process,” information was shared with CentraCare staff and his patients before his official retirement date – Jan. 3, 2023.
”I didn’t want people not to know,” he said. “They will wonder and worry and stories will come out of nowhere.”
He received support from family, friends, patients and throughout the CentraCare system.
“They (CentraCare) believed in me and, even though they have not seen this before, it (retirement) was the right thing to do,” he said.
Schwieters’ ability to be a family practice doctor may be over, but he could use his medical expertise elsewhere.
“I could teach and help in other ways, but I will never see patients again,” he said. “It’s a very big acceptance.”
He feels the best that he has felt in a long time and has time to spend with family and pastimes like reading. There will be trips to Honduras, where his wife continues to volunteer.
“I’m just Dr. Mary’s husband over there,” he said, smiling.
Dr. Kurt, the patient, is getting used to caring for himself.
For Dr. Kurt, the physician, it is a story he has heard many times from his patients.
“When it happened to me, I’m a different character in the story,” he said. “There’s no bitterness or why me. It’s more about, ‘Wow, it’s a different dream, different chapter.”