Few people would choose to drive 190 miles round-trip to see their primary-care physician. For Coleen Solbakken, it's a no-brainer. During the past eight years, Dr. Sarah Simpson has helped her navigate physical changes and emotional potholes that otherwise might have sapped her life’s energy and joy.
Simpson diagnosed and treated Solbakken’s iron deficiency and back pain, and found a lump in her breast (it was benign). The physician’s empathetic counsel helped Solbakken manage as she and her husband became empty-nesters, sold their house of 25 years and left town – all while she was in the throes of menopause.
Solbakken described her doctor’s charm.
“Every visit has been, ‘How can I help you?’ She looks you right in the eyes and you feel like the most important person at that moment. She's just so willing to listen, and I feel that she hears me. I'm not sure that happens very often with doctors.”
The women, Coleen and Sarah to one another, are both in their early 50s and have kids close in age. When doctor and patient first met at UW Neighborhood Shoreline Clinic
, Solbakken and her husband lived in nearby Edmonds. Today, home is Roslyn, a hamlet in central Washington, where Solbakken makes glass art and is a volunteer firefighter.
But two to three times a year, health concerns and checkups put her in a well-worn Subaru, singing along to Norah Jones as she drives through Snoqualmie Pass to the comfort of Simpson’s care. She uses a digital audio recorder to help remember what she wants to tell Simpson.
“I felt that anything I shared with her would be understood. Those are personal things that you don't want to share with too many people, and she makes it so easy,” Solbakken said.
Simpson, whose clinical practice spans about three decades, described herself as a “pathological extrovert” who revels in the people side of medicine. Meeting folks from all walks of life – carpenters, financiers, fishermen – is one of her job’s best perks, she said.
She decided early on to present her true self to patients.
“I have a background in theater, so I like being funny and joking – you know, appropriately,” Simpson said. “I might not be the right doctor for someone looking for a quiet, all-business physician.”
Not all patients want to build a rapport with a physician. And many are loath to reveal pains or embarrassments, such as abuse, binge eating or drinking, or other high-risk behaviors. In times of crisis, though, some previously reticent patients are prone to share more, Simpson said.
“With our society being so fragmented, physicians can play almost a pastoral role. We provide stability, like a banister on a stairway,” she said.
Solbakken sought out Simpson in two such crises.
When daughter Kelly became ill one semester at Washington State University, Solbakken drove 200 miles to Pullman, got her and sped 300 more miles to the Shoreline clinic. Turned out Kelly had a staph infection and had become allergic, and immune, to antibiotics she received from the school health staff.
“Sarah didn't hesitate to get us in. She was able to diagnose it and get Kelly on the antibiotics she needed,” Solbakken said.
Simpson also helped quell anxiety that emerged as Solbakken’s adult son’s unit was deployed to a hot spot in Iraq.
"She handled the situation like a trusted confidante. She took a lot of time and helped me see the clear picture, and gave me some medication to help with that, too.”
Simpson’s willingness to commend less-traditional therapies to reduce Solbakken’s menopausal symptoms and back pain was a welcome surprise, Solbakken said.
“That really aligned us, because I had dabbled in that before. Sarah wasn't the least bit threatened by acupuncture or massage or vitamins. She prescribed exercises I could do. She offered books that were extremely helpful. It wasn't just a pill to fix this; she worked with me as a coach to get me through those hard times.”
As doctors see patients over time, Simpson said, “we become holders of people's stories.”
Solbakken has entrusted Simpson with her story, and now is better able to plan and write the next chapters.
Photo: Dennis Wise, Studio3