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Dr. Bill Sunderwirth: Ozarks Physician for Nearly Five Decades and Alzheimer's Patient

In the first part of an ongoing series on Alzheimer's, meet Dr. Bill Sunderwirth who was recently diagnosed with the disease.

For about five decades, Dr. Bill Sunderwirth devoted his life to taking care of his patients. The Osteopathic physician, always knew he wanted to become a doctor—his father practiced medicine—and, when he graduated from high school, he joined the Navy…

"And was a corpsman on a surgical ward out at Long Beach Naval Hospital, and there wasn't any doubt by the experience that I got there that I wanted to be a doctor."

Time spent in San Diego in an emergency room confirmed Dr. Sunderwirth’s decision.So, he went to medical school, became a physician and worked hard at his profession—often putting in 60 to 80 hours each week for about 20 years in Eldorado Springs where he was raised and 27 years in Springfield.The thing he enjoyed most, he says, was delivering babies…

"And don't get me wrong, there's been tears--a lot of tears, but most of it the joy of putting the baby in the mother's arms, I really enjoyed that."

But not every medical procedure Dr. Sunderwirth did was done in the sterile setting of a doctor’s office or hospital. Dr. Bill, as his patients called him, used to make house calls…

"I have done home deliveries where I've worn a mask to keep the flies out of my face."

While most people retire when they reach 65, Dr. Bill kept going. It wasn’t until age 78 that he decided to hang up his stethoscope. That’s because, he says, he loved practicing medicine…

"I'm very proud of my time in medicine. I think I did a good job. Did I have some problems? Well, of course I had some problems. I feel so sorry for these people that, 'oh, good lord it's Monday morning. I've got to go to work.' It was never, back in those days when Karen and I would take a vacation, and they were few and far between because of the workload and all, but I was always glad to get back to work."

Dr. Bill married his wife, Karen, when Karen’s daughter Mary Reichard was five-years-old. She says it wasn’t always easy having a physician for a father, but she’s proud of the work that he did…

"We always took two cars whenever we went out to eat, and he usually didn't finish the meal. We always took two cars to church because he usually didn't get to hear the rest of the sermon, so that was just the way it was. And that was back in the days when before cell phones and all that, and I would be on the phone with my girlfriend talking for hours about nothing and the operator would come on and say, 'Mary, would you get off the phone? There's an emergency and we need to get ahold of your dad,' and I would be miffed but I'd hang up. That was just the way it was."

Reichard says if she could choose just one word to describe the way her father practiced medicine, it would be dignified…

"Everybody was treated the same. It didn't matter if you were the mayor of the town or if you were the guy that lived in the chicken coop, you got the same care whether you paid or you didn't pay, and getting paid in a dozen eggs or getting paid with welfare grits, whatever the mode of currency was, they'd just work it out."

She recalls a time when Dr. Bill was at a restaurant with his family and an old farmer walked up to their table…

"You know, he's got overalls on, he's got his cap on, kind of grizzled, and he came up while we were eating and said, 'Doc, could you check this out?' And he kind of drooped his drawers a little bit. He had a cauliflower wart on his hip. Do you remember what you did? You took out you pocket knife, you cauterized it over the candle on the table, and you cut it off in front of everybody."

"I wouldn't doubt it."

Even before Medicaid, Dr. Bill says he and the other physician who he practiced with in El Dorado Springs never turned anyone away who needed medical care. He says it was just understood that you took care of people.When Dr. Bill finally retired, he looked forward to several years enjoying time with his wife Karen. But about two months ago, he received a diagnosis. The reason he’d been forgetting things lately wasn’t just due to old age. Dr. Bill has Alzheimer’s. The retired physician and his family decided to share their experience with KSMU listeners in an ongoing series on Alzheimer’s in hopes of giving his life meaning and to help others who might be going through similar experiences. You can hear the stories periodically on KSMU, and they’ll be on our website ksmu.org.