Dr. Thomas F. Coburn is living his dream. Watching his parents, a Methodist pastor and his school-teacher wife, dedicate their lives to helping and serving others instilled in him an early vision of serving others, he says.
With a natural bent toward science and biology, Coburn says he “quickly realized that I could really make a difference in the lives of many through the practice of medicine. I have always seen medicine as a calling to serve others. Primary care, especially family medicine, was the most obvious way to love and serve a community of people….The opportunity to serve families, patients of all ages and those in need at the various stages of life, has always been my clear calling.”
Dr. Coburn has practiced medicine in Wilmore, about 11 miles southwest of Lexington, for 15 years. Born in Lexington, he considers Danville his hometown, having lived there since he was 12 years old when his father became chaplain at a prison in the town. After graduating from Duke University in North Carolina, he came home to the University of Kentucky for medical school and a residency in family medicine. With one year still to go in his residency, he found that Central Baptist Hospital was looking for a physician to staff a small practice they owned in Wilmore. He expressed interest; Central Baptist hired him. When his training was complete, he started working in Wilmore the following day. Two years later, Central Baptist pulled out and gave the practice to him. A new building followed, and for 10 years he worked independently as Jessamine Christian Healthcare, expanding the practice to two physicians and a nurse practitioner.
In 2010, St. Joseph Healthcare System approached him with a plan to develop a first class system of both primary care and specialists to care for the patients of Jessamine County and central Kentucky. Coburn’s practice became St. Joseph Primary Care Associates. Besides Dr. Coburn, the practice includes Dr. Lowell G. Napier, M.D., and Kathy Bolton, nurse practitioner.
For about 12 years Dr. Coburn has been medical director for Wesley Village (WV), a continuing-care retirement community in Wilmore. Continuing care means that senior citizens can move into independent living apartments called patio homes, progress to personal care assisted living if necessary, and finally, if needed, into full nursing home care without having to move to a different location.
When WV decided to open the skilled care unit, housing about 40 nursing home patients, they asked Dr. Coburn to become their first medical director. He makes a “house call” to the Village every month or so, looking in on every nursing home patient. But he will come any time if called.
As medical director, Dr. Coburn has the official duty of overseeing the health and wellbeing of the entire WV community, and he says that typically he sees several WV residents in his office daily. He cares for a range of ailments, including chronic diseases like diabetes, heart diseases, and hypertension, as well as age-related medical conditions such as dementia, Parkinsonism, and others. He coordinates care for these patients with specialists as well.
This does not mean that Dr. Coburn is the only physician available to residents of WV. Like any retirement community, residents are independent citizens free to see any doctor they select. For those who cannot or prefer not to drive themselves to doctor’s appointments, WV provides transportation five days a week for appointments with any physician in Lexington, Nicholasville, or Wilmore. In the case of acute illness or accident, calls to 911 bring an ambulance quickly at any hour.
Since Dr. Coburn has been the primary care physician for many residents before they enter WV, he says that often at WV, “I have the great blessing of knowing the person who has been afflicted by the disease. I know their personality and their fears. I have had intimate conversations about their health, and this allows me to care for the person while I am treating their disease.”
Two main issues come to Dr. Coburn’s mind as he considers serving an elderly population. First, he says, “Often aging brings about a vulnerability that is similar to childhood. Although we are adults, we become more and more dependent on others as we age. This can be due to poor vision or hearing, loss of mobility, mild dementia, pain from arthritis, or general frailty. Having a medical team that you trust is essential during these times, and that team needs to be aware of the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of our senior patients. The other issue is dignity. Every person desires to be respected. Many senior patients have become dependent on others for even basic care, but we must remember that they are a valuable human being that has accomplished much in life and treat them with the respect they deserve.”
He finds the happiest thing about his practice of medicine is building relationships with patients. “I consider it a rare privilege and honor,” he says, “that people invite me into the most intimate areas of their lives as I partner with them to improve their health and well-being.” The most difficult thing about practicing medicine is what he describes as “the bureaucracy of documentation and rules and regulations. Too much time is spent satisfying bureaucrats instead of treating patients.”
Speaking of Wilmore citizens, Dr. Coburn says, “I consider it an honor to be a part of their lives, and I hope to finish my career in this same community many years from now.”
By Martha Evans Sparks, Staff Writer