The Horseman and the Chess Player
Ron Kubica and Sergey Devitskiy bring truly diverse backgrounds to their shared love: treating patients in the rural Northeast Kingdom.
He grew up in New Mexico, and as a young doctor he spent several years treating Navajo and Hopi families, and later the Cherokee in Oklahoma, in the Indian Health Service. And if you want to know anything about horses, Ron's the man to ask.
Sergey Devitskiy, MD, couldn't have had a more different upbringing from Ron – Sergey was born in Kursk, Russia. His father was a colonel in the Soviet army, and young Sergey saw Europe, and the world, from the other side of the Berlin Wall. In America, he maintains his Russian love for chess and hockey.
Yet despite their background differences, these two Norris Cotton Cancer Center doctors share considerable common ground as doctors. They're both highly skilled oncologists. They're both personable, self-effacing men who immediately put people at ease. They both bring extraordinary life experiences that allow them to connect with the hard-working, plain-spoken patients of the Northeast Kingdom in a bond of shared values. And they both love the communities they serve – St. Johnsbury and Newport, VT.
"The people up here, they remind me of Russians," says Sergey. "They never complain. They're very grateful for anything you do for them. They're down to earth, stubborn, and independent." He chuckles for a moment. "And they don't talk very much."
"They're regular people up here without any pretensions," comments Ron. "They're wonderful patients. I've worked in clinics and I've had success in my career in medical partnerships, but outreach medicine is what I love best – taking medicine to people where they live. That's especially important for cancer patients, many of whom have difficulty traveling. That's why I came here."
He adds: "There's great family support with the patients, and there's a great medical support system within Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Cancer Center. When we go to a hospital to see patients, we're not just going as doctors. We bring the Cancer Center itself and all its resources to that hospital and to those patients."
Dressage, bamboo fly rods – and cancer treatment
Dr. Kubica understands the value of bringing the best care available anywhere to patients and families who live far from urban and suburban centers. In addition to founding clinics in Santa Fe, NM, and Norman, OK, he has been practicing outreach medicine in rural populations for more than 20 years. In fact, the cancer practice he established in Santa Fe grew to cover all of northern New Mexico in its sphere of treatment, a territory that includes some of the most remote towns and hamlets in the United States. In Vermont, he says, "I'm doing what I've always done."
He was born in Chicago but his father, who worked for Bell & Howell and taught young pilots how to land on aircraft carriers during World War II, moved the family to the Southwest after the war. As a young man, Ron apprenticed to a silversmith in Albuquerque, and through a family connection he was able to buy high quality turquoise from Nevada; his jewelry work supported him all the way through school. (In an amazing small-world coincidence, Ron graduated from the same high school in Farmington, NM, that John Marshall, MD, who is the radiation oncologist in the St. Johnsbury Cancer Center, graduated from.)
Ron's career took him throughout the Southwest, and his life became intertwined with Southwestern culture. An early love for horses grew into a lifelong passion; even today, Ron competes in dressage.
Two of the practices he founded were absorbed into larger practices, and Ron found himself spending more time managing and less time practicing medicine. After building a large home near Santa Fe, he says he realized that "I had reached a place where I was able to get everything I wanted in life. I had a beautiful home – it's used as the home in the 'Wildfire' television show. I had success. But what I was missing was what I loved the most, and that's doing outreach medicine."
So he packed up and headed for northern New England. Why here? "Horses," he smiles. Woodstock, VT, is one of the capitals of dressage in the US – in fact, it's where the oldest still-operating horse organization in the country, the Green Mountain Horse Association, was founded, and it's where the Morgan breed was first developed. The long, quiet winters in Vermont also afford him the time to indulge another passion, building handmade bamboo fly rods. ("The first bamboo rods were made in Vermont, you know.")
Coming here also gave Ron the opportunity to return to practicing medicine among rural patients and their families. After working in the North Country for a few years, he and his wife decided to make a long-term commitment to the region and moved from Woodstock to Danville, VT. "The quality of the doctors here is exceedingly high," he comments. "The people here are really well served by Dartmouth and its medical community. It's a pleasure to be part of it."
Revolution – and fighting back into medicine
Sergey feels the same way, but for much of his life he wondered if he could ever wind up in a place like the tranquil Northeast. Indeed, it's a miracle of sorts that Sergey even had the choice. His great-grandfather was a Russian Orthodox priest at the time of the 1917 Revolution, and therefore was considered a member of the ruling class. He was murdered by revolutionaries in 1920. Sergey's grandfather was stripped of his rights as a Russian citizen -- he was not allowed to go to college or even to live in a city. But by applying a little creativity to his biography, Sergey's grandfather did attend college and eventually became a top government official in Kursk.
"He didn't want to talk about the past," Sergey recalls. "I didn't even find out about my great-grandfather and the hardships my grandfather had until 1990, a few years before he died. That's the way it is in Russia – the past is very, very dark for many people."
But his grandfather's hard work paved the way for Sergey's father, who became a cardiologist and joined the medical corps in the Soviet military, a prestigious position in the USSR. It was an extraordinary family journey from the bleak days of the Revolution.
Because of his family's position, Sergey was somewhat spared from the worst of the hardships that came after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, although, he says, "It was very confusing. Everything changed. Suddenly there was no country anymore. You wondered, who's making the laws? Who's in charge? There was very little time for anyone to get adjusted. Some people lost everything."
At the time, Sergey was in a PhD program at Kursk State Medical University, conducting research. But his wife's parents had already immigrated to the US, in 1989, and it seemed like better opportunities lay across the ocean. He and his wife made the huge move in 2000. "My first job was as a technician in a hospital in Baltimore. I didn't even have a license," he recalls. By 2004 he passed his medical exams in Massachusetts.
Putting others first
"The medicine here is top-notch," says Sergey. "The doctors like to do it all, and they're very good at it. They develop long-term relationships not just with a patient but with the patient's family. It's a wonderful way to practice."
He still carries strong memories and feelings about his native Russia, where his mother and sister still live. He's a very fine player at Russia's national game – chess – and he loves to watch hockey, another Russian passion. "I am up here with people who like the Bruins, but I have to root for the Washington Capitals because of, you know, Ovechkin," he laughs, referring to Alex Ovechkin, the great Moscow-born forward. Meanwhile, America's pastime, baseball, is, he admits, "still a mystery to me."
For Americans who might want to better understand Russia and what it means to be Russian, Sergey offers some simple but excellent advice: "Read Chekhov." But he calls himself American, and as a citizen he has a right to, of course. (Understanding baseball will come in time.)
Sergey has a perspective on our country that is also one shared by Ron Kubica.
"I love the diversity of the United States," he says. "When I first came here I could not believe it, all the different kinds of people. But what I really noticed is that people here – and this is certainly true where we work in Vermont and New Hampshire – are really for each other. They have a spirit that is shared. They put their town, their state, and their country ahead of themselves. They work together. And that's just how we like to work."
June 11, 2012
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