Dr. Devitt is in: Alum returns home to practice rural medicine

When she was growing up, Phoebe Devitt used to follow her father on his rounds at the local hospital or accompany him on house calls to the local Amish community. She was a fixture at his clinic, where her mother also worked as a nurse. Everyone knew Dr. Devitt’s daughter in the small village of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.

But these days, everyone just calls her Dr. Devitt, too. Phoebe Devitt is a family medicine doctor practicing in Viroqua, Wisconsin, just 20 miles away from her hometown. Her husband, Dr. Joel Charles, now runs the same clinic where her father used to practice, and even works out of the same office.

Together, they’re helping to take care of the people of rural Wisconsin, handling delivering babies to end-of-life care and everything in between. It’s a big job, but Devitt loves it, and she loves her hometown most of all.

The journey leads home

Growing up, all Devitt wanted to do was get out of Soldiers Grove. The tiny town has a population of roughly 600; all of its residents could live in just one of the towers of Sandburg Hall. When it came time for college, UWM seemed like the perfect fit – her relatives were close by, and she would finally get to experience city life after a lifetime in a place where her nearest neighbors lived over a mile away.

“I was definitely a city girl, I thought,” Devitt said with a laugh. “I spent my first year in the dorms. … I loved it. I was craving that community.”

But the more she experienced of the “big city,” the more Devitt realized she actually loved her little town.

“I realized that I wanted to come back to my hometown specifically,” she said, so she planned her studies accordingly. “I knew I needed a skill that would be practical in a rural setting.”

Picking UWM’s pre-med track was an easy choice; Devitt’s father and grandfather were both physicians, so it made sense to go into the family business. Devitt majored in biological sciences and graduated with her BS in 2009. She attended medical school at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, where she met her husband, and they both completed their residencies in Santa Rosa, California.

Then, they moved back to Soldiers Grove, though Devitt made a conscious choice to work a little farther away from her hometown.

“A lot of the community, being so small, watched me grow up. In their eyes, I’m still their sixth-grade student or a little girl on the track team,” she explained. But sometimes, she still sees a familiar face when some patients seek her out – “Just based on the fact that they appreciated my father as their physician,” she said.

But lately, things have been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Navigating COVID

Though the population is sparse and spread out, COVID-19 descended on Soldiers Grove and the surrounding areas the same as it did everywhere else in Wisconsin. But unlike places like Milwaukee, Madison, or Green Bay, rural Wisconsin lacks the resources to handle more serious COVID cases. There are no cardiologists at the local hospital, no intensive care doctors, and no back up. There’s just Devitt, her husband, and six other doctors who also do work at the local hospital.

“It’s hard not to have back-up in any setting, but especially during COVID-19. Our bench isn’t as deep,” Devitt said. “There have definitely been points that we were taking care of people who were far sicker than we’re used to.”

That came with an added risk for Devitt; for the past nine months, armed with just an N95 mask and a face shield, she’s been caring for COVID patients while pregnant with her second child. Only in the last month did she take some time for maternity leave.

“It’s (a trauma) that I’m still working through,” she admitted. “COVID has just been a whirlwind for all of us.”

The pandemic is made more challenging by the independent culture that defines many parts of rural Wisconsin. People prefer not to wear face masks, even though doing so is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the virus.

There is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel; for the past two months, Devitt and her colleagues have been working to vaccinate their patients.

Rural rewards

When there’s not a pandemic, though, Devitt loves her job. Each day brings something different.

As a family medicine doctor, she cares from patients from childhood into old age. She and her husband also do inpatient care for some of their patients at the local hospital. On any given day, she might help a patient manage their diabetes, conduct a sports physical for a high schooler, or deliver prenatal care to an expecting mother.

She might be called on to deliver those babies too; both Devitt and her husband handle obstetrics. With so few doctors around, they have to be willing to wear all kinds of hats. Devitt doesn’t mind.

“There’s nothing like bringing a baby into the world,” she said, smiling.

And there’s nothing like practicing medicine in a small town where you get to know everyone.

“Part of the reason I came back was the people,” she said. “They’re so grateful and loyal to their doctors, and they tell you about it.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science