One can still hear remnants of 79-year-old Dr. Juris M. Macs’ Latvian roots when he speaks, although he has not lived there since he was a boy.
At age 10 his family was forced from its home there and then endured a displaced persons camp for four years. He then came to Washington state after his father, a Lutheran minister, got a guarantee of a job on a berry farm in Auburn for one year — allowing the family to start over.
Macs, who spoke little English at the time, said he acclimated fast.
“We came in early July and I’d learned a lot of the language by the time September rolled around,” he said.
He became enthusiastic about biology and chemistry, delving into both at the College of Puget Sound, where he graduated in 1958. While in medical school at the University of Washington, Macs was still exploring both, spending a lot of his time researching single brain cell electrical activity.
Two things pushed him toward the career in surgery that he still maintains today. The first was his internship at University of Minnesota Hospitals beginning in 1965.
“I fell in love with general surgery,” he said. “And lost the love of sticking electrodes in the brains of cats.”
The second, he said, was the Vietnam War. Despite his dislike of communists, stemming from his family’s experiences in Latvia and the fact that he had been in the National Guard since high school, he said as soon as he received his M. D. draft notice, he could not see the point in going to war.
“I became a draft dodger,” he said, adding he then applied for public health service, requesting a posting in Alaska or the Southwest — but was instead sent to Chicago.
While it was a good learning experience, he was disenchanted with aspects of city life, particularly the traffic.
“I said I don’t want that.” He then applied to re-enter academic medicine and participated in a training program for surgery in rural communities. He served in Bakersfield, Calif., for his residency from 1965 until 1969 when he transferred to Aberdeen.
An outdoorsman, Macs said he had hiked, fished and hunted on the Olympic Peninsula many times and knew of the area. After a classmate in Olympia told him to consider Aberdeen — where he said there was need for new physicians — Macs agreed and found his place here, bringing along his children and then-wife.
“At the time people had said there are only three places you don’t want to go in the state … and Aberdeen was one of them, but I got to love the community,” he said.
The sentiment seems mutual. Macs’ dedication to his profession and community mean that he is a winner of the HealthCare Champion Outstanding Service Award.
His interest in trauma care deepened with each new experience in his early career.
“It didn’t exist here,” he said, of a trauma program when he started in Aberdeen. “There was no trauma system, none in the State of Washington.”
In his third week at his new job here, he said he was called in to assist with four injured teenagers who had been in a head-on collision. He said there was only one emergency room, where a girl with a head injury lay, the rest “moaned and groaned” on floor cots in another room.
“There was no oxygen equipment, an IV for only one person…” he said. “That was emergency service in Aberdeen, and in this country.”
Macs became passionately involved in the fight to improve EMS care in the state. He joined the Washington State Chapter of American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma in 1973 (Vice Chairman 1978-1984, and Chairman 1984-1987) and the Washington State Medical Association EMS Standards Committee in 1975.
In 1977, The Daily World awarded him “Man of the Year,” back when the award was gender-specific.
“I think I was the last “man” of the year, before they switched it” to Citizen of the Year, he said.
He was also a Washington State and regional instructor in advanced trauma life support with the American College of Surgeons, and has participated in a number of emergency medicine activities, including: Grays Harbor EMS Council, West Regional EMS and Trauma Systems Council, Washington State Trauma Advisory Committee(1988-1990), and then-Gov. Booth Gardner’s Emergency Medical Service and Trauma Care Steering Committee(1990).
Gardner signed legislation in 1990 to mandate the development of a comprehensive trauma care system to help ensure that residents throughout Washington, in both rural and urban areas, had ready access to emergency medical services and trauma care.
“The state of Washington was and is the model (for EMS services),” said Macs, adding that things have changed dramatically.
Macs won the Governor’s Award for Emergency Medical Services in 1993, and in 2005 the Emergency Department at Grays Harbor Community Hospital was renamed in honor of Macs because of his dedication to serving people in emergencies.
He has also been active as the Grays Harbor Community Hospital’s Cancer Committee Chairman, Chief of Medical Staff, Chief of Surgery, and as a medical staff representative to the Board of Directors for five years. He is also a clinical Associate Professor of Surgery for the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.
While he has received many more accolades still, his most recent reflects his dedication over his career: the Life Time Achievement Award from the Washington State Chapter of American College of Surgeons.
Debbie Murray, a lead office manager at Grays Harbor Community Hospital who has worked with Macs for more than 30 years, said Macs has “dedicated his life” to his work.
“There is probably not a family born and raised here who he has not touched their lives,” she said, adding his personal dedication (even taking phone calls from patients) is “outstanding.” “He has never turned anyone away.”
Macs said he is concerned that, broadly speaking, there is a tendency not to look at patients as people. “We’re not taking care of patients anymore, we’re taking care of the problem. … That patient has a name and a family,” he said. “There’s changing attitude, and it weighs on me a little.”
Macs, who seems as vibrant as people even 30 years his junior, said he has no plans to retire just yet.
“We’re so short of warm bodies, there’s not enough doctors here to help,” he said of the shortage of physicians on the Harbor, adding he often does his own follow-up visits for cancer patients, “because they have no place else to go.”
While he admits there is literature that says many surgeons start to lose response skills in their early 60s, he said there have not yet been such signs of deterioration in his own.
“I have pharmacists keeping track of how many times I write bad orders, and that doesn’t happen very frequently,” he joked. And, he said, he has many friends in his work environment who would be the first to know if he was starting to slip mentally.
“I got the kind of genes that allow me to function physically and mentally. … I’m thankful for picking my mommy and daddy,” he said, adding he looks forward to going to work every day. “I feel that I am contributing to an area that really has need.”