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Faces of the Boom: 89-year-old ND doctor still makes house calls

Dr. Frederick Gross and his wife, Joyce, pose Friday outside the Trenton Community Clinic where Gross is working a six-month position. Kathleen J. Bryan / Forum News Service

TRENTON, N.D. – Eighty-nine-year-old Dr. Frederick Gross still makes house calls.

Gross is back for a second six-month stint providing medical care at the Trenton Community Clinic, about 15 miles from Williston in northwest North Dakota.

He and wife Joyce, 79, live in a nearby senior apartment complex where some of his patients are treated to a practice that’s mostly vanished.

“He makes sure to stop by their house in the morning, makes a house call and then comes to work,” said clinic CEO Cheryl Donoven.

She calls Gross an “old time doctor” who “hates” electronic health records because it takes away from his ability to talk to patients. This, Donoven said, is exactly what her elderly patients are craving.

“He sits and visit and makes them feel, so to speak, like they’re not run through a cattle shoot,” she said.

After 38 years practicing internal medicine in Virginia, Gross happily retired. By 2002, he was bored and itching to return to medicine, so when he saw a booth at a medical meeting seeking doctors to fill temp positions he signed up.

Gross keeps up his Virginia license, which allows him to work at federal health facilities.

“I can work at any government-supported clinic: (Veterans Affairs) or Indian. I like the Indians better than the veterans,” Gross said with a grin. “VA hospitals – there’s no freedom.”

His first assignment took the couple to the Spirit Lake Health Center in Fort Totten, N.D., where he and Joyce, a former teacher, spent six summers.

While Gross spent his days taking care of patients struggling with hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and drug addiction, Joyce said she was drawn to the “golden gem of North Dakota” — the historic fort where she volunteered as innkeeper of the Totten Trail Historic Inn.

Gross said his older patients were “mostly appreciative,” and both he and Joyce came to understand that it is a “sign of respect to not look directly at you.”

The couple has since been stationed in the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, the Cherokee Nation Vinita Health Clinic and the Northeastern Tribal Health System in Oklahoma and Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Poplar, Mont.

At Trenton’s clinic, the Grosses are well-liked and respected, so much so that one staff member has deemed them honorary grandparents.

“It’s been very good. The people who work in the clinic are very helpful,” Gross said. “I like to practice (medicine) because it’s great to make someone well or make a difficult diagnosis.”

Gross said his patients range in age from 40 into their 80s and come in with a variety of ailments including diabetes, hypertension and heart and lung disease.

Because she likes to stay busy, too, Joyce volunteers at the Salvation Army store in downtown Williston where she uses her artistic eye to create window displays.

The clinic, affiliated with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, serves three counties in North Dakota and three in Montana, Donoven said. Because of the energy boom, she said more Indians have come to the Northern Plains seeking work, more than doubling patients served from 2,600 to 6,000.

Gross said he likes the wide open expanse of North Dakota.

“This seems like real America. The people are hard-working, church-going and community- and family-oriented,” Joyce said.