© Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun Harrison's residency program got underway this summer. Resident MD Jacob Van Fleet, left, who was ...
By Tad Sooter, USA TODAY
On a December day 26 years ago, Dr. Ronald Dommermuth brought a baby kicking into the world at Naval Hospital Bremerton.
Dommermuth was a resident then, still completing his medical training. The newborn was one of many hundreds the obstetrician would deliver in his career. But the two were destined to cross paths again.
The baby grew up to become a physician, and now-26-year-old Dr. Jacob Van Fleet joined seven other residents enrolled this year in the inaugural class of the Northwest Washington Family Medicine Residency based at Harrison Medical Center. Dommermuth is one of his instructors.
On Thursday morning, Dommermuth was supervising as Van Fleet tended to patients at a clinic across the street from the hospital.
"It's surreal, it's so coincidental," Van Fleet said of the connection he shares with Dommermuth.
The fortuitous turn of events makes Van Fleet ponder the lasting effect his work can have on the lives of his patients, "and seeing myself as a doctor who could be delivering babies in the future. It shows how great this profession can be."
Van Fleet followed a long road back to Bremerton. About 18 months after he was born, his father, a Navy servicemen, took a job in Texas and the family moved cross-country.
Van Fleet was too young to remember his brief time in Kitsap County. Growing up in Texas, it was Van Fleet's family doctor who inspired him to pursue a career in medicine.
Van Fleet said Dr. Antony Thomas was a conscientious family physician who took time to build relationships with his patients.
"He would ask me about my life, and not just about my health but about me as a person," he said.
Van Fleet went on to finish medical school at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. When it came time to apply to residency programs, he decided to broaden his horizons.
"I wanted to get out of Texas and explore," he said. "Getting out in the mountains and in nature was a big pull."
Though he hadn't set foot in Kitsap since he was a tot, the new CHI Franciscan Health residency in Bremerton was offering everything Van Fleet was looking for. He applied for 30 programs but ranked the Northwest Washington Family Medicine Residency at the top of his list.
"There was no doubt in my mind this would be a fantastic place to get an education," he said.
During a dinner for program applicants and faculty in Bremerton, Van Fleet mentioned he'd been born at the naval hospital and Dommermuth realized they might already be acquainted.
"There was a one-in-four chance I'd delivered him," Dommermuth said, recalling his schedule at the hospital.
Van Fleet told his mother about the chance encounter and she dug out his birth certificate.
Sure enough, Dommermuth was listed as the attending physician. Match day — the day when applicants find out what residency they'll be committed to the next three years — solidified their unlikely reunion.
"I was really excited," Van Fleet said of being accepted to the program at Harrison.
The Bremerton native had found his way back to Kitsap.
Long days and nights
Van Fleet has had little time to reflect on his homecoming. The residents, who started work in July, jumped head-first into their new roles as family practitioners.
They spent their first month working in a primary care clinic getting to know the patients they'll be caring for, with oversight from experienced physicians. The residents are also being introduced to a host of related healthcare fields, including sports medicine, geriatric medicine and behavioral health, which they'll continue gaining experience in over the next three years.
With clinic time under their belts, they started their rotations in healthcare facilities across the county. Van Fleet was assigned to an inpatient rotation at Harrison Bremerton, where he's diagnosing and treating patients with serious maladies.
Dommermuth said residents typically work more than 60 hours per week, soaking in as much knowledge as possible.
"It's a long week," Dommermuth said, and good training for the demanding field of family medicine.
"The truth is, it doesn't change much when you're done," he added.
Filling a need
Organizers of the Northwest Washington Family Medicine Residency hope residents like Van Fleet will stay in the area to practice.
CHI Franciscan developed the residency to address a growing shortage in primary care doctors west of Puget Sound and fill a void left after Naval Hospital Bremerton ended its teaching program in 2016. A report released this year by the state Office of Financial Management found Kitsap had 69 civilian primary care physicians for every 100,000 residents, compared with a statewide rate of 96.
"Kitsap is under-represented in physicians," said Dommermuth, who joined the CHI residency after serving as an instructor at the naval hospital.
He said some healthcare professionals might assume Kitsap is a rural backwater and aren't aware of the quality of life offered on the peninsula.
"When physicians do come here, they often stay for the rest of their careers."
Dommermuth may have already helped deliver one new doctor to the county. Van Fleet said he would be happy to settle here with his wife after graduating from the residency in 2021.
For more information on the program, go to chifranciscan.org/northwest-washington-family-medicine-residency.