In Minot, N.D. (population 36,567), the local tourism board had to make up a slogan to help outsiders remember the place’s name. (Why not Minot? rhymes when pronounced correctly.) Yet the small north-central North Dakota town draws families from large cities in surrounding states and Canada who come seeking medical help for children with hard-to-diagnose diseases. They come to consult pediatrician Richard E. Dormont, M.D. ’40. Still in practice at the age of 89, Dormont enjoys a reputation as a brilliant diagnostician as well as a dedicated doctor available to patients at all hours. For several years, he has had a reduced patient load and shorter office hours, which allows more time for bird-watching and for visiting his four daughters. But retirement is not on his radar.
“I like keeping busy and using my skills,” Dormont said, 65 years after earning his medical degree.
A voracious reader of journals and a regular at medical conferences, Dormont is scrupulous about keeping up with new science. But he believes passionately that the tools he relied on in the early days of his practice—history taking and physical examination—remain the bedrock of medicine. Recently a couple raised in Minot brought their 19-month-old child home to consult Dormont after several physicians were puzzled by the child’s breathing problems. He made the potentially lifesaving diagnosis of congenital heart disease with equipment no more high-tech than a stethoscope and his own ears. The other doctors, Dormont said, had focused on breathing problems and examined the lungs rather than the heart. In addition, he said, physicians nowadays too often fail to perform a thorough physical exam.
Minot parents keep bringing him their newborns for routine care. “Every time someone has a new addition, they say, ‘Now you can’t retire until so-and-so’s 18!’,” said Leann Hayton, L.P.N.
Hayton met Dormont in 1968 when she came to work in pediatrics at Trinity Hospital in Minot. At first, Dormont’s “encyclopedic” knowledge was intimidating, but he quickly put her at ease. “Dr. Dormont is a wonderful and patient teacher,” she said. “I learned more listening to and working with him than I could have in any amount of schooling.”
Ruth Ann Rexine, R.N., also came to know Dormont through hospital pediatrics. She remembers his routine of making rounds before 7 a.m. (after breakfasting over medical journals), spending the day in his office, then doing rounds again at 5 p.m. If a child’s condition worsened, day or night, Dormont would be at the hospital in minutes. “Always in a suit and bow tie,” Rexine remembered.
She chose Dormont for her own children because of his legendary thoroughness, his custom of answering parents’ questions by phone every morning from 8:30 to 9 a.m. and for the way he could put children at ease.
Dormont had initially planned to pursue a career in internal medicine. But when he lost the residency he wanted, his pediatrics professor came to the rescue with a job in the pediatric outpatient department at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He saw diseases that have disappeared or are a rarity—polio, measles, mumps—and each of the 55 patients he saw every day got a physical examination. “It can be done,” Dormont said.
After Johns Hopkins, Dormont taught at Louisiana State University for two years, but decided academic medicine was not for him. “You have to be a politician,” he said. “I’m the world’s worst politician.”
Dormont served in the South Pacific during World War II and also practiced briefly in Texas. In 1953 he came to Minot, drawn by the chance to work in a group clinic. “That was almost considered communist on the East Coast,” he remembered.
But the practice suited him because it provided him with his own lab, was connected to a hospital and, most importantly, allowed him his own medical library.
Dormont has spent the later years of his career in solo practice. “That can be dangerous,” said James Moller, M.D., a University of Minnesota pediatric cardiologist who regularly comes to Minot for consultations. But, said Moller, Dormont is so intellectually rigorous that he challenges himself the way a good partner would. “He is always questioning, looking up things, studying,” Moller said.
Known universally as “Dr. Dormont,” he has cared for most of his community at one time or another.
“Whenever I’m birding, someone will stop and say hello. Usually it’s one of my patients,” Dormont said.
He estimates that he’s seen several hundred thousand patients during his career. As long as they keep seeking him out, he said, his practice will stay open.