As he looks back on his career as a physician – one that has spanned more than four decades now – Dr. Richard Roach’s list of accomplishments, his list of fond memories, are endless.
He has taught hundreds of residents and students in Southwest Michigan, transformed medical care in the island nation of Madagascar next to Africa, and used his extensive knowledge of tropical medicine to help improve patient care in Kalamazoo and elsewhere, among other things.
“It’s been fascinating, just fascinating,” said Dr. Roach, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at WMed.
Now, after working for the last 44 years in the field of medicine, Dr. Roach is retiring. His last day at WMed is June 30, 2020.
The transition to retirement is a move that Dr. Roach says he welcomes. He is looking forward to having more time to focus on his painting and, as an author of six novels already, he plans to keep writing. His latest novel, “Toxic Frog,” is due to be released this summer.
He also has no doubt that he will stay busy. In retirement, he will have the title of professor emeritus in the Department of Medicine and he plans to provide block conferences for resident physicians at WMed. He also has no plans to give up his annual trips to Madagascar with WMed faculty and residents, a tradition he proudly brought with him when he became a member of the faculty in 2001.
“Probably, what I’m most proud of is working with our resident physicians here in Kalamazoo, being an encouragement to them, seeing them develop skills and do amazing things,” Dr. Roach said. “I often say when our residents come to Kalamazoo they are a really bright group of people but they haven’t much experience. But when they graduate, they’re smarter than me and to see that transition and personally be a part of that transition is probably the most exciting thing for me.”
Dr. Roach’s career in medicine began after his graduation from University of Minnesota Medical School in 1976. After earning his MD degree, he spent more than three months in Madagascar learning about the Malagasy people, their culture and their needs. Later, he came to Kalamazoo where he spent three years training as a resident in the Internal Medicine residency program at what was then the Southwest Michigan Area Health Education Center (SMAHEC).
After residency, he spent 13 years in Southwest Michigan, where he worked with a team of physicians at clinics in Benton Harbor and Berrien Springs. As a hospitalist, he and his Internal Medicine partners ran the intensive care units at Berrien County Hospital and Lakeland Hospital. The work was grueling. Exhausted from working 80 hours a week, he left Michigan to return to his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, where he specialized in occupational medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital.
Dr. Roach spent nine years in Duluth before he and his wife moved back to Kalamazoo in 2001 at the request of Dr. Mark Loehrke, chair of the Department of Medicine at WMed, to join the faculty and teach residents at Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies (MSU/KCMS), a predecessor to the medical school. Dr. Roach said he jumped at the opportunity to teach residents and was thankful that Dr. Loehrke provided the opportunity to take residents to Madagascar, where the Malagasy physicians taught the residents tropical medicine.
“It’s been a delightful experience. Dr. Loehrke is the best boss anyone could have,” Dr. Roach said.
Dr. Loehrke, meanwhile, has just as much praise for Dr. Roach. In his letter nominating Dr. Roach for the Lifetime Achievement Award for this year’s inaugural Faculty-to-Faculty Awards at WMed, he said that Dr. Roach “has been a spectacular faculty member in every way possible” and “transformed the medical care in an entire country” over the last 30 years with his almost yearly trips with residents and students to Madagascar through the SALFA organization.
“Dr. Roach is a spectacular teacher, and every week that a resident can round with Dr. Roach is considered a gift to that resident,” Dr. Loehrke said in his letter. “Dr. Roach not only teaches medicine and the most up-to-date practices, but he relates the history of medicine as well as telling many stories from his past. Dr. Roach is also the ultimate humanist, and his communication skills and connections with patients and families are legendary. Dr. Roach is simply beloved by every person he interacts with, medical students, residents, fellow attendings, patients and their families.”
In his lifetime, Dr. Roach said he has made 21 trips to Madagascar, which includes 17 trips he has made since 2001 when he came back to Kalamazoo. Last year, he was awarded a Certificate of Recognition of Services Rendered in the Interest of the Malagasy Nation from SALFA for the numerous years he has spent educating physicians in Madagascar.
Dr. Roach said the tropical medicine rotation in Madagascar helped launch the Global Health program at the medical school. But more importantly, Dr. Roach said his annual trips to be with the Malagasy people and physicians became “a cross-cultural exchange” where Malagasy physicians teach WMed faculty and residents about tropical diseases and WMed physicians provide updates on the latest treatments for things like diabetes, hypertension, and strokes, among other topics.
Dr. Roach said the time that WMed faculty and residents have spent in Madagascar has not only helped improve medical care in the country, but in Kalamazoo, as well. As evidence, Dr. Roach can point to several cases where patients at local hospitals presented with symptoms that confused or perplexed care teams. In those instances, he said the knowledge gained about tropical diseases during their time in Madagascar allowed the residents to recognize a tropical disease and provide appropriate treatment that helped those patients recover and, in some cases, saved the patients’ lives.
“They are examples of how our residents’ experience in tropical medicine has made a direct impact on healthcare here in Kalamazoo,” Dr. Roach said.
In addition to teaching residents at WMed, Dr. Roach has also been in charge of employee health at the medical school, working directly with Robin Scott, RN, the medical school’s manager of Occupational Health, on things such as immunization protocols and prevention of workplace injuries, among other things.
“Dr. Roach contains a passion for worker’s compensation and employee health different from most providers,” Scott said. “He makes it his personal mission to ensure that all employees are treated accordingly. He loves to educate. Whether it is employee immunization records from another country or a worker compensation case, he always had something to teach. Dr. Roach will be greatly missed at WMed Health.”
Dr. Ross Driscoll, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and the Program in Medical Ethics, Humanities and Law, first met Dr. Roach in 2002 as a resident in the Internal Medicine Residency Program at MSU/KCMS.
Over the last 18 years, he said Dr. Roach “has become one of my dearest friends and colleagues.”
“He is one of the most generous individuals I have ever met and he pairs this with an absolute love of teaching and exceptional clinical expertise,” Dr. Driscoll said. “He loves teaching so much, that when he went to the hospital for chest pain and was still in recovery from open heart surgery, he wanted to share his cardiac catheterization images showing his blockage to the students and residents who came to visit him.”
Dr. Driscoll said Dr. Roach has been an invaluable friend and mentor to him, both personally and professionally.
“When I moved to a new house in town, Richard was there, helping level the uneven doors,” Dr. Driscoll said. “When I needed a coffee table, Richard built one for me. When I wanted to talk about a tough case, he was always eager to listen. He reminds me of the story of "The Giving Tree," truly selfless and so fulfilled in helping others.”