In 1987, when he became a member of the faculty at the Southwest Michigan Area Health Education Center (SMAHEC), a predecessor to WMed, Dr. Mark Loehrke figured his venture into academic medicine wouldn’t last long.
“I honestly thought I would go into private practice after a couple of years,” Dr. Loehrke, founding chair of the Department of Medicine, said recently.
With that thought in mind, he gave himself a series of two-year contracts, deciding the figurative agreements could serve as markers for when he might decide to move on and do something new. But it wasn’t long before Dr. Loehrke realized he loved what he was doing in Kalamazoo as an educator and physician.
“The reason I love the job so much is that it combines not only patient care but this chance to transform learners and try to have an impact on them,” he said.
So, now, after a career at WMed and its two predecessors – SMAHEC and the Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies (MSU/KCMS) – that has spanned more than 30 years, Dr. Loehrke plans to officially retire on January 4, 2022.
His decision brings to close a medical career that began in 1981 as a resident in the Internal Medicine residency program at SMAHEC. His four years of training included a stint as chief resident before he moved on to Owatonna, Minnesota, where he spent two years as a primary care internist.
After his short time in Minnesota, he was lured back to Kalamazoo by Dr. James Carter, a man Dr. Loehrke says he “will forever be in his debt for my career.”
By 1992, Dr. Loehrke had become interim program director for the Internal Medicine residency program and then associate program director in 1993. In 2000, he was named program director again and served in the role permanently for the next 17 years. He has also had the honor of serving as the medical school’s founding chair of the Department of Medicine since 2013.
“The thing that makes me the most proud is that people come into our residency program and they’ve been beaten up for the last four years in medical school and we’re able to take them and show them that if they work hard and pay attention, their dreams can come true,” Dr. Loehrke said. “And being a part of helping make those dreams come true has just been phenomenal.”
Dr. Loehrke said he is beyond grateful for the opportunities he has had during his career to care for patients in the Kalamazoo community while also helping mold the next generation of physicians.
“I really love taking care of patients,” he said. “The weeks of rounding can be long and clinic can be difficult at times, but taking care of patients is the best job in the world. I also really, really love teaching and it’s one of those things that I think over time I’ve gotten better and better at … Every medical student and every resident wants to be the best physician possible. Learning is fun and patient care is a joy and it has been an interesting process for me to learn how to inspire these young physicians and aspiring doctors.
As he steps away, Dr. Loehrke’s medical career is one that will be bookended by the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. That fact is not lost on him and, as he takes time to reflect, he recalls how he got the chance to care for the first patient diagnosed with AIDS in Kalamazoo. He also can’t help but notice the similarities between the two diseases – especially the fear each fostered at their onset.
“One of the differences is as fast as we got a lot of knowledge about AIDS, we got a lot more knowledge about COVID even more quickly because medicine and science have advanced so rapidly,” he said. “While that knowledge has advanced rapidly, sadly I feel like – over the last 35 years – the amount of compassion we show for each other and caring for each other just didn’t keep up. I would have hoped we could have pulled together during this pandemic and it makes me sad that we haven’t done better.
“In both cases – with AIDS and COVID-19 – we looked at it as a disease of them instead of a disease of all of us,” he added. “Everyone is at risk, everyone is vulnerable. It takes all of us.”
As he prepares for retirement, to fully take that step into the next stage of his life, Dr. Loehrke said he is proud of the work he has done as a doctor and professor. His years of teaching and mentoring resident physicians and third- and fourth-year students at SMAHEC and MSU/KMCS fill him with joy and bring to mind wonderful memories. As a resident at SMAHEC, he was the recipient of four teaching awards and he was recognized with 17 teaching awards over the span of his career as a faculty member, including the Lifetime Faculty Excellence in Teaching in Medicine Award from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 2012.
He also takes pride in being a part of the creation of the new medical school – WMed was founded in 2012 – and getting the opportunity to work with and support first- and second-year students as they begin their journeys into medicine. He has had the opportunity to see, firsthand, the full spectrum of that journey as graduates from the medical school’s first two MD classes in 2018 and 2019 matched into the Internal Medicine residency program at WMed. Even more, the 2018 graduate, Dr. Eric Edewaard, became a member of the faculty in the Department of Medicine earlier this year.
“You love all of your residents but the ones who were here as students and stayed for residency, there’s just something really special about that,” Dr. Loehrke said. “The thing I think I’ve done best in my job is choosing great faculty members who are able to provide great patient care and be inspirational teachers.”
And, for as much as he will miss taking care of patients and teaching residents and students, Dr. Loehrke said he is ready for the next leg of his journey, ready to spend time with his wife, his two grown children and their spouses, and his six grandchildren.
Dr. Loehrke said his plan to retire began to take shape eight years ago with the birth of his first grandchild.
“We went up to Nyack, New York, where my son lived at the time and I held my grandson and I remember that moment,” he said. “I didn’t know that kind of love could exist again. I love my job so much but I loved that more and I remember thinking, in that moment, that I wasn’t a negligent father but I was busy with work and I always wished I had more time to spend with my kids when they were growing up so I wanted to do better as a grandfather.
“I still love this job just as much as ever,” he added. “I love my faculty and residents, and students but, bottom line, I love my family more.”
Once his time at WMed comes to an end in January, Dr. Loehrke said he and his wife have immediate plans to fly to Mauritius where they will stay until March to spend time with their daughter, who is there on assignment with the U.S. Department of State, as well as their son-in-law, and grandkids. He said the tiny island, which is located in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of South Africa, is a tropical paradise and he plans to spend time swimming, hanging out on the beach, and playing with his grandkids.
“It’ll be glorious,” he said.
As he departs, Dr. Loehrke said he wants to leave others – his colleagues, current and former residents and students – with a simple message as they continue their journeys in the medical field.
“The most important thing for any of us is to make sure you keep joy in your life and joy in your job, and to make some effort to get to know your patients because if you do that you will realize continuously that you are working with some of the greatest heroes we have in this world,” Dr. Loehrke said. “One of the great things about being a physician is it puts life in perspective and you learn what the real problems in life are as your patients battle with such courage and grace.
“If you allow yourself to get to know those patients, you will become a better person,” Dr. Loehrke added. “I know I’ve become a much better person and it’s because of the patients I’ve taken care of. That’s one of the greatest gifts of this job.”