Teaching medicine in the shadows of the Wallowas

January 27, 2016

Dr. Liz PowersShe grew up in Iron River, a small town in Michigan's sparsely populated Upper Peninsula where 160 inches of snow a year is not uncommon. As a child, Elizabeth Powers, M.D. R '06, often strapped on skis to trek with her father, a family physician, to the local hospital. She would munch cookies at the nurse's station while he did his rounds.

As a student at Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Powers considered a number of different specialties. But her rural upbringing made an indelible imprint. "It absolutely colored in my brain what it means to be a doctor," she said. After rotations in say, surgery or neurology, she would think, "That was cool, but I didn't feel like a doctor." 

During her family medicine residency at OHSU, she did a rotation in Enterprise, Ore., and fell in love with the place. After residency, she joined a practice there called Winding Waters Clinic PC; she is one of three physician/owners and the lead clinician.

That was nearly a decade ago. But she has hardly settled into a quiet, pastoral life. She works in a busy clinic, which sees some 1,300 patients a month, and also cares for patients in hospital and emergency-room settings. She has two small children who go with her to all her out-of-town meetings. She is president of the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians and serves on the Oregon Rural Practice-based Research Network steering committee and the American Academy of Family Physicians Commission on Rural Health. 

Among the jobs she is most dedicated to, however, is training and mentoring the next generation of doctors as an affiliate associate professor in the OHSU School of Medicine. She and her clinic colleagues teach a steady stream of OHSU medical students and residents on their rural rotations.

Earlier this year, Sylvia Peterson-Perry, a third-year medical student in OHSU's M.D./MPH program, shadowed physicians as they rounded at Wallowa Memorial Hospital or saw patients in the clinic. They did exams together, wrote patient notes and talked about the medical conditions being treated. 

In the clinic, Peterson-Perry often took part in patient interactions. In one case, Dr. Powers detected a heart murmur, but Peterson-Perry couldn't hear it. 

"No, no, it's right here," said the patient. "I'm gonna hold my breath, now listen." 

"Because we've had learners here for so long, the community is invested in their training," Dr. Powers explained. 

What struck Peterson-Perry about her Enterprise experience is how close the provider-patient relationships are. "The physicians would perform a procedure, and then they might say, 'I'm looking forward to our kids' playdate tomorrow,'" she said. 

Her goal, says Dr. Powers, is to give learners a sampling of her own Iron River experience. "I want to instill in students a passion for community health and patient-centered, team-based care," she said. 

A broad range of providers teach students and trainees in community settings throughout Oregon. The school is seeking additional providers to participate in this crucial learning experience. Please contact to learn more. 

Dr. Powers has a rich life outside her medical responsibilities. She and her husband revel in backcountry skiing, mountain biking and kayaking. They produce and bale six tons of hay a year on their five-acre spread. And until the birth of her youngest child, Dr. Powers was a violinist in the Grande Ronde Symphony and still plays a mean fiddle with local Irish and bluegrass bands.

Photo credit: Oregon Academy of Family Physicians