From the family cattle ranch in a rural valley outside Missoula to medical school in the booming city of Seattle, Courtney Hathaway has learned to adapt to wildly different environments and cultures.
Those experiences will come in handy now that she’s returned home and is practicing family medicine at Community Medical Center. A doctor in that field treats all demographics, from delivering babies to treating diabetes in teenagers to discussing end-of-life care with the elderly.
Dr. Hathaway is also a perfect example of what many of the state’s economists and elected officials have long sought to do: Lure the state’s best and brightest back home to work after they attend college and work elsewhere.
Hathaway was actually born at Community Medical Center and graduated from Hellgate High School in 2004. Back then, she was known as Courtney Iverson and she helped her parents raise cattle on the Iverson Ranch in Potomac.
“I probably knew I wanted to be a doctor and work in health care in third or fourth grade,” she recalled. “I went to a tiny little school in Potomac and one of the cool things was dissecting cow hearts and eyeballs and pig hearts. My dad had provided them to our science teacher, who had been a veterinary tech. It was super fun and I thought it would be a cool field.”
She also volunteered with the fire department in Potomac and did some Emergency Medical Services training.
“That was all aspects of medicine and patient care, and that kind of set that path for me to go to medical school,” she said.
She definitely had opportunities to earn more money in other places, especially rural areas where the federal government subsidizes doctors. But her husband is retired from the military, also grew up in the area and had expressed a desire to learn how to run a cattle ranch. So, returning home was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“Growing up, my parents always wanted us to get off the ranch and get an education and go see the world, but they always left the door open and wanted us to come back anytime,” she said. “I was a typical teenager. I thought, ‘Oh, I want to get out of the small town’ but then pretty quickly after you reach adulthood you realize there’s no better place to raise a family than the Missoula Valley and western Montana.”
She is now a family medicine and obstetrics physician at Community Physician Group’s Family Medicine and Obstetrics. The group also recently hired Sentinel High School grads Dr. Paul Baumgartner and Dr. Tondy Baumgartner, both obstetrician-gynecologists.
Hathaway was always cognizant that becoming a doctor would allow her to work pretty much anywhere, so she knew she could return home if she wanted.
“One thing my dad did tell me when I was a kid was to go get a good job and come back,” she recalled. “And health care was definitely a field where I could work anywhere. And I knew being a family doctor would give me a skill set that would be needed anywhere, no matter where I ended up, so that kind of motivated the career path in medicine. I knew it would allow me to move back, most assuredly.”
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In family medicine, Hathway does everything from removing ingrown toenails to applying birth control devices to diagnosing cardiovascular disease. She never knows what age her patients will be or what affliction they’ll walk in with. Every day is a surprise, and Hathaway hopes more people will choose to pursue a career in medicine.
“I think it’s amazing and humbling to be invited into someone’s life and be trusted with their health,” she said. “It’s such a rewarding field. It really touches you deeply to get to take care of people.”
She said doctors, like priests, bartenders and hairdressers, listen to people share their most personal information.
“People confide in you even more than their family,” she said. “Sometimes, to me, that is impactful.”
Hathaway said there are programs available in Montana to help people pay off their medical school loans, but she always recommends people get their general education requirements done at community colleges, state schools or technical schools.
“You can get into medical school with any bachelor’s degree, you can get in with a degree in Spanish literature,” she said. “Spend as little as possible on undergrad because grad school is expensive.”
Dr. David Lechner, the president and chief medical officer of the Community Physician Group, hired Hathaway.
“She’s a remarkable young woman,” he said. “She’s very well-trained. Her mom worked on CMC’s campus for one of the private providers. So we’re always looking to bring home Montana kids. They have family here, their retention rate is higher and their satisfaction on where they’re coming to live is greater.”
Lechner said that while Community is able to offer competitive salaries, Missoula’s high housing costs have forced qualified candidates to look elsewhere.
“I’ve had people turn down offers because the cost of living in Missoula is substantially higher than other places,” he said. “It’s a big detriment here. It’s going to have to be a community conversation and a community solution around what we are doing and what our growth plan looks like. It’s not a simple solution.”
Lechner said Montana kids will accept certain sacrifices to bring their families back home to be closer to grandparents.
“We have a number of Missoula kids here that have been able to come back,” he said. “It’s awesome to have that longstanding community connection.”