JEFFERSON — Seven years ago, when Dr. David Rutledge was asked to take over as medical director of the Rock River Free Clinic, it was a service provided only three hours once a week.

Doctors from Fort HealthCare and Watertown Regional Medical Center would volunteer to staff the clinic on Thursday nights.

However, it was evident very quickly that the need was great.

“They decided if they increased the clinic to a full-time clinic, then we’d be able to serve more people more consistently,” said Rutledge, who has worked at the Fort HealthCare Jefferson clinic for 29 years.

Rutledge was asked to take over just as the transition was happening. While he didn’t know why he was chosen, his successor, nurse practitioner Mary Beck-Metzger, said it was because of his willingness to do the job and his experience as a family care physician.

But regardless of the reason, the clinic hit the ground running as soon as he arrived.

“The Thursday nights ended in December of 2011 and we came in Jan. 2 of 2012,” Rutledge recalled. “We just started with the schedule as it is now and it just stayed that way.”

Beck-Metzger, who has worked 20 years each as a registered nurse and nurse practitioner, said the change allowed a much greater number of patients to be served by the free clinic.

“People get sick on days other than Thursdays,” Beck-Metzger said. “There were some people that could never be served by an evening clinic; they work second shift, for instance. To have regular office hours, there’s a dignity to that. It used to be, if you didn’t get there early on a Thursday evening, you might not be able to be seen.”

Rutledge built the Rock River Free Clinic into a safety net that other health-care providers could rely on if patients were having a difficult time, according to Beck-Metzger.

“Dr. Rutledge being here was a wonderful resource for all of us other primary care providers in the county,” Beck-Metzger said. “If we had somebody that suddenly lost their insurance, or lost their job or changed jobs that didn’t offer insurance, here’s a clinic with a well-qualified family practice doc who is able to see those folks in a timely manner. That’s priceless.”

Beck-Metzger now is taking over the clinic’s reins as Rutledge retires as medical director.

Rutledge said he’s most proud of the number of people he was able to help over his seven years at the clinic.

“The best part of working here is that we provide a resource that a lot of people just aren’t going to be able to have access to otherwise,” Rutledge said. “There isn’t any one patient; there’s a whole lot of people we’ve seen over time. Nothing dramatic, nothing you’d put on a medical TV show, but I think it’s been a big resource for the community.”

Thanks to the clinic, the uninsured and underinsured residents of Jefferson County can take care of their health before it becomes a life-or-death situation, said Rutledge, a graduate of Northwestern University Medical School.

“I think if we weren’t here, a lot of people would have to rely on waiting until they’re sick and then they show up to the emergency room or urgent care at the hospital,” Rutledge said. “Then they’re just getting acute care. Here, we can see people for chronic conditions, in addition to seeing people that get sick. The more consistent care we can provide here, the less likely they are to use those kinds of services.”

Rutledge, 67, has spent more than three decades serving the Jefferson County community. He said age is the only reason he’s retiring, but Beck-Metzger said she feels like she’s got big shoes to fill.

“Dr. Rutledge has a long, successfully running clinic here. I’m not coming in here to change anything,” Beck-Metzger said. “I think Dr. Rutledge is the portrait of a compassionate, ethical primary care provider. Someone who provides the same excellent care to someone he sees in the clinic. I just want to walk in his shoes and carry the legacy of excellent care forward.”

While Rutledge and Beck-Metzger know family practice isn’t the flashiest corner of the health-care world, they believe it’s important.

“Family practice is often not flashy, (but) we save lives moment by moment and week by week and year by year. We don’t save them in a dramatic fashion,” Beck-Metzger said.

“You’d never make a movie about us,” Rutledge interjected.

Rutledge, who said his favorite part of the job was being in the exam room with the patient, said the connections he’s made along the way will be what he misses most, but he’s looking forward to not having to set an alarm in the morning.

“I think the thing I’ll miss most is the relationships with the patients,” Rutledge said. “Also the relationships with the people I work with here. I’m going to miss all those people.”

Rutledge said once he’s ridden off into the sunset of retirement, he’s going to work on chores around the house that he’s been putting off for a while and then find some volunteer work outside of the medical profession.

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