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10 Mercy physicians honored with lifetime achievement awards

Organizer hopes awards will increase physician retention and preserve institutional knowledge
Physicians gathered the Powerhouse Science Center in Durango last month to celebrate the 10 Mercy Hospital doctors who received lifetime achievement awards. (Courtesy of Dr. Jim Birgenheier)

For just the second time in 141 years, Mercy Hospital’s medical staff gathered in Durango to honor longtime contributors to the region’s health care landscape.

Dr. Jim Birgenheier, the president of the hospital’s medical staff, presented 10 doctors with lifetime achievement awards at an event at the Powerhouse Science Center on Oct. 8.

For a hospital that has existed for nearly a century and a half, Birgenheier says Mercy has “not a lot of institutional knowledge or even wisdom that runs as a common thread.”

And with burnout becoming an increasingly large threat to staff retention in health care settings nationwide, he hopes the awards will have a positive impact by recognizing providers for their work.

In his role as president of the medical staff, Birgenheier oversees a free-standing, independent governing body representing providers at Mercy, regardless of whether or not they work for the hospital. He also serves on the hospital’s board.

In 2022, the group presented 12 physicians with the award.

    10 lifetime achievement awards presented to Durango physicians

    • Dr. Bruce Andrea
    • Dr. Catherine Willner (posthumously)
    • Dr. Cecile Fraley
    • Dr. Dave Deaver
    • Dr. Richard Grossman
    • Dr. Jesse Hutt
    • Dr. Pat Kearney
    • Dr. Steve Lavengood
    • Dr. Pat Messerli
    • Dr. Larry Suazo

    Birgenheier said there is no one set of criteria that qualified a doctor for the recognition.

    A long career of excellent patient care in the community was one basic qualifier, he said, although the providers’ work to improve the quality of care through other avenues, such as serving on committees, were also factored in.

    “I certainly want to appreciate the folks that, really, their careers (are) not just substantive, but inspirational,” Birgenheier said.

    Many of the recipients have worked in the community for upward of three decades.

    “I'm at an age where I go in to see patients and many of the parents were former patients of mine,” said 2023 recipient Dr. Cecile Fraley, CEO of Pediatric Partners of the Southwest. “That life cycle in a community is very meaningful to me.”

    The event was largely a celebration of physicians who have worked together for many decades, awardees said. Fraley knew another recipient, Dr. Jesse Hutt, from their time together working in Salt Lake City, and called those connections “very meaningful.”

    “Our strong cohesive medical community is represented by many of the other recipients of the award,” Hutt said in an email to The Durango Herald. “I would not hesitate to reach out to any of them for a consultation about a particularly difficult case or a personal health issue.”

    Dr. Steve Lavengood, a Durango family physician of 34 years who retired on Oct. 27, called the award an “extraordinary honor.”

    He is one of the recipients who sees the recognition, although relatively small, as important in bolstering the sense of community among health care professionals in Durango.

    “Having the longevity of these providers, myself included, provides some not only institutional knowledge, but institutional wisdom for corporations, such as Centura, that bring in new administrators on a fairly frequent basis,” he said.

    The awardees will have their names inscribed on the pedestal of a statue of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, which will be on display in the hospital lobby.

    Dr. Jim Birgenheier, right, recognizes Dr. Pat Kearney with a lifetime achievement award. (Courtesy of Dr. Jim Birgenheier)

    In an email to the awardees, Birgenheier said the recognition not only applauds the hard work of deserving members, but inspires newer physicians who observe a culture of respect and kindness.

    “There have been incredible physicians here who have really given their whole professional lives to serving the people in Durango and in the area,” awardee Dr. Pat Kearney said. “And, unfortunately, there's a lot more turnover for physicians than there used to be. To me, it's been an incredible gift to be able to be here for almost my entire career. I say I literally have grown up with my patients. So, it's neat to have that kind of contribution acknowledged by your colleagues.”


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