TRAVERSE CITY — One of Aaron Heindl’s first memories of his doctor is quite vivid.
“He pinned me down with five of his assistants. I’ll never forget that,” Heindl said as he smiled at Bill Smith while the two doctors sat at their work stations at West Front Primary Care’s office.
The wrestling match over a vaccination is one of many memories Heindl, 29, has of Smith. Those recollections helped him decide, despite more lucrative options in the medical field, to move home to Traverse City and take a job replacing Smith when he retires in September.
Heindl’s contact with Smith began farther back than his memories. Smith, 64, was the doctor who delivered Heindl nearly 30 years ago, back when family practice doctors still worked rotations in hospitals and delivered babies.
Heindl said his image of what a doctor should be, “probably goes back to my family’s interaction with the health care system,” his interaction with their family doctor.
But Heindl is just one of thousands of people Smith touched during 35 years of practicing medicine.
People are Smith’s life’s work. He gave them good news and bad. He watched them be born and die. He cheered for them in the best times and held their hands in the worst.
Smith doesn’t treat illness, he treats people, many of whom are friends and neighbors, he said.
That is why Smith’s decision to retire after practicing family medicine in Traverse City for 35 years was shrouded in apprehension.
“After 35 years of practicing medicine, I didn’t want to just send out a note to my patients,” an emotional Smith said. “This summer turned our a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.”
Smith considered retiring for some time, but had difficulty coming to terms with leaving a practice of about 2,000 patients to just anyone. He cares for those people, and he’s done so for three decades-plus.
The most difficult task is, “Saying goodbye to people I’ve known for the entire 35 years,” Smith said. “I’m not sure if or when I will see them again.”
Smith, a graduate of Traverse City High School and of the University of Michigan school of medicine, wanted the right doctor to take his place, a doctor who would understand why it was so difficult for him to leave his life’s work.
Then, Heindl came to his office for a family-practice rotation during his years in the Wayne State University medical school.
“My mom did my laundry and my doctor taught me how to do stuff. It was great,” Heindl said.
It was an experience that helped determine Heindl’s path, one that a few years later led him back to Smith’s office. Heindl began working in the office a few weeks ago alongside Smith, learning the ins and outs of the office and meeting patients.
“In many ways, I’m just very envious,” Heindl said. “Someday, I hope I can have the appreciation that I left something for the people of Traverse City. There is a lot to live up to. I hope that at the end of it I can feel like I have given.”
Smith looked toward Heindl and repeated advice he’s lived by for his entire career.
“Knowing individuals and families as human beings and not as an illness,” Smith said. “That’s pretty special.”