After 38 years of caring for the sick and injured, Aspen’s longest practicing doctor is hanging up his stethoscope for good.
Dr. Barry Mink, 71, is retiring on Friday and has been preparing his patients — which number into the thousands — for the change.
“It’s been the toughest three months of my career,” he said on a recent afternoon in his Main Street office. The impending retirement also has been tough on his patients, many of whom have been going to Mink since he came to town in 1975 as Aspen’s only internist.
“A lot of them are my age,” Mink said. “I grew up with them.”
Mink’s partners at Aspen Internal Medicine, Dr. Carl Schiller and Susan Zimet, have not yet been able to find a replacement for him, signaling the challenges facing the health care industry locally.
“There is a paucity of primary care doctors here,” he said.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to cover the overhead costs of operating a doctor’s office, with lower reimbursements coming in from insurance companies and government programs, he noted.
Mink has seen and accomplished much in his long career. He was the first surgeon to put a pacemaker in a person in Aspen. And after a long battle with ski company executives, Mink was finally able to convince them to allow ski patrollers to use defibrillators and advanced CPR methods on the hill that ultimately saved lives. Mink, who also specializes in sports medicine, brought the first treadmill-based body-function test to Aspen.
A Chicago native, Mink was serving in the U.S. Air Force when a buddy asked him to accompany him to Aspen for a visit.
“I fell in love with the place,” said Mink, who by then had a wife and three children.
That was in 1974, and Dr. Harold Whitcomb was looking for a partner. Mink came back a year later and Whitcomb was still without a partner so he packed up his family and moved to Aspen. They opened the Aspen Clinic, along with orthopaedic doctor Bob Oden.
“It was fate,” he said, adding that living and working in Aspen comes with sacrifices but they have been worth it. “I have no regrets.”
The local medical community back then was extremely small, with about 14 doctors in total, and no real emergency room services to speak of.
“With our little group of docs and nurses, we were the final common pathway in most cases,” he said. “We had to figure it out and had to deal with these very serious problems.”
Aspen Valley Hospital was located where the Hunter Creek Longhouse is now. Being the town’s only cardiologist, Mink drove the lone ambulance, which was a station wagon.
Heroin addicts hung out in Paepcke Park, across from his office, and drugs, alcohol and infectious diseases were prevalent. Life was bit looser back in those days, Mink acknowledged.
He recalled the vision of male patients lined up in the old hospital’s solarium who had undergone orthopaedic surgery. At night, their girlfriends would be in their beds and coolers of beer would be next to them.
“It was wild,” he said.
Of course, a lot has changed since then and Mink has been there every step of the way. This is his ninth year serving on the Aspen Valley Hospital board and he has three more to go.
The good old days of the solarium are gone and AVH has morphed into a state-of-the-art facility, complete with the latest diagnostic technology.
“It’s been a privilege to watch this medical community grow up,” he said. “It’s been fun to see the evolution in this town. … I’ve seen it all and it’s amazing.”
Mink also served as the chief of staff and chief of medicine at AVH. He has been a county coroner, a medical examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration and he founded the first sports medicine team in Aspen.
He’s been to two Olympic Games — in 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y. and Lillehammer, Norway in 1994 — serving in the 1980 games as chief medical officer for the American biathlon team and as the team’s physician internist in the 1994 games.
Mink, an athlete who competed in the early days of the Leadville 100 and numerous marathons, thought he was going to be a Major League Baseball player in high school.
The son of a physical education teacher who was a former all-American athlete, Mink was an all-conference high school quarterback. But his father said he was too small to play football, and being blessed with a “terrific arm,” Mink pursued baseball instead.
At 18 years old, he signed a professional contract with the Cincinnati Reds and played catcher in the minor leagues with teammates Pete Rose and Tony Perez.
But his baseball career was short-lived due a shoulder injury he suffered during a flag football game.
He switched gears and enrolled as a pre-med at Northwestern University.
“I wanted to figure out what messed me up,” Mink said of his injury and his interest in medicine.
He received his degree at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami before moving to Aspen.
He has written a fictional book called “A Second Chance,” that could be what Mink’s life might have been — it’s about an old baseball player returning to the sport at age 65. It’s on sale at Explore Booksellers.
Patients describe Mink as a caring, compassionate man and an old-school doctor who sits down with them in his office, and discusses their life and health before conducting an examination. He is known to call them at home to check in and will visit them at the hospital before a surgery, regardless if he is involved or not in the procedure.
“This is a small town and you develop relationships with your patients,” he said. “They know you, they depend on you for what you are supposed to be doing and I took that pretty seriously.
“You get to know people and you start to like them,” he added. “Their gratitude is the best reward.”
As an internist, Mink has approached patient care in a style similar to Sherlock Holmes, asking probing questions and really listening to his patients in his pursuit to figure out what the problem is. The best experience is by doing, he said.
“I’ve been a guy who has been doing this a certain way for so long that it’s hard to change my way in dealing with people,” he said.
In a climate where health insurance and government programs don’t lend themselves to doctors spending that much time with patients, and technology replacing human diagnosis, it seems that Mink is leaving the industry at the appropriate time.
Medicare and other party payments have demonstrated an unwillingness to pay for preventative and cognitive care, and because the reimbursements for treatment are so low, doctors are forced to bring more people through the door.
“They are not talking about spending the time that’s needed to really think through a patient’s problem,” Mink said. “For a doctor to cover that overhead, you have to see more people.
“It detracts from what I do, which is diagnostics, listening to patients, seeing how they are reacting to your treatments and not just getting them in and out of there after you take a mole or wart off.”
With the cost of doing business rising, Mink agreed that it’s time to exit the industry.
“I’m looking forward to getting out, I think, sorry to say,” he said.
He does, however, believe that there will be positive reforms in the health care system.
“I’m very optimistic about medicine in the future,” Mink said.
He said there needs to be a mandatory system of payment based on what a patient can afford. He cited an example where a millionaire who has paid into the Medicare system shouldn’t pay $30 for a doctor’s office visit while an underinsured chairlift operator has to pay $100 for same service.
“I think a financial system is appropriate to be implemented into this country to help keep things on an even playing field when it comes to paying for your care,” Mink said. “There is a tremendous amount of unfairness in that system and it certainly can’t be sustained the way it’s going now. The costs are not sustainable for medical care now and doctors are realizing that.”
Mink said in the future he thinks there will be malpractice reform and changes in the Medicare system that move toward a model where patients’ fees for service are based on their ability to pay.
Looking back on his career, Mink said he couldn’t have done it without the support of his wife of 47 years, Peggy, along with the nurses who have been with him for years, as well as his colleagues.
“I owe so much to my wife, I’m very indebted to her,” he said. “The nurses have been with me forever and I can’t thank them enough, and the professional people and my colleagues that helped me to be successful in taking care of sick and injured people — I can’t be more indebted to anybody more than that.”
Mink said the “confidence and devotion” of his patients was his “greatest reward.”
Mink has no grand plans for retirement, except to hang out in Aspen with his wife and visit their three daughters and grandchildren who live elsewhere.
“I feel lucky,” he said. “It’s been really wonderful being here.”