NORTHFIELD — The community here is suffering palpitations at the imminent departure of longtime small-town physician Dr. Craig Sullivan.
Sullivan leaves Green Mountain Family Practice on May 2, after 36 years’ service.
The mood at the Paine Mountain Drive practice was merry this week as the staff celebrated Sullivan’s 70th birthday, which is Sunday.
Nevertheless, there is a deep sense of loss, and an even deeper gratitude, for the family physician who treated patients and staff like family. Sullivan, of Roxbury, had all the old-school hallmarks of a family physician: treating everyday ills and serious illness, listening to patients’ concerns and making house calls.
Known for his warmth and humor, Sullivan steps down in good health and spirits (and no specific plans), leaving the practice — and his patients — in good hands.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Sullivan is a third-generation doctor; his son, Matthew, who also works at the practice, making it four generations. Strangely, neither man had an intention of following in their father’s footsteps.
Craig Sullivan studied English at Dartmouth College “but never took a science course,” he said. He worked odd jobs and traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa and Asia for more than a year. He returned penniless, and desperate to find work. He started out as a counselor at a lockdown mental health facility for children in Boston.
“I loved doing it, but was very frustrated by the medical (services) there,” Sullivan said.
The upside, he said, was that he met his wife, Lucinda, who was a special education teacher in the facility.
Lucinda encouraged him to get a better job, so he took science courses and got into medical school at Loyola University in Chicago, studying child psychiatry.
While there, Sullivan became interested in the physiology of medicine, deciding instead to become a family physician.
“That was a fortunate decision for me,” he said.
After a three-year residency in Connecticut, he wanted to find a practice in northern New England, and joined the practice run by Dr. Kevin Crowley in 1983. It was Green Mountain Clinic on Main Street in Northfield.
Sullivan stayed on 36 years, leading the practice when Crowley retired about four years ago.
Over the years, the practice has moved: first to the infirmary on Crescent Avenue in 1987, opposite Norwich University. In 2015, it moved into a new building on nearby Paine Mountain Drive. Sullivan changed the name to Green Mountain Family. Today, the practice has nearly 3,500 patients.
His tenure started off with a challenge.
Three months in, there was a meningitis outbreak in town.
“... It was the most unbelievable piece of intense medicine I’ve ever experienced,” Sullivan said. “I was on the phone daily and they knew my first name at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta) because it was the biggest outbreak of community-acquired meningitis in, actually, the history of the United States; we had 11 cases.”
Ultimately, it required immunizing the whole town.
“The town was so appreciative, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing because I was so unprepared for this, but that was just a watershed moment for me in terms of medical service intensity,” he said.
Over time, he has adapted; treatments are hyperlocal.
“Now, I’m running a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program here because they’ve had epidemics of heroin use at the high school when my kids were there, and we’ve seen AIDS and communicable diseases, all of this stuff that I never thought I would see in a rural, small-town family practice; we see it all,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s son followed a somewhat similar track.
“Matthew left high school and said he would never be back in Northfield and I will never go into medicine, which is basically what I said when I left my father’s house when I was 17,” Sullivan said.
Like father like son, Matthew was also an English major at Dartmouth College and ended up “circuitously,” joining his father on medical humanitarian stints in Guatemala and Bolivia.
“So, he got interested in medicine through the back door, did medicine, was going to go into surgery but ended up really enjoying patient interaction and education,” Sullivan said.
Matthew Sullivan studied medicine in Seattle, Washington, where he did his residency and served three years in a practice before joining his father in Northfield in 2015.
“He called up and said, ‘So, are you still looking for someone, dad,’” Sullivan said. “He knew I was drowning here four years ago (after Dr. Crowley retired). So, he’s come back, even though he said he would never come back to Northfield, and we’ve worked side-by-side since, and it’s been the best thing.”
Matthew Sullivan paid tribute to his father’s work, and his ability to read the community’s needs.
“He definitely holds a special place in the community, and it was hard not to be inspired by the model that I grew up around,” he said, noting that his father was always home for dinner and involved in his children’s activities and school life. “But he spent a lot of hours between midnight and 6 a.m. going out to admit patients.
“Obviously, he’s walked through a lot of life with people,” Matthew Sullivan said. “I have a hard time giving a straightforward tribute, but he really is still at the top of his medicine game, still totally with it. So, it’s an excellent time to see him move on and be comfortable on that path.”
Whenever he’s in the community, at the local stores, high school or Norwich University, Craig Sullivan said, “I can expect four people to stop me for a consult.”
Moving forward, the practice will be in good hands through a series of coincidences.
Dr. Amanda Dauten joined the practice in January.
“I’m actually from a small town outside of Chicago, called Northfield,” Dauten said.
Dauten also was a medical undergraduate at Dartmouth College, her first time on the East Coast, although she has family in Vermont.
Dauten received her doctorate in medicine at the University of Vermont in 2015, where she met her husband, Matt Woodard, an engineer turned woodworker, who grew up near the Woodard Family Farm in Waterbury Center. The couple lives in Waterbury with their 16-month-old daughter.
Although six years apart, Dauten noted that she and Matthew Sullivan both pursued their residencies out west — Dauten in Idaho and Sullivan in Seattle — before both decided to return to Vermont.
Dauten said she chose the Northfield practice because of the camaraderie between senior staff members and because of the impression Craig Sullivan and his patients made on her.
“Grown men cry every day (because he’s leaving), which I’ve never really seen before,” Dauten said. “It’s because they’re sad that he’s leaving and how much that relationship means to them and not being able to express it otherwise.”
“There have been times, because of distance to the nearest hospital, people would show up at the practice first,” said Lucy Hallock, who has been an administrative assistant at the practice for nearly 30 years.
“Some days, it was like we were the emergency room,” Hallock said. “We had people come in with lacerations; come in with chest pains; and we just had to take care of it because these were the people that we saw at the grocery store. These were our family and friends, and I think the town appreciates it.”
Hallock said Sullivan trusted the staff to always act as “advocates for the patient.”
And then there was the time Sullivan saved Hallock’s life when she came back to work, complaining of breathing difficulties following a knee surgery. Sullivan sent Hallock to the hospital for CAT scans, which revealed multiple pulmonary embolisms.
”He said I was in that 10-day window when it’s quite common, but he said, ‘Let’s check it out,’” Hallock said. “So, I always say, ‘He saved my life.’”
Marge Czok, a clinical coordinator of 38 years before retiring last June, had a similar story. Sullivan detected and arranged treatment of melanoma for Czok.
“I had a melanoma and he spent an amazing amount of time researching where I should go for treatment,” Czok said. “He would make you feel so comfortable; he was like your best friend.”
Sullivan was known for shuffling his busy schedule to fit in a patient who urgently requested attention. He also trained staff to detect signs of a deeper malaise that a patient exhibited that might need attention. Sullivan would often treat the patient holistically, Czok said.
“He would take the time and listen to them, no matter what, treating the whole person,” Czok said.
Czok recalled a time when both Sullivan’s mother and a patient’s mother were dying simultaneously.
“His mother was ill also, but he made the special house call to the patient’s mother, and she said, ‘Oh, Dr. Sullivan,’ and she died minutes later, and then he went home to his ailing mother,” Czok said.
Czok credited both Sullivan and Crowley for the quality of care patients receive.
“The two of them made Green Mountain Family Practice what it is,” Czok said.
Dick Jarvis, 83, of Braintree, has been a patient for more than 30 years. He also credited Sullivan for his care and health. Before retirement after 38 years, he taught science and coached basketball at Northfield High School; he also taught Sullivan’s children.
“Dr. Sullivan gets to know his patients very well; he’s a patient doctor,” Jarvis said.
“It’s a great loss and I’m gonna miss him,” Jarvis said. “He is a gentleman, first class. We are blessed in this community to have this practice and the physicians they have.”
Going forward, Sullivan said the practice is well-staffed and run under the modern-day model of team physician health care. He said he has been inundated with patients reaching out to him before leaving.
“I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the responses,” Sullivan said of his retirement.
In retirement, Sullivan says he will still do medical humanitarian work in Central America, go fishing; and occasionally fill in at the practice when needed.
“... I’ve been given more than I’ve given. I’ve been blessed,” Sullivan said.