Longtime Summit County doc, Jim Oberheide, crosses career’s finish line
June 6, 2017
As Dr. Jim Oberheide remembers it, when he started practicing medicine in Summit County in 1974, it was a community of 6,000 residents and he was one of only four doctors.
Some 43 years later, Oberheide, who closed his career at the Summit Community Care Clinic, recognizes much has changed in the region. What hasn't wavered, friends and colleagues say, is the 72-year-old primary-care physician's commitment to the growing community's health care.
"I personally feel it's kind of an inherent, moral right," said Oberheide. "When we have the capability of doing something for people, it would be kind of different, for me anyway, to not do what we can to provide that care. I know there are incredible financial roadblocks and other issues that prevent us from doing that in this country, but you just do what you can and plug away."
Dr. O, as every one knows him, studied zoology at the University of Denver in the 1960s ahead of med school at the University of Illinois — much closer to his Chicago home. The draw to skiing and the mountains was for him, as it is for many, too great, however, and he eventually took his residency in Denver at St. Joseph's Hospital, arriving to Summit as one of its few clinicians about two years later.
Before Oberheide could land back in Colorado, though, he was drafted into the U.S. Army following his medical training. He was stationed in Vietnam for a year in 1971 toward the end of the war, followed by another year at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs. It was overseas, while the conflict wound down and he chiefly helped infantrymen overcome drug addictions, that he took up running to pass the time when it was quiet. The hobby stuck.
"It's something I've always enjoyed doing, sometimes to a fault," he said. "Running in Summit County, especially during the summer trail running, has just been an important release for me and took my mind away from other things and it refreshes me."
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But those familiar enough will tell you it's actually Oberheide's humility that's almost a fault. He tenders that he's a casual runner these days just to take his dog Cactus out to get some daily exercise. It's almost in passing that he mentions having participated in what he believes was the first Bolder Boulder 10K leading up to the Leadville Trail 100, a race he competed in eight times — completing it six — the last of which as a sexagenarian.
"I got smart twice and quit," he joked. "The real long ones you've got to spend some time at it, and I did my last one 12 years ago when I was 60. That was pretty rough, but I did finish, just barely under the 30-hour cutoff at 29 and a half."
During some of those same years, it's another achievement that Oberheide is also modest about, regarding his role helping to establish the Summit Community Care Clinic in 1993. Almost two decades after first seeing the need for medical care for the area's swelling population of under- and uninsured, he penned a letter to colleagues and the Summit's Board of County Commissioners for assistance launching a once a week, after-hours clinic.
"He was one of the founding doctors, though he doesn't feel like taking credit for the Care Clinic," said Sarah Vaine, the safety-net health center's CEO from 2008-16. "The community was very different back then, and he's continued to do what he has his whole career, feeling a genuine responsibility for caring for the community that didn't have health care. His commitment to community health is second to none."
Through the years, Dr. O was part of new medical offices in the county, first with Keystone's Snake River Health Services in 1982, then its eventual expansion into Dillon. That ultimately became High Country Health Care, and for stretches along the course he maintained volunteer work here and there with the Care Clinic, though contends he was not a major piece of its enlargement to a medical center now open five days a week and 24,000 annual visits. But in 2011, he brought it full circle for another lap and returned to the community-based clinic in a permanent role after initially trying to call it a career a few years prior.
Today, when he's not spending time with his wife of 30 years, Tina, or catching up with his four adult children, Oberheide can usually be found fly-fishing or cycling. Even so, he doesn't see this withdrawal from his professional life as the completion of his medical mission.
Getting down to Guatemala, where the couple adopted two of his four sons, also provides more opportunities to volunteer at area medical clinics. Post-retirement, they're looking forward to an upcoming trip to Vatican City so Tina can sing with the Summit Choral Society at St. Peter's Basilica as well.
Unsure exactly what challenge will present itself next, and still determining whether they'll spend more time at another residence in Salida or remain mostly at their home in Silverthorne, one thing is for certain: Dr. Oberheide's long-distance run carries on.
"It's pretty discouraging to see where we are in this country regarding access to care," he said. "I'm a big believer in national health insurance, and I personally believe if we had that it would help some of the inequities we're seeing. I intend to stay active regarding the not so much political, but the social aspect of advocating for health care for everybody."