If not for a hitchhiking trip to Northeast Oregon at age 17, Joseph Gifford might never have become a doctor.

The Beaverton-area teenager thumbed his way to Umatilla, then called a friend in Hermiston from a phone booth. The friend wasn’t home, but his father, Dr. Wendell Ford, fetched Gifford, brought him to Hermiston and cooked him dinner.

Partway through the meal, the doctor got a phone call and learned a patient needed an emergency appendectomy at the hospital. The teenager tagged along, scrubbed up and helped with the surgery.

“He had me hold the retractor,” Gifford said.

Getting this up-close view of surgery, Gifford, now 70, recalled a huge rush of realization.

“I felt about six inches off the ground,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is what I must do.’ I was hooked.”

Fast forward more than 50 years and Gifford will retire this month after 44 years of medicine in Eastern Oregon as a family practitioner. Across the street from Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston, an urgent care clinic bears his name.

To be accepted into medical school, Gifford said he transformed from a mediocre student to an excellent one. He graduated from Walla Walla University with a degree in chemistry and entered Loma Linda Medical School.

After completing their internships, Gifford and his medical school buddy, Dr. Richard A. Carpenter, started practicing in Pendleton. The two hospitals in town at the time didn’t have any emergency room doctors so town physicians covered. Gifford and Carpenter did more than their share.

“We were two young bucks covering most of it,” Gifford said with a grin.

After nine months, the pair of doctors started a practice in Heppner. The young physicians had their hands full.

“In Heppner, there were no specialists. It was good to have nine months in Pendleton, before we dived into the abyss,” Gifford said. “Our saving grace was the experience of the nurses there. We just acted like we knew what we were doing to hide our intimidation and insecurities.”

Such humility is pure Gifford.

“I’m a people person with a type A personality, but I’m not the smartest physician on the block,” he said. “I feel I have savvy, though. Savvy has gotten me through.”

The physician, generally upbeat and ebullient, doesn’t gloss over hard subjects during appointments.

“He’s not afraid to be real with his patients,” said nurse Nikkie Griffin. “He’s honest with them. He doesn’t sugarcoat.”

Gifford has noticed plenty of changes during his career, both positive and negative. Doctors specialize more and insurance companies play a larger role in determining care. It’s more difficult and expensive to have an independent practice.

“The independence of physicians is gone to a great extent,” he said.

On the other hand are “fantastic strides in medicine” such as pharmaceuticals, enhanced surgical procedures and increased human longevity.

“A lot of progress in medicine has happened in 44 years,” he said.

Gifford moved to Hermiston 27 years ago as a family physician and obstetrician. Sixteen years ago, he added the urgent care clinic. The hospital bought and assumed ownership of Gifford Medical last July. Gifford, who continued working there part-time, is easing himself toward the door. Patients and colleagues are dreading the 19th when he officially retires.

“He is one of those people who truly cares about his patients,” said Natasha Ellwanger, the practice manager. “He’s gone to nursing homes. He’s gone to people’s houses. You just don’t find that any more in a physician.”

“He has a big heart,” Griffin said. “Really huge.”

Ellwanger, who started in 2002 doing filing, said patients are sad at the thought of Gifford’s departure. Many have called the office just to say good-bye. She said Gifford saw 1,200 patients in his practice last year and that doesn’t count people he treated in urgent care. People often stop Gifford in town just to say hello.

In retirement, Gifford looks forward to traveling more with his wife, Lisa. The boat he keeps moored in the San Juan Islands will get more use. His three children and four grandsons will see him more often. He is a pilot, so he’ll spend extra time in the air, too.

Good Shepherd is recruiting a doctor to take Gifford’s place.

As Gifford looked back over the years, he said he is blessed to have found a profession that he loved so much. He recalled his father, a musician, telling him to look for a job that he looked forward to every day.

“You’ll never have to work a day in your life,” said Gifford, reciting his father’s words. “You’ll get to work.”

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