The doctor is in
Residency program director finds joy in guiding young doctors
Dr. Sherm Straw is a map guy.
As a lover of the outdoors and a father of five, including one Boy Scout, Straw has spent plenty of time in the woods as a troop leader, hiker and camper using maps to show him where he has been and where to go.
Straw’s fascination with maps has carried into his work with St. Mary’s Family Medicine Residency Program, where he has been for 28 years, the past eight as program director.
Straw’s homemade map behind his office door displays a photo of each resident who graduated from the program since he joined the faculty part-time in 1988. The faces — some of the physicians remained in the area to practice — are stacked in rows by year to remind Straw of all the doctors he taught. The remaining space on the door will display the faces of future physicians he will influence.
“I really love what I do,” said Straw, 59. “Every year, I get a new batch of kids. It’s wonderful to take an enthusiastic student, this bundle of energy and knowledge, and channel that.”
If Straw talks about residents like they are his own children, it is because, in a way, they are.
Straw and the other 16 faculty members with the residency program spend dozens of hours a week together in clinical work, hospital rotations, late-night emergency admissions and/or on-call because residents have licensed physicians trailing them like shadows, Straw said.
That amount of time together teaching and learning in sometimes intense situations creates a bond.
Dr. Laura Campbell, a 2009 graduate of the residency program and a physician at Juniper Family Medicine in Grand Junction, said Straw is a family man himself so it is no surprise he encourages the same spirit within the program.
It’s a theme that started in childhood. Straw grew up in a family that valued education — his father was a college business professor — and Christian service. Straw showed an interest in science and veered toward medicine.
He earned an undergraduate degree at Northern Arizona University and attended medical school at the University of Arizona. After medical school, Straw sought out a small Western town with four seasons and outdoor recreation. He thought about Wyoming where his grandmother homesteaded. He grew up working the ranch there and loved it.
“She said, ‘Don’t go back to Wyoming. The wind never stops blowing. It’s cold. Look at Colorado. It’s nicer down there,’” Straw said.
His grandmother suggested Grand Junction, a place Straw visited as a child to get fruit for her to can. He took her advice and moved here in 1983 as a resident in the St. Mary’s Family Medicine Residency Program started by Dr. L. Edward Ellinwood in 1977.
Straw opened a private practice in Palisade in the mid-1980s, and a young resident with St. Mary’s program came out to spend a month with Straw to learn about small-town family medicine. The young resident told Straw he should become a teacher because he learned more from Straw in one month than at any other point in his education.
In 1988, Straw joined the faculty part-time to test it out. In 1990, he joined full-time.
“I never thought I’d be a teacher, and I’ve been doing this (full-time) for 26 years,” he said. “I was going to be a small-town doc and do everything a small-town doc does.”
Straw still cares for the people who became his patients in Palisade in the 1980s. He has known them for so long that sometimes patients are more interested in showing Straw pictures of grandchildren than talking about their health.
“That’s one of the things that’s special (about family medicine),” Straw said. “You can have a relationship with someone for a long time. No other specialty has that. I can help take care of someone from cradle to grave or even before with prenatal care.”
Count Campbell among local physicians thankful Straw found it in his heart to teach.
Campbell and her husband, Dr. Josh Campbell, both came to St. Mary’s for their residencies after medical school at Loyola University Chicago.
Straw was her mentor.
“It was perfect and exactly how it was supposed to be,” she said.
Campbell remembers calling Straw in the middle of the night with questions. He would greet her at 2:30 a.m. for an unexpected admission to St. Mary’s with a Mountain Dew in his hands. When Campbell had her first child during her residency, Straw understood how different being a doctor would be for a new mom.
“He’s my favorite person on the planet,” Campbell said. “I wouldn’t be the doctor I am today without him.”
Although Straw initially didn’t get into family medicine to teach, Betsy Straw, his wife of 32 years, can’t imagine him doing anything else and not just in medicine. He also teaches at church and taught his five kids.
“If you talked to our kids they’d say, ‘Dad disciplines with knowledge,’ ” Betsy Straw said with a laugh.
One daughter backed a car into another family car. Sherm Straw taught her how to fix a dent.
Another daughter purposely broke a locked garage door. Straw taught her how to fix the door.
That passion for education has motivated Straw to ensure the best and brightest residents come to Grand Junction to learn and, hopefully, stay to the benefit of western Colorado.
“He has been invited to do other specialties. He’s been recruited to be an OB (obstetrics) doctor. I know people have talked to him about being an internist,” Betsy Straw said. “Heart and soul, that man is a family doctor. He believes in the mission very strongly. For him to have chosen anything else, it would have been a fight in his soul every day.”