Meet our Docs: After caring for Casper patients for almost two decades, Dr. Clayton Turner thinks of WMC as ‘his hospital.’
By Kristy Bleizeffer Mar 2, 2016
One of the nicest compliments patients can pay Clayton E. Turner, M.D., is when they tell him, “You don’t act like a doctor.”
“My patients tell me that if they ever saw me in a coat and tie, they would be wondering what was going on. When I do have to dress up for the office, I tend to put on a pair of clean boots and starched jeans,” said Dr. Turner, an orthopedic and spine surgeon. “I love to ride cutting horses, be outdoors hunting and fishing, and spend time with my family and friends. Life is about passion – personal and professional.”
Dr. Turner recently moved to Advantage Orthopedics and Neurosurgery from Casper Orthopaedic Associates (COA), where he’d cared for patients for more than 17 years. He plans to work closely with Advantage neurosurgeon Dr. Lee Warren to build a comprehensive spine program at Wyoming Medical Center.
He expects to practice the same patient-focused medicine that he always has, and he believes he will see many of the same families he’s seen over the last two decades. He feels lucky to be staying in Casper, where he raised his older children and continues to raise his younger children with his wife, after such a dramatic career change.
“While I am thankful for my time at COA, this move allows me to align more closely with Wyoming Medical Center,” said Dr. Turner. “I have been caring for Casper and Wyoming patients since 1998, and my commitment to this community has only grown stronger.”
In this interview, Dr. Turner talks about working with Casper’s only full-service hospital, building the region’s premier spine program and how it felt when he heard how the Operating Room reacted to the news of his move.
Where did you grow up, and when did you decide you wanted to go into medicine?
I grew up in southern Oregon in a town called Medford. When I lived there, it was very much like Casper.
My original professional career interests were to become a veterinarian. Once I started college, I realized how difficult it would be for me to meet the requirements to enter into veterinarian school.
So, you were off to medical school?
Medical school was a better option. A lot of it was not necessarily grades, but the veterinary school wanted you to have up to 2,000 hours of working with animals to even be considered. I did not think being a pet owner qualified. I decided that I would consider medicine and had connections with two orthopedic surgeons in my hometown because I had gone to school with their children. I started to shadow them and watch what they did.
What did you see that made you decide on orthopedics?
I saw a couple of fractures that were treated, and saw them do some knee replacements. That interested me! It was working with my hands, and I enjoyed woodworking and designing things. There is a lot of craftsmanship in carpentry work, similar that what you are doing in orthopedics. It is just working on different material: bone.
I realized that once I was admitted to medical school, that I really had no idea what medicine was about. I was a very quiet and introverted person. I was frightened to death when I found out I actually had to talk to patients! I got over those fears and entered into medical school.
Where did you do your training?
I did all of my training at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. After 10 years in Houston, I served four years on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Fortunately for me, we were not busy overseas. I was initially stationed in the San Francisco Bay area at the Oakland Naval Hospital, but it was set for closure in the mid-1990s. After one and a half years working there, I was traded to the Army and went to work outside of Seattle at their large teaching hospital, Madigan Army Medical Center. I still wore a Navy uniform in the Army hospital. They did not know what I was. It was a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed military medicine, but it was a bit challenging with a family.
Did you join the military to help pay for medical school?
My commitment to the military came about through the Health Professional Scholarship Program. I believe that program is still in existence, but it may have changed somewhat. It was a great program. I was awarded a scholarship which paid for four years of my medical school education. In return, I served four years of active duty service.
Is there something different about serving veterans as opposed to treating civilians?
I believe at that point there was. That spirit has significantly increased with all of our servicemen and women overseas serving in the Middle East. It was very rewarding in that at that point in time, since we really were not involved heavily with Iraq and Afghanistan, it was post the first gulf war.
I was there from 1995 to 1998. In that time I was teaching resident trainees and these were the best residents I came across. Most military hospitals functioned just like any other hospital. You were taking care of not only the active-duty soldiers, sailors and Marines. You were also taking care of their dependents, as well as many other federal government employees. It was very rewarding. My most memorable day at work in Washington was doing a clinic on a Friday morning and I had two gentlemen with back problems that day. Both of them were survivors of Omaha Beach. They did not know one another but lived in the same area and both happened to come to my office on the same day.
Were they able to meet in passing at all?
Not on that particular day, but I was able to actually link them up. It was really rewarding.
How did you come to Casper?
When my military commitment was up, I sent letters off to various orthopedic groups from the West Coast all the way to Michigan. I visited a couple of practices, and it just so happened that the day I had returned from an interview trip, I picked up one of my spine journals and turned to the advertisements. I saw a listing from a group from Casper, Wyoming, seeking an orthopedic/spine surgeon.
I called the number and spoke to Dr. Craig Smith on the phone. I sent them my information, and they invited me for an interview. I had not been in Casper more than 30 minutes and met Dr. Smith, Dr. (Jerry) Behrens and Dr. (John) Bailey from Casper Orthopaedic Associates.
I knew at that point that if they offered me a job, the search was over. I fell in love with it. Not just because of Casper, but my own personal interests. I love the outdoors. I love to hunt and fish. I thought it would be a great community to raise our children. Most importantly, it was the caliber of the physicians in the group. It was what I considered a privilege that they gave me the opportunity. It was fantastic.
What did you think about the wider network of medical specialists in Casper and Wyoming Medical Center?
I was very surprised at the degree of specialization and how much expertise there was in a city this size. I did my medical training in a campus that probably had over 9,000 hospital beds, over 30 different hospitals, and you could find any specialist you wanted. I think all of us here have similar stories of our medical training and in the busy academic environment at large teaching facilities. Coming to a community of only, I believe at that point was only 50,000 people, but they had an active heart surgery program, neurosurgery, vascular surgeons and specialists of all sorts. I realized that it was very unique in a state of this size, but with the population so spread out that it was definitely interesting to see that. It was exciting because you knew that you would be pushed to the limit taking care of very complex things. We took care of critically ill patients and offered a lot of services that most other cities this size do not have.
What kind of services do you provide as a spine specialist?
In the world of spine, there tends to be a lot of confusion, I believe. There are neurosurgeons that do spine work, and orthopedic surgeons that specialize in spine work. A lot of us share very similar training.
When is a spine surgeon really needed? I guess this is a loaded question. There are situations where because of the acute traumatic injury somebody has a fracture, whether it be in their neck, mid back or lower back, particularly if they have neurologic injury; they are probably going to need to be seen on an urgent basis by a spine surgeon. There is a lot of discussion and I see lots of patients that have back pain, but realistically back pain really should not be considered a surgical problem, unless the back pain has been chronic and leads to incapacitating symptoms. We expect that most people that are living, or have lived their lives, have experienced back pain. They did not have to see a spine surgeon, because most of those episodes tend to be acute self-limited problems that get better on their own.
You’ve said you’re excited to build a comprehensive spine program at Advantage Orthopedics and Neurosurgery. What does that look like?
To me, having spent over 20 years doing spine surgery and treating patients with spine problems, I think most of us realize that these patients’ conditions, in many cases, are very complex and require a lot of collaboration. Not just between their surgeon, but with their primary healthcare providers. We work with therapists, and at times social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists because of chronic pain issues.
When we talk about some of the complex surgical issues that we deal with, most of these patients require a true full-service hospital. There are big risks associated with those complex surgeries. Patients may have to stay in the ICU for a day or two and have support from hospitalists and all of the other supporting people such as cardiologists. If I did not have that available, it would make me very nervous to be treating patients with some of these complex issues that can take 8, 12, 16 hours of surgery to complete.
I’m excited at the arrival of neurosurgeon Dr. (Lee) Warren. He and I have had lots of opportunities to discuss this, and both of us bring skills that are complementary to one another. We both have an interest in providing the best care that we can with the realization that it is very difficult to do it all by yourself. He is coming from a solo practice out of Alabama, and I am looking forward to putting all those pieces together and hopefully building the premier spine program in this region.
Tell us about the switch from Casper Orthopaedic Associates to Advantage and Wyoming Medical Center.
This really came up as sort of an unexpected opportunity. I knew that the hospital was trying to recruit neurosurgeons, and through the grapevine I heard about Dr. Warren. Once I had the opportunity to meet him, he and I immediately clicked. He is also ex-military, like me. In our brief interaction, we shared our thinking and approach to spine problems and how to treat patients. It is almost like he was a brother of mine. That, to me, is really what has been driving this.
I know that medicine changes on a daily basis. This community has been seeing changes in the past 5 to 10 years. But, I’ve been treating patients at Wyoming Medical Center since 1998 and I, selfishly, think of this as my hospital. This will be a great opportunity to start working with Dr. Warren. Again, I look forward to being truly in line with Wyoming Medical Center.
It’s been said that the WMC Operating Room staff erupted into applause when they heard you joined Advantage. How does that make you feel?
I was flattered to hear that was the response from the OR. Seventeen years ago when I started in Casper, they may not have cheered.
Many of the people in the OR now were here when I came to Casper. They have realized that I have changed a lot. I mean that in a good sense. I am very happily married to my wife, Kara, and I am much calmer and level-headed and do not have many tantrums anymore. You know what the difference is between a puppy and a surgeon? A puppy eventually learns to stop whining.
Now, I think I am a person that is easy work with. Unfortunately, there were tough lessons along the way in learning that. Working in a high-stress environment, I realized that my prior behaviors were just taking years away from my life, and stressing other people. Now, if you can be calm, cool and collected, it makes for a much better working environment. I think nowadays with a cheer from the OR personnel that I have earned that respect from those people.
What would you like to say to your patients who’ve you seen for years at COA?
I want all my patients to know that I would love if they would follow me. I certainly understand if they prefer to stay at my old office. In most situations, it is not the office or building patients are attached to, but the relationships that they have with their physician. I have patients now that I’ve been caring for since the late 1990s. Not only are there patients I have taken care of for years, but also I’ve cared for two or three generations in their families.
Clayton Turner, M.D., is an orthopedic and spine surgeon at Advantage Orthopedics and Neurosurgery.He trained at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, including completing a fellowship in spine surgery. He served four years in the U.S. Navy, working in the Oakland Naval Hospital and the Madigan Army Medical Center. He previously practiced at Casper Orthopaedic Associates for 17 years before moving to Advantage. For an appointment or referral, please call (307) 233-0250.
Medical School: Baylor College of Medicine, Texas
Internship: Baylor College of Medicine, Texas; General Surgery
Residency: Baylor College of Medicine, Texas; Orthopedic Surgery
Fellowship: Baylor College of Medicine, Texas; Spine Surgery