FAIRMONT - Small-town life and the affiliation with Mayo Clinic in Rochester is what drew two young doctors to Fairmont to start their careers.
Dr. Timothy Slama, originally from Winnebago, and Tennessee native Dr. Jeff Cunningham recently began seeing patients at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont.
Slama, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, practices family medicine. As an osteopathic physician, Slama's training at Des Moines University's medical school was similar to an M.D., but he spent additional time studying the musculoskeletal system and hands-on manual medicine.
From a young age, Slama knew he wanted to be a physician, based partially on family members he knew who worked in the field and his own experience as a patient. In seventh grade, he had his appendix removed, and he also suffered several sports-related injuries as a high school athlete.
"I always liked the medical profession, solving problems," he said.
In high school, he focused on the sciences, and then in the pre-med program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, he was able to shadow people working in the profession, which further enforced he was on the right track: "I was able to see it from a different perspective. I had been the patient, but seeing things from the physician's standpoint, I knew, "Yeah, I could do this. I want to do this."
His residency was completed at Iowa Lutheran Hospital through the University of Iowa in Des Moines. When the time came to look for his first job, he and his wife knew they wanted their young family of four to establish roots in a more rural area than Des Moines.
Fairmont stood out to him. It was the right size, and the benefits of its association with Mayo Clinic ideal.
"It's good to get back to a smaller town, with good small-town schools and good teachers," said Slama, who purchased a house in Fairmont. "... I've just always loved this community, coming over here to swim at Gomsrud Park and go out on the lakes."
Dr. Cunningham was born and raised in Celina, Tenn., a small town of 1,379 people on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. He went to medical school at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis, and completed his residency through the institution's internal medicine/pediatrics residency program.
"When I finished my residency in Memphis, I was looking for a smaller town," Cunningham said.
Recruiters were calling, and when he told one of them what he wanted, the man said, "Let me tell you about this little town in Minnesota."
And the more research he did, the more appealing Mayo became. Nine out of 10 prospective employers he spoke with had told him, "Yeah, we're good. Not quite Mayo good, but we're good."
Like his new colleague, Cunningham knew from a young age that he wanted to be a doctor. His motivation, however, was very different.
Cunningham's mother and stepfather have fostered numerous children over the years - about 125 foster kids have come through their home, seven of whom they adopted. Growing up with these children, Cunningham became acutely aware of their various medical issues, and he wanted to find a way to help kids in similar circumstances.
"It's definitely been the right decision for me," he said.
A family he met during his residency confirmed his belief that he is following the right path. After years without any kind of medical treatment, the family was suffering from multiple health problems. It took a little time to figure out the root causes and solutions, and more time to educate the parents about the lifestyle changes they needed to adopt, but once they understood, their lives began to change for the better.
"If you can explain things in a way they can understand, that's when the light comes on ... and they can start seeing results," Cunningham said. "... That's a pretty good feeling."
Though Cunningham's time at the Fairmont clinic is divided between pediatric patients and the general public, due to his split specialties in internal medicine and pediatrics, 75 percent of his patients so far have been children.
"Everyone is so excited to have a true-blue pediatrician here," he said.
The Fairmont facility has been without a pediatrician since 2011, when Dr. Matei Teodorescu resigned to develop pediatric services for Native American hospitals.
For Cunningham, working with both kids and adults is ideal, giving him a daily dose of variety and an occasional break from what can be challenging visits with children.
"Adults are not as likely to hide under the table," he said, laughing.