Tribute to a Genuine Prairie Doc
By Jill Callison
Every Thursday, Dr. Tim Ridgway’s neighbors have a standing appointment with their doctor. That’s when they turn on their television, set the channel to South Dakota Public Broadcasting, and settle in to watch “On Call with the Prairie Doc.”
The “Prairie Doc” also goes by Dr. Rick Holm, and for countless South Dakotans, he has made their lives healthier, providing what Ridgway describes as “a tremendous service. He has taken a group of everyday individuals and made them care more about their own health care.”
Holm has hosted “On Call” for 16 years, but his public passion for making South Dakota residents live their best possible lives started a decade before that. For more than a quarter century, Holm has answered questions and shared medical information on hundreds of topics on KRBK-AM radio in Brookings. He also hosted a 30-minute show on public radio in the 1990s and now participates in two-minute interviews on WNAX ratio, which originates in Yankton.
Thursdays, he joins “In the Moment” host Lori Walsh on South Dakota Public Radio for 10 minutes to preview the evening show on public television. At least, that’s the intent. Sometimes, Walsh said, they nearly forget to turn the conversation to the weekly topic because they’re talking about dogs or exercise routines or whatever else happens to be on their minds.
“Then we get back to the business of the conversation,” Walsh said. “I imagine he’s like this with patients as well – deeply human and authentic. Never rushed. Always interested in how you truly are. He sees you as a person, not a condition.”
Following In His Mentor's Footsteps
If that’s true, Holm said, it’s because he decided years ago that as a doctor, he could do no better than to emulate Dr. G. Robert “Bob” Bell, who devoted his life to tending to the health of De Smet area residents. Holm described Bell, who died in 2014, as “a genuinely loving renaissance man with multiple interests and talents, a caring, gentle man.” The same could be said of Holm. Ridgeway, executive dean of the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine and dean of its Sioux Falls campus, credits Holm for making “a healthier South Dakota.” Ridgeway’s parents and parents-in-law are “On Call” fans, he said, and like so many other individuals, Holm has made them care more about their own health.
Here’s how Holm described himself: “I’m a primary-care doctor who spends time with patients. I teach them. That’s my best tool, better than any darn pill.”
The Brookings physician also teaches medical students. That began early in his career. Holm had graduated from USD before enrolling in its medical school, a two-year program then. To complete his education, he transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. After three years of residency in internal medicine, Emory chose Holm for its medical-school faculty. Emory was known then and now for its strong internal medicine program, and Holm views that specialty as primary care at its best.
“It’s being a doctor for adults, the non-surgical side of caring for adults,” he said.
However, after three years he felt it was a bit hypocritical to teach others to be internists when he had never “gone out in the world and practiced being an internist himself.” In 1981, he returned to South Dakota, settling in Brookings to be near his parents, who still lived in De Smet. His connection with college students didn’t end with his move. He has taught pre-med students, aspiring physician assistants and residents, and even a course on ethics in the South Dakota State University honors college.
“I’m a primary-care doctor who spends time with patients. I teach them. That’s my best tool, better than any darn pill.”
In the 1990s, he began the radio show on AM radio. Holm sees that show, and what has evolved into a weekly hour on SDPB as a means of reaching the numerous South Dakotans with limited access to health care.
“Many of them don’t have access to doctors,” he said. “Many just have the drop-in, walk-in clinic or live out in the country and have the rotating P.A. or a nurse practitioner that comes by once a week. If they are fortunate enough to have an outpatient primary-care provider, we are so constrained by the poorly designed electronic medical systems we have now. Those records were designed for billing purposes and proving we are up to snuff by somebody’s performance guidelines, not medical purposes.”
Reaching the Difficult-to-Reach
Sound like a topic for a medical show? It has been. Holm has spoken out on his concern that doctors today spend too much time “nose in computer trying to prove they are a caring physician.” Topics for his shows are wide ranging, and he has them planned out weeks in advance. Top viewer response comes when Holm and his guests talk about ophthalmologic issues such as macular degeneration or cataracts; skin problems such as acne, cancer and blemishes; osteoarthritis and back pain; coronary disease; emphysema and chronic bronchitis; diabetes and controlling it – the list goes on and on.
Holm has devoted hours to the importance of exercise, telling listeners it is the most important thing they can do to stay young, feel young or act young. He has discussed mental health issues, health care reform and whether the Affordable Care Act is good or bad.
“Health care policy is not as popular as plain old arthritis,” Holm said. “But we do everything. We did a show on dogs and animal support. We’ve done shows on laughter and hair loss. I’ve got it scheduled all the way through next September except for one or two shows, and I almost have guests scheduled for those as well.”
Holm displays a consistent concern that their conversation be helpful to listeners, said SDPB host Walsh.
“He wants to be of service in a way that many simply forget about these days,” she said. “I think people are yearning for a connection with their doctors. They are intuitively worn out from searching for answers online or wading through itemized billing statements. They want something real. They want someone to connect with. Dr. Holm reminds people that doctors are human and thoughtful and compassionate. Because we naturally connected with him, we’re more willing to connect with our personal physicians. His programming primes us for that relationship.”
Savoring Every Moment
Holm was a teenager when he learned the importance of relationships. The second of Earl and Jody Holm’s two children, he arrived three years after older sister Susan. Holm describes himself as “Mr. Goody Twoshoes,” disapproving of his free-spirited sister’s impulsive yet loving ways.
“She did a ‘Snoopy’ dance day in and day out,” he says, referring to the comic-strip beagle known for his dancing.
Then, when Holm was 16 and his sister was 19, Susan died in a car crash. He learned two things. First, how important a community could be when De Smet residents wrapped their “mother hen feathery warmth” around the grieving family. In turn, they reached out to a young girl who lived in miniscule Manchester, seven miles from De Smet, bringing her into their home in an unofficial adoption. The relationship between Holm and Jeannie (Van Dyke) Cecil continues to this day.
The second thing? “As we were burying her, I learned, gosh, she was right, and I was wrong, and we need to dance every moment that we can.”
For more than 50 years, Holm has gone through each day performing his own Snoopy dance of joy. That has not changed even after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May. If anything, Holm says, he is Snoopy dancing a little higher.
“I’m trying to savor every moment,” he said. “We should all get cancer and be cured once a year. It makes you realize your mortality, love your family more, think about your spouse and what her needs are, say ‘I love you’ more and mean it.”
Since the diagnosis, Holm has undergone chemotherapy, radiation and the Whipple procedure, where part of his pancreas and small intestine, his gall bladder and the bile duct were removed. He gives himself a 50/50 chance of being cured or, at least, going into remission for several years.
A 'Doctor's Doctor'
Not surprisingly, Holm is using his illness to help others.
“Here’s the thing I’ll always remember about Dr. Holm: He taught me not to blame myself or others for getting sick,” Walsh said. “He’s this physically fit doctor who has always taken care of himself and lived well. Cancer isn’t his fault. It’s not something he did to his own body. I find that remarkably compassionate and honest and uplifting. Yes, you will benefit from good health practices. Yes, exercise and healthy eating and positive relationships help you live longer. But sometimes, life just happens, and you get terrible news.”
Holm and his wife, Joanie, are the parents of four grown children, Eric, Carter, Preston and Julia. The family would have supper together every night when the children were young, even if that meant frequent delays when patients kept him away from home. Holm continues to direct the hospice he founded, is putting together a book of the 400-word essays he shares on his weekly TV show, and directs the Hopeful Spirit Chorale. Every Tuesday, several dozen singers gather for a 30-minute practice, then present a concert for someone in hospice care, hospitalized or elderly and alone.
Holm still visits his patients living in nursing homes and, if his health permits, will be available for walk-in clinics when a fill-in physician is needed. And he has his radio and TV shows to plan and physicians to ask to share their knowledge with others, improving the health of South Dakotans.
“Rick Holm is still the doctor’s doctor,” Dr. Tim Ridgway said of the man he knows “on a personal level, on a professional level and everything in between.
"Rick Holm is practicing medicine because he wants to give back to others.”