Like a lot of small-town girls, Kirsten Morissette couldn’t wait to finish high school and get out of town. A few years later, she couldn’t wait to get back.
Morissette’s family goes back four generations in Hardin. Her great-grandfather, she said, essentially kidnapped and eloped with her great-grandmother, and they became homesteaders at Hardin. Family members have been justices of the peace and started the Purple Cow restaurant.
But by the time she graduated from Hardin High School in 1995, she thought she had had as much of small-town life as she could stand.
“I said, ‘I’m leaving Hardin and never coming back,’” she said this week at the Hardin Clinic, where she has worked as a family medicine physician since 2006.
What brought her back was a taste of the smog and traffic of southern California combined with an innovative program aimed at encouraging doctors to practice in Montana. That program, the first residency in the state, is the Montana Family Medicine Residency.
The residency celebrates its 20th anniversary with an open house from noon to 1 p.m. Friday, July 1, at RiverStone Health, where it is based. Alumni of the program also are holding a reunion at ZooMontana, Morissette said.
“We’re trying to get as many alumni in as we can,” she said.
For Morissette, the residency followed a biology degree at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. She had known since the age of 12 that she wanted to be a doctor, so she then enrolled in the Loma Linda University School of Medicine near Los Angeles.
“The culture shock was much greater going from Santa Barbara to Loma Linda than from Hardin to Santa Barbara,” she said. A few months of southern California’s smog and traffic was enough to convince her that rural Montana wasn’t such a bad place.
The convincer was when the smog lifted one day and she could see the San Bernardino mountains. She thought, “I should not go nine months without seeing the mountains that are just an hour away.”
After completing medical school, she jumped at the chance to come back to Montana for the Montana Family Medicine Residency in Billings. At the time, she said, the three-year program took five residents a year but has since increased the number to eight.
She worked both with St. Vincent Healthcare and the Billings Clinic during the residency, rotating between the two hospitals in what was essentially on-the-job training. There also were rural rotations, including stints in Miles City and Glasgow.
“We didn’t completely understand what we were doing,” she said, but residents got good training from local doctors. According to the RiverStone Health website, “We prepare our graduates to be comfortable with a wide range of practice choices from rural and frontier communities to underserved populations or in hospital settings.”
Since doctors tend to locate near where they are trained, the program helps alleviate the physician shortage in an area larger than the entire northeastern United States. More than 70 percent of the program’s graduates end up practicing in Montana, the website says. Morissette said that of the five residents she went through the program with, four are still in Montana.
For Morissette, that meant coming home to the Hardin Clinic, which is associated with St. Vincent Healthcare, despite concerns that people who had known her in diapers might not take her seriously as a physician. But that has rarely been a problem.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.
On one occasion when a longtime Hardin resident gave her a hard time, she told him, “I’m Ray Morissette’s granddaughter. You can’t mess with me.”
The variety of the work at the clinic suits her. On the day she was interviewed, she had been called onto an emergency room shift and treated a fractured wrist from a motorcycle accident. That afternoon, she was seeing an 8-year-old patient she had delivered at birth.
The clinic also frequently sees Indians from the nearby Crow Reservation who prefer the continuity of care in Hardin to the Indian Health Service hospital in Crow Agency.
She likes the small-town life now. Her kids can walk to the library, and she serves on the library board and on the Child Protection Team.
“I’m also conditioned to like it out here,” she said. “I get close to too many trees, I get claustrophobia.”
Although RiverStone Health’s website boasts that Montana’s scenery and outdoor activities help attract residents, Morissette and other local healthcare workers try to encourage Hardin residents to go into the field since it can be difficult to attract outsiders to small Eastern Montana towns. One colleague who was asked how Hardin recruits healthcare professionals replied, “We like to start in utero.”
More seriously, Morissette has come to see her work as a “divine calling,” a chance to make a difference in people’s lives, to make Hardin a better place and to carry on her own family’s longtime commitment to the town.
“There’s a legacy I have to live up to,” she said.