Dr. Matt “Rex” Quaempts gazed at the drum circle with a somber expression.

Several yards away, six drummers sang a song honoring Quaempts. The physician, Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center’s only full-time physician, is leaving the community.

Patients and colleagues gathered in the Yellowhawk conference room on Tuesday afternoon to say farewell to their doctor, watching with equal solemnity. The difficulty of Quaempts’ decision to depart showed clearly around the room and on his own craggy face.

He is vague about why he is leaving, citing professional reasons and saying the Yellowhawk patient load isn’t as broad-based and full spectrum as he would like. He will miss the relationships he’s built.

Quaempts arrived at Yellowhawk a little more than four years ago. He grew up on the Umatilla reservation, hunting pheasants in the fields, swimming in the river, sweating in the sweat lodge with his dad, playing Babe Ruth baseball and graduating from Pendleton High School.

He returned to the reservation with a pile of credentials. The Association of American Indian Physicians named him 2014 Physician of the Year. He came from 19 years in Yakima as a family practice physician for the Yakama Nation, where he is a registered member.

When Quaempts returned to the Umatilla Reservation in 2014, he came alone. His daughter attended high school in Yakima. Quaempts commuted, working three marathon days each week and then heading home. While in Pendleton, he stayed in a trailer on his brother’s property.

He had the healthy glow of an outdoorsman, cyclist and former Ironman, a passionate purveyor of healthy lifestyles.

Quaempts regularly implored tribal members to take care of themselves. He dispensed some of this advice during an opening ceremony of the new 64,000-square-foot Yellowhawk clinic in May of 2018.

“Finding time to take care of ourselves is difficult, but if we don’t do so, we end up falling apart, and if we fall apart our families fall apart,” he said. “Eat healthy, get your sleep, love your family, take care of yourself.”

Quotes from Quaempts hung from the ceiling of the conference room during the party. A few glanced at the words as they snacked on fruit, cheese and other goodies from the buffet table.

A video started in the front of the room. One after another, his patients thanked Quaempts.

“Qayciyawyaw (thank you),” they said.

“You can go away wherever you’re going to go,” one woman said. “But your heart belongs here.”

The Beatles sang softly in the background of the video.

“Why, why, why, why, why, why, do you say ‘Goodbye, goodbye, bye, bye.’

Oh no. You say ‘Goodbye’ and I say ‘Hello, hello, hello.’

I don’t know why you say ‘Goodbye’, I say ‘Hello, hello, hello.’”

The lights came back up and they passed around a microphone.

Elder Mildred Quaempts told the doctor she wished him well, but admitted, “My heart is heavy.”

Gary Burke, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees, was a patient of Quaempts.

“I’m saddened that Dr. Quaempts is going to leave us,” he said. “His heart has always been in the right spot.”

The physician said he will miss his patients and the state-of-the-art facility with departments laid out in a pinwheel design around a center courtyard. Departments include medical, pharmacy, dental, behavioral health and wellness. Last week, Milton-Freewater optometrist Benjamin Winters joined the team with a ribbon cutting in front of a suite of exam rooms and an eyeglasses store. A podiatrist, women’s health doctor and psychiatrist also visit regularly.

Three physician assistants also work in the medical clinic. The PAs can only practice with the oversight of a supervising physician. Quaempts worries about how his decision to leave will affect them, but said, “The PAs will have a supervising physician,” though the arrangement “is not solidified yet.” Supervising physicians can be off-site. They must be available by phone or email and must review charts.

An email from Yellowhawk CEO Lisa Guzman and Clinical Director/Clinical Pharmacist Angie Dearing said that a revised supervisory agreement approved by the Oregon Medical Board will allow Quaempts to “provide full-time PA supervision by phone and chart review until another physician is hired. Yellowhawk has started negotiations with another area physician for the ongoing supervision of PAs at the clinic.”

The email said Yellowhawk is searching for a physician, a family nurse practitioner and a medical director with the help of a national health care recruiting firm.

“Because Yellowhawk is such a unique clinic, and this area has a lot to offer, we have received considerable interest in these postings,” according to Guzman and Dearing. “Our team is committed to providing consistent access to high quality patient care as we go through this transition. For that reason we have also secured temporary staffing with two locum tenens family medicine nurse practitioners that will potentially begin staffing as early as this month.”

Quaempts took on the role of both physician and medical director after about a year on the job. He saw 16-18 patients daily during 12-hour shifts, usually without stopping for lunch, and jokes about needing sleep.

“I haven’t slept in six months,” he quipped recently.

Perhaps in leaving, he is following is own advice to take care of oneself. He hopes to take six weeks off and start work again by April 1 somewhere in Indian Country, probably in Yakima.

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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