.Sebastopol Urgent Care doctors tirelessly serve West County

It has been a long year for Sebastopol Urgent Care

Founders Drs. Libby Flower and Kathleen Whisman have worked themselves, well, to the quick, since they opened their new business on Aug. 23, 2021. Flower has worked seven days a week for the past six months, with only four days off, while Whisman was diagnosed with a rare cancer in February and is currently undergoing chemotherapy as she fights for her life. She will return to her practice Sept. 19, while continuing to receive cancer treatments until August 2023.

While the two owners exude palpable dedication and enthusiasm during an on-site interview, they make it clear that their fledgling business needs community support in order to make it through the end of the year and into 2023. “We’re in the sweat-equity part of the phase,” Whisman says. “And then I got pulled out of the game, and we don’t have the capital to replace me.”

“Once we see 30 patients a day in the urgent care—we’re up to 20—we have enough revenue flow to pay another doctor,” Flower adds. In the meantime, she continues to work seven days a week until Whisman returns.

The story behind Sebastopol Urgent Care begins in early 2020, when Whisman began working for Providence Health at Healdsburg Hospital. When the pandemic hit, her dream job went from 10 patients a day and four work days a week to 25-plus patients a day, six or seven days a week. Though swamped, she fortuitously met Elizabeth “Libby” Flower there, a contract doctor who had once started her own urgent care clinic, and together the two dreamed up—and opened—Sebastopol Urgent Care.

The business fills an important niche for the entire West County, which suffered a huge loss when Palm Drive Hospital closed in 2015. “Our facility helps with the crowding of the ERs,” Whisman says, “because if people, especially on the weekend, [are] injured, cut, whatever, they can come here. They don’t wait in the ER for 12 hours before they get their arm sewed up, and that helps the whole system.”

The practice is currently officially open 67 hours a week. “[But] if the demand grows, we’ll stay open longer,” Flower says. “Sometimes somebody knocks on the locked door, and we let them in and we take care of them.” At 5pm their first day, they let in a patient who had been bitten by his pet bearded dragon. In researching how to treat his bite, they also diagnosed the bearded dragon as being sick.

In addition, the two perform advanced treatments that few, if any, other local ERs are able to perform. This is partly due to Flower being an ER doctor by trade. During the last year, she obtained a urine sample from an infant—not an easy task, I’m assured—reset a dislocated shoulder and stitched nearly amputated toes back on.

Plus, Flower and Whisman are dedicated to helping patients of all economic levels. “Anybody who is at Burbank Heights [an affordable housing complex in Sebastopol] gets a 50% discount, which amounts to about $60 a month,” Flower says. “I really want to care for people who are on limited incomes.”

Their business model is unique in several ways.

In addition to running the Urgent Care facility, the two doctors each also run their own concierge practice out of the same space. The concierge practices allow patients to pay a yearly one-time, out-of-pocket membership fee and get same- or next-day appointments and 24/7 access to Whisman’s or Flower’s cell-phone number. The plan is for each doctor to take on only 200 to 500 patients so they can each guarantee personalized care. Running all three practices out of the same space also allows them to share staff and rent, reducing overhead.

Whisman’s and Flower’s interest in personalized care clashes with today’s corporate medicine model.

“The basic problem is that the administration of medical care has been taken over by business people whose goal is profit, and our goal is care. And those conflict,” Dr. Richard Powers, a local medical practitioner, and friend to both Flower and Whisman, tells me. His book, The Murder of American Medicine: How Medicare Took the Caring Out of Medical Care (2021), illuminates the subject in greater depth. “For the doctors who came before this change came around, their reward was the care they gave to people, and the appreciation that came back from those patients. And that becomes less and less available as the system presses us to see more patients, do more paperwork and have less opportunity to really care for—and spend time with—each patient.”

In the corporate world, all three doctors spent two minutes on paperwork for every one minute they spent with a patient. Now the mandated charting, once meant exclusively for personalized communication between doctors, is filled with billing notes. Nevertheless, the three doctors remain determined to offer their patients care over profit.

“Dr. Powers has given us funds in emergency care to treat the uninsured, the unemployed, the people that get lost in the system, the people who don’t get care because if they go to the emergency room they get a $10,000 bill,” Flower says.

The actual clinic, located in a small business park along Petaluma Boulevard a few short blocks south of downtown Sebastopol, has lofty ceilings and bright, sunlit rooms. It consists of four exam rooms, one pediatric room and the main office, or “the Bullpen,” as Whisman jokingly calls it. The concierge lounge has velvet-upholstered comfy chairs and offers patients a relaxed space for conversation, consultation and a cup of tea. A lab room contains two high-tech analyzers for NAAT/PCR COVID tests that yield results in 10-15 minutes. They are the only such rapid-test machines in the county, and last spring the clinic did brisk business in providing walk-ins with fast COVID test results.

The professional dedication Flower and Whisman exhibit is not limited to my own observation. Regarding Flower, Cassidy Whisman, Kathleen Whisman’s daughter, says, “Libby is a passionate doctor; you can see it in her work. She just lights up when she helps people. It’s amazing to see.”

Flower emphasizes that her goal in practicing medicine is not to make a fortune. “Who needs to get rich? I don’t want to get rich. We’re very community focused. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Whisman acknowledges the outpouring of support for her recovery and the success of the business. “I appreciate all the healing prayers from my patients and community, and their generous contributions,” she says.

As this article goes to press, Sebastopol Urgent Care celebrates its one-year anniversary in downtown Sebastopol. At this time, patients and contributions are needed in order to help it find its footing. Let’s hope West County steps up to embrace the quality personal care this valuable business offers the entire community.

Sebastopol Urgent Care, 555 Petaluma Ave., Suite B. Hours Monday-Friday, 8am to 7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am to 5pm. 707.509.5961. [email protected]

GoFundMe for Dr. Whisman and Sebastopol Urgent Care: https://tinyurl.com/yc34nxta

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