When he first drove into town through McElmo Canyon in 1978, Robert Heyl said he felt “called” to practice medicine in Cortez. Thirty-nine years later, he’s preparing to retire.
During his career in Montezuma County, Heyl has worked in the emergency room and intensive care units at Southwest Memorial Hospital, delivered more than 800 babies, made home visits to people throughout the county and operated his own family practice clinic on North Mildred Road. He was a founding member of the Four Corners Child Advocacy Center in 1993 and operated a free primary care clinic out of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church for several years.
He plans to retire on Oct. 31.
Heyl graduated from Syracuse University, New York Medical College and the U.S. Air Force Family Practice Residency Program, and received his medical license in 1976. He said he decided to move to Cortez from Colorado Springs because he wanted a chance to use all of his comprehensive family practice training, which included everything from delivering babies to geriatric care.
“As a family physician coming to a small community, you’re able to do all those things,” he said. “If you go to the bigger places – suburbs and so on – so many times, you can’t do those things.”
When he saw the mountain landscape, he said, he felt that God had called him to serve “such a beautiful community.” Heyl’s medical patients haven’t been the only people affected by his service.
Rose Jergens, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center, said the doctor has been instrumental in combating child abuse in Montezuma County throughout his career. He was a part of the child protection team that formed in Montezuma County in 1978, and Jergens said he did most of the research and early training that eventually led to the center’s establishment in 1993.
“We’ve been around for 25 years, and there have been times when funding has been short, but he’s always been the driving force that keeps us going,” she said. “He’s been the one constant for 25 years.”
The Child Advocacy Center, which helps investigate potential cases of child abuse with the help of medical, legal, educational and other experts, was nationally accredited in 1995. Heyl has served on its board of directors off and on throughout its history, Jergens said, and he has assisted in numerous child abuse investigations as a forensic medical examiner.
Kent Rogers, CEO of Southwest Health System, said Heyl will leave behind a “great legacy” with the medical group and the people it serves.
“I cannot begin to count all of the things that Dr. Heyl has done to make Cortez and Montezuma County a better place to live,” he said in an email.
Heyl has received several awards for his work in the community, including the 2007 Harold E. Williamson Award for Volunteer Medical Services from the COPIC Medical Foundation, and the Unsung Hero Award from the Cortez Area Chamber of Commerce in 2014.
But many people in Cortez, including Mayor Karen Sheek, primarily knew Heyl as their family doctor. Sheek said his practice will be missed.
“I can’t say enough good things about him as a professional, and he’s also just a good man,” she said. “I’m happy he’s able to retire, because he deserves to do that, but I’m sad that he won’t be our family doctor anymore.”
Although work as a small-town doctor has always been demanding, Heyl said, it’s become too difficult to do the job full-time at age 70. But he said he still plans to do some volunteer work in town after his retirement.
Sheek announced at Tuesday’s city council meeting that she and the city’s special event staff planned to give Heyl an official send-off at the Third Thursday market on Sept. 21, complete with cake and the event’s usual live music. She said she thought it would be a good way for people in the community to thank the man for his long service, and added that people at the celebration are welcome to “say a few words” about Heyl.
Heyl said that although he’s pleased with what he accomplished in Cortez, he especially values the friendships that he made.
“It’s not so much the things that you do – it’s the people you meet,” he said. “In family medicine, having those relationships has been so rewarding to me.”
He thanked the rest of the staff at his clinic, including Bernice Ferrell, Deeanna Wilson, Diana Smith and Eileen Webb, for their support. Melissa Churchill and Whitney Pack, two local medical professionals who trained under Heyl, will carry on his work as forensic examiners with the Child Advocacy Center.