By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

All in a life's work

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterDr. Erik Swensson poses for a portrait in front of the West Valley Medical Center’s linear accelerator, a $3 million machine used for radiation therapy treatments.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Dr. Erik Swensson poses for a portrait in front of the West Valley Medical Center’s linear accelerator, a $3 million machine used for radiation therapy treatments.

That operation not only fixed his thumb. It also opened his eyes to the world of medicine.

“I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool!’” recalled Swensson, who soon began his medical training by playing with anatomical models such as the visible man and the visible head.

Several decades and thousands of operations later — with Swensson as the surgeon, rather than the patient — he recently wound up his medical career.

Well, almost. The former general and vascular surgeon, director of Willamette Valley Medical Center’s Hyperbaric and Wound Care Center and chief medical officer for Capella Healthcare, still serves on the board and various committees for the Willamette Valley Cancer Foundation.

The foundation is dear to his heart. He helped found the nonprofit, which educates the community about cancer and helps cancer patients and their families meet the financial and other non-medical needs that accompany a cancer diagnosis.

“As physicians, we’re in the position to lessen pain and suffering,” Swensson said. “You can take the narrow definition of that — my job is to cut cancer out — or you can take the broader view — make sure the patient and his family have a good foundation for healing.”

He chose the latter for the same reason he chose a surgical career in the first place.

“I like to be pushed,” he said. “I like to take the sicker patients and fix them.”

Surgery turned out to be a great profession, he said.

“I was very fortunate to find something I loved doing, that made me feel good about myself and made me glad to get up in the morning,” he said. “My professional life has been tremendous. I worked harder than I ever thought I would, but I was rewarded with tremendous satisfaction.”

After nurturing his interest in medicine through his childhood and teen years, prospective doctor Swensson enrolled in pre-med at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

He took a job working nights as an orderly in a hospital emergency room to help pay for his schooling. His duties included autopsies, but he also got a chance to observe surgeons trying to keep patients out of the morgue.

“Fixing things piqued my interest,” he said. “What I saw was that the general surgeons got the sickest patients they could fix — the car wrecks, the gunshots. I enjoyed the challenge of fixing something broken.”

He did his general surgical training at Virginia Commonwealth. Then, with his sights set on both general and vascular surgery, he moved back to St. Louis for a vascular fellowship.

General surgery offers variety — patients with all sorts of needs, from a hernia to a life-threatening wound. Vascular surgery focuses almost exclusively on critical situations.

“Over the next 30 years of my career, I knew things could change,” he said. “Treatments could develop that would require a different kind of surgery, or no surgery. I wanted to make sure I’d have the skills to continue.”

He was right to think ahead. Over the years, there have been many changes in his industry, notably the introduction of scopes for arthroscopic procedures and other types of surgery.

The changes have been positive, he said. They’ve kept things interesting for him and made many operations less invasive for patients.

His medical training included four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school and six years of post-graduate training.

During those six years, he spent 30,000 hours of practical training in a hospital, scrubbing in on almost 5,000 operations. He saw and helped with many of the challenges he would face in his own practice.

Many of his classmates, with whom he started his residency, ultimately decided that wasn’t what they wanted. Half of them quit in the first year, he said.

The grueling schedule of his student days would continue throughout his career. He knew that going in.

He wanted to help people as a doctor, he said, so he was willing to devote the time — an average of 70 hours a week for 30 years. That’s an average, he stressed, saying some weeks brought a light 50 hours of work, while others meant 100.

Swensson said he has heard people talk about having “balance” in their lives, with time for family and hobbies in addition to their work.

“Being a surgeon is not a balanced life, but that was my choice,” he said. “Very little time is not already allotted. Once you accept that, then you balance the other things — work, then time for your family and not much for yourself.”

Every third or fourth week, he’d be on call 24 hours straight. He might get paged for an emergency surgery at 2 in the morning, or called for consultation in the middle of a movie or a dinner out with his wife, fellow physician Edythe Schlossstein.

When work interrupted their evenings together, she understood. That’s one advantage of being married to someone who shares the profession.

As a practicing surgeon, a typical day was spent half in the office, half in the operating room. A day’s list of surgeries might include removing a skin lesion, repairing a ruptured aneurysm or taking out a cancerous or benign growth.

The vast majority of surgeries are scheduled in advance, he said. And in most cases, surgeons find what they thought they’d find when they open up a patient.

But sometimes anatomy is not “classic” — organs may be in a different position than typical in about one out of every five people, for instance. And sometimes doctors discover something unexpected.

In one case that surprised Swensson, what was diagnosed as a gall bladder problem turned out to be a bad appendix. “That’s where the extensive training and experience comes in,” he said.

Training didn’t end with his fellowship, he said. He continued learning from his partners at his first practice, in Richmond, Va. With technology and other aspects of medicine constantly advancing, he never stopped.

While he enjoyed Virginia, Swensson decided to move west in 1998. He’d heard stories about the Northwest, as his father had loved it when he was stationed on Puget Sound by the Navy.

Seattle was too rainy, he said, so he looked around. He liked what he saw in McMinnville. WVMC and its then-director, Rosemari Davis, fit his style, and he felt the hospital and city were places “where I could make a difference.”

In addition to performing surgery and seeing patients, Swensson was elected president of the McMinnville Physicians Organization. He spent four years in the post.

He became chief of staff at WVMC in 2007 and joined the hospital’s board of trustees.

He also served on the board of directors for the McMinnville Area Chamber of Commerce. In 2003, he became the first physician in 50 years to be named “businessman of the year.”

Swensson continued his surgical career until 2010. He gave it up because of back problems; he could no longer bend over the operating table for long periods.

He spent the last three years as chief medical officer of Capella Health. He worked with the medical staff and administration at the company’s 11 hospitals, easing the process of contract issues and serving as a liaison between medical staff and administration.

He also encouraged the medical staff to be involved with the running of the hospitals, which he said establishes a culture that’s better for patients as well as staff. WVMC uses that model, he said.

The CMO job required no bending over an operating table, but it did mean a lot of travel. Retiring means Swenson will have opportunities for pleasure trips, instead of business ones, as well as more time for himself and his family.

Swensson and his wife plan to enjoy the outdoors, both at home on their small tree farm and on the ski slopes. He also likes to fish, hunt and take photographs.

And he enjoys golf. He plans to travel to Bandon to play the course there, then to Scotland to golf with his brother.

Starla Pointer has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

Web Design & Web Development by LVSYS