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Willamette alumnus devotes his career to serving those in need

Bob Hakala remembers the moment he decided to become a doctor.

Beaverton High School was hosting a Career Day, and Hakala, a 16-year-old junior, was curious about what the speakers had to say. When a family physician spoke about his profession, Hakala was mesmerized — so much so that he went home and shared his medical aspirations with his family.

“I was inspired,” Hakala says. “I remember walking outside the classroom thinking that this is what I wanted to do. I’ve never wavered in my decision, and I’ve never regretted it.”

Gaining perspective

Hakala ’63 has practiced family medicine for 40 years. He got his start at Willamette University, where he majored in biology.

Attracted by Willamette’s small size and reputation for academic excellence, Hakala says the university equipped him with a superior liberal arts education — a foundation that continues to serve him well.

“Being a liberal arts school, I was able to take history, religion, music appreciation and philosophy courses, and that really rounded out my education,” says Hakala, who later attended what’s now known as Oregon Health and Science University. “It gave me a broader perspective of life in the real world.”

Shifting focus

After completing medical school and a family medicine residency at OHSU, Hakala, his wife Caro and their three children moved in 1976 to Bend, Ore., where he worked in private practice for Bend Memorial Clinic. In 2005, he switched gears by becoming medical director at Volunteers in Medicine.

The nonprofit clinic serves low-income, uninsured families in Deschutes County, Ore. Last year, it completed about 8,000 patient visits, overseen by more than 450 volunteers and 14 paid staff members — one of whom is Hakala.

“Even while I was in private practice, I had a heart for the people who fell through the cracks and couldn’t afford or access medical care,” says Hakala, whose volunteer and paid work totals 25 hours a week. “I’m inspired daily by our medical and community volunteers. It’s a great place to be. They want to serve.”

Helping his community

Taking Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” to heart, Hakala helped brainstorm ways to better serve his community 12 years ago. Wanting to increase people’s access to medical care, he became part of a task force to research a solution.

The Volunteers in Medicine Model, which originated in Hilton Head, S.C., was the model they implemented in Bend. The task force became a board of directors — of which Hakala was a member. The clinic then applied for and obtained nonprofit status.

With the help of anonymous donors and Bend’s hospital, St. Charles Health Center, the 6,000 square-foot clinic was constructed on the hospital’s campus. It opened in 2004.

“Grants and incredible support from our community got us up and rolling,” says Hakala, adding that the clinic is valued at $1.2 million. “I get goose bumps when I think about what we’ve done.”

Operating on an annual budget of $700,000 to $800,000, the clinic treats uninsured people with chronic health problems — helping to keep them out of hospital emergency rooms. The clinic is supported by private donations and grants, and pro-bono care is provided for all patients. Similar VIM clinics exist in Eugene and Oregon City.

Without the steady stream of volunteer support, Hakala says Volunteers in Medicine would not have survived. Even now, he credits the medical community for continuing to donate their specialty consultations, surgical skills, hospital bed space and the use of MRI scanners, X-ray machines, CAT scans and other equipment.

Virtually, the entire medical community in Bend helps VIM patients in some way, Hakala says.

“Volunteers in Medicine’s philosophy is that if every medical provider and clinic in our community provides some help, we can accomplish something really special,” Hakala says. “Helping has become infectious.”

Making a difference

What he enjoys most about his job is the knowledge that he’s making a difference, Hakala says. For every $1 donated, $7 are leveraged in patient services. On top of that, Hakala spends much of his time mentoring third-year medical students, who share his passion for helping people in need.

“Improving the health of this population keeps me going,” says Hakala, who is celebrating his 71st  birthday in August. “Several years ago, many of the people who accessed our clinic had insurance, good jobs and owned homes. Now, they’re left without jobs, insurance and access to medical care.

“We try to get them back on their feet, medically. We want them to resume the life they had before this nasty economy affected them.”

The satisfaction of helping others is why Hakala has no plans to retire. If anything, he’s inspired to do more.

“For me, it’s a real passion,” says Hakala, who hopes others find their own ways to serve their communities. “This is something I want to continue to do for as long as I can.”