Dr. First looks back on 40-year medical career

After 40 years as a local family physician, Dr. Philip First is retiring in May. He worked at John McDonald Hospital delivering babies before starting his own practice, and later merged with Mercy Hospital. First said he’ll miss his patients and medical staff, saying they will be left in very capable hands. He will continue his love of music in his retirement. (Photo by Kim Brooks)
Prepares for retirement after battling cancer
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     After 40 years of medical practice, Dr. Philip First is preparing for retirement.

     After being diagnosed with a rare form of prostate cancer a few years ago, First, who’s been cancer-free for over a year, said it was just time.

     “You just never know…,” he said of a reoccurrence or know what’s to come. He said he wants to spend more time with his children and grandkids, enjoy his music, and enjoy life.

     “It just came to a point where I realized it was time to quit,” he said after thinking about the life change for a few years now. “The cancer just took a lot out of me.”

     First is also preparing for his fourth knew surgery in early May, and said a lot of things in life are adding up, all pointing to retirement.

     “I’m not sure I have the energy anymore,” he said.

     While he’s announced his retirement, for those who know Dr. First, that doesn’t mean he’s completely calling it quits. He said he would still put some time in with the Mercy employment health center, which administers medical exams for the FAA.

     First, who reminisced about his early school days at Maquoketa Valley High School, said he wasn’t the best student and never saw himself entering the medical profession.

     “I wasn’t the greatest student; I wasn’t motivated,” he said.

     Once he entered college, First said he “did better.”

     During his freshman year at college, First was majoring in biochemistry. He returned home and came down with strep throat. After seeing a local doctor, he inquired whether First ever thought about going into medical school.

     “He talked me into applying,” he said. “He knew the Dean of Students at Northeast Missouri State University (now known as Truman State University).”

     A year later, First was sitting in his biology class, taking his final when the teacher walked in and announced that he was accepted at Truman State.

     “That was a life-changer,” he said. “I always thought I was going to be a biology professor.”

     Before leaving for Missouri, First was home helping his father, a brick layer, when he suffered a back injury and ended up breaking his lower back. He was in a brace for over a year while in med school. He said accommodations were made to help him attend classes.

     “That was a very hard first year,” he said. “But I had the fortitude to keep going.”

     Dr. First’s first professional medical job was in Hopkinton. He was there for less than a year before coming to Monticello in the early 1980s.

     “Monticello was my first full-time practice and I’ve been busy ever since,” he said.

     First recruited Dr. Robert Good to assist in his practice.

     He worked for John McDonald Hospital, and delivered exactly 343 babies before they quit offering OB services.

     “I feel old,” First joked, “especially when I see babies of those babies I delivered.”

     First also provided emergency room and hospital care at John McDonald for patients.

     From there, he opened the Monticello Medical Center, which later became MercyCare Monticello. First was with the practice when it changed hands with Mercy Hospital and when the new facility was built in the mid-‘80s.

     “I was born in Monticello. I grew up in the Marion area. I went to MV. I raised my own family in the area,” First said of wanting to remain and practice in his hometown area.

     He praised the Mercy Foundation for loaning the money for the new Monticello Medical Center, long before the merger.

     Aside from the demise of OB at John McDonald, First has seen several other major changes in the medical industry since he started 40 years ago.

     “The craziest changes have been with insurance companies,” he said. “The payments to physicians have steadily gone down over the years.”

     Working with technology has also been a big change.

     “Computers were a nightmare,” recalled First of the switch. “I’m generally not built for computers.”

     First said he likes to have a nurse with him when he sees a patient so he can be face-to-face with his patients rather than his face aimed at a computer screen.

     “I like to talk to my patients than stare at a computer screen,” he said.

     His nurses scribe the notes so he can pay more attention to the patients.

     “This requires more nurses, which calls for more money,” he said.

     In general, First said a lot of rules and regulations have also been thrown his way over the years.

     “It can be very tedious,” he said.

     Aside from serving the Monticello community and Jones County, First also spent roughly five years as an associate professor at the College of Osteopathic Medicine in Des Moines.

     He said he took so much on during his career and he can’t imagine how he did it all, plus raise a family.

     “My family paid the price with my practice over the years,” he admitted.

     Dr. First and his family have been great community benefactors, and have given back to the community in many ways over the years.

     “I always wanted to do anything I could to help. It’s what we do as Christians, and it was something we tried to do quietly.” First said his philosophy always surrounded the joy of giving, not receiving.

     Leaving his practice to Mercy, First said he’s at ease knowing all of his patients and their families will be well cared for.

     “In a small community, it’s nice to know they can continue the care they need,” he said.

     Mercy purchased the practice and Dr. Barbara Cree, PA-C will carry on in First’s absence.

     “People should have a choice and I encourage my patients to go where they want,” he said of medical providers.

     With 14 years of experience, First said Cree is a great practitioner.

     First said so many of his patients have become good friends, saying he would miss his patients the most in retirement.

     “They weren’t only patients, but we’d talk about life in general,” he shared. “Some of them have been with me for 25 years.”

     First said he’s worked so many talented doctors and nurses over the years, learning something from each one of them.

     Aside from spending time with family, First plans to play some golf with former high school classmates and continue his musical passions.

     With a small recording studio, First and his high school-era band mates, known as the Department of Sound, recorded a CD. He also recorded music for unknown Christian artists and performs himself at his church in Marion.

     First said music is quite therapeutic for him, especially during his cancer treatments.

     “I was diagnosed three years ago and the Lord has given me more time,” he said fondly.



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