A Legacy of Influence
To understand why Michael Sitorius, MD, is where he is today, you have to start at the beginning.
His father, Dr. Rodney Sitorius, practiced “family medicine” nearly two decades before it was formally recognized as a discipline.
Born in Oklahoma City while his father was an intern at the University of Oklahoma, Michael Sitorius grew up with his five brothers and sisters in Cozad, Neb., where the elder Dr. Sitorius served as a rural general practitioner — a G.P. as family physicians were known back then.
“Dad grew up in Gothenburg (Neb.), so moving back to Nebraska got us closer to home,” Dr. Sitorius recalls. “He practiced out of an office with a series of partners, but he made a lot of house calls and farm calls.
“My brother, who is also a physician now, and I would travel with Dad to house calls. It was our best chance to see him. His practice was his life. He’d be up and gone before we were awake and would often return after we went to bed.”
The trips beside his father offered a glimpse at the wide range of cases and conditions a family physician faces. “Farmers and ranchers are interesting people to care for,” he says. “You need a broad knowledge base and to be open to learning something new every day.
“Dad was my biggest influence. From fifth or sixth grade on, I thought this is what I wanted to do.”
A 1977 graduate of the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Medicine, Dr. Sitorius joined the faculty of UNMC’s Department of Family Medicine in September 1980, planning to teach for one year before returning to practice medicine in rural Nebraska.
Thirty-three years later, Dr. Sitorius is a professor and chair of the department where he completed his residency. His office was remodeled from a minor procedure room in the department’s first clinic.
As a teacher, he helps educate countless young physicians in family medicine, where the conditions range from abdominal pain to herpes zoster. As a leader, he is taking on a key role in the development of a Regional Provider Network, an alliance of independent hospitals throughout Nebraska intent on creating a shared infrastructure to improve the quality and efficiency of health care delivery.
And as a family doctor, he still makes house calls.
“I love seeing patients,” he says. “I would not have stayed in an administrative role if I was not able to see patients. It’s as much for me as for them. It keeps you grounded and credible.
“It’s difficult to lead people if you aren’t out doing what they are doing.”
Dr. Sitorius credits his late father and his mother, Virginia, who at 94 lives in Cozad, with starting him and his siblings on the right life track. “My parents put a high premium on doing all we could to excel from an academic standpoint,” he says.
Today, two of his sisters are nurses and the third is a dental hygienist. One brother teaches high school science in Minden, Neb., while his other brother is a family physician in Wisconsin.
Dr. Sitorius’ father practiced medicine for 50 years, retiring in his early 80s.
“Two things impressed me the most about Dad,” Dr. Sitorius says. “The first is how he was able to interact with his patients outside his practice as friends and neighbors.
“The second is the respect he had in the community. His reputation in south-central Nebraska did not hurt me a bit.”
His father’s commitment to his patients was clear. “He was always available,” recalls Dr. Sitorius. “I remember we would golf on his afternoon off and we never, ever finished nine holes. That was back when we didn’t have pagers, so someone would come riding up on a golf cart to get him. That might tick some people off today, but that’s how he practiced.”
The Sitorius family legacy is admired by many people.
Pediatrician Kenton Shaffer, MD, came to know Dr. Michael Sitorius as a medical student observing in Dr. Shaffer’s Kearney clinic. He has since worked with him on administrative projects.
“What that family has given to the state in terms of education and care of patients is pretty impressive,” says Dr. Shaffer. “And Mike has trained a lot of people to carry on that legacy.
“He gets it. That’s about the best way I can put it. He knows what it is to be a family doctor.”
Nebraska Sen. Mike Gloor met Dr. Sitorius when both were biology majors at Hastings College. “He was a great basketball player,” Gloor recalls, “with a smooth jump shot.”
While Dr. Sitorius pursued the practice of medicine, Gloor built a career managing health care institutions.
“We share the same passion of promoting family medicine and students,” Gloor says. “In the Legislature, I will be pushing issues that concern family medicine and primary care, and I’ll seek his advice. I trust him. I trust his insights and his guidance.
“Mike has always been an advocate for focusing on how most people interact with the health care system, and that’s through their family doctor. It’s important to me that I have someone I can call on who understands family medicine.”
Aside from teaching and practicing family medicine, Dr. Sitorius, 61, is a family man. He met his wife, Marilyn (Peters) in medical school at UNMC. She is a radiologist. They have three daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 21 to 30.
He continued to play basketball until about eight years ago when he was benched by swollen, painful knees. “I miss it a lot,” he laments. “It was a good diversion.”
An award-wining teacher who also was named Physician of the Year by The Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Sitorius is a student of history, particularly American history and the nation at war. “If not for medicine, teaching history probably would have been my fallback position,” he says.
He and his wife like to travel and have visited China, where he combines his knowledge of family medicine with a natural curiosity for other cultures. He has made several presentations in China regarding family medicine, a field notably absent from that country’s health care system. In 2012, he co-hosted 18 Chinese physicians for the Chinese Symposium at UNMC.
He loves music, just about every genre except rap and opera. During a recent visit to his office, the voice of Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines filled the room. He also enjoys attending live concerts and music festivals in Omaha and throughout the region. He was even planning a trip to Minneapolis to see Pink in concert.
“I have a patient who used to drum for Dan Fogelberg,” he says. “He has such interesting stories to tell. That is one of the nice parts about being a physician. You can learn as much about yourself, as much about life, if you just listen to your patients.”
His breadth of experience has made Dr. Sitorius a source of leadership on numerous boards and committees and for several family medicine and rural initiatives.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great people here, and I’ve had a lot of support through the years from the Department of Family Medicine and the university,” he says.
He helped develop the Rural Health Education Network, a partnership between UNMC and communities across Nebraska that addresses the shortage of health professionals in rural areas. He also helped build the Rural Health Opportunities Program at UNMC, which encourages rural residents to pursue careers in health care.
“We are very proud that UNMC has the largest rural training track for family medicine in the nation,” says Dr. Sitorius.
There is also a new Regional Provider Network (RPN) being developed that involves The Nebraska Medical Center and eight other health systems throughout the state. Dr. Sitorius and Tim Kingston, MD, are the physicians representing The Nebraska Medical Center on the executive committee that is overseeing development of the RPN.
“One of the network’s guiding principles is that it will be physician-led,” says Tadd Pullin, senior vice president of Marketing and Planning at The Nebraska Medical Center. “Dr. Sitorius was a logical choice to participate in this important effort. He looks at patients holistically and he works with many specialists. His mindset is very much in line with the network’s goals of improved outcomes and more efficiently-coordinated patient care.”
Pullin says Dr. Sitorius’ background gives him a unique understanding of the needs of rural Nebraska. “Throughout his career, he has focused on training the best family practice doctors in the state. He is in health care for all the right reasons.”
Powerful reasons that keep the doctor from the country in a big city classroom packed with students, many of whom will one day practice in the kind of communities where he grew up.
“I probably intended to return to rural Nebraska and practice,” he says. “But I think the contributions I have made to these programs amount to far more than I could have done had I gone back.
“I feel good about that.”