Mark Ivey’s a pretty sharp guy. After a stint as a combat medic in Vietnam, he got into the McGill University medical school in Canada — one of 10 selected among 500 applicants from the United States. He then proceeded to get straight As, fulfilling the dreams of his father, who could never afford an education and came to Arizona in a wave of refugees from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.
But sharp as he is, his wife, Sandy, still managed to keep his farewell party a secret. Friends and colleagues gathered July 25 at Rim Country Health, although his last day isn’t actually until Friday. He’ll finally retire after serving Rim Country — and saving lives — for 35 years.
“He’s a hero in a white coat and cowboy boots who took care of us like we were family,” said one longtime patient.
His medical service changed the face of health care throughout the region. He pushed the medical community to bring specialists to see patients locally — more than 21 physicians with a wide range of expertise made their way to Payson on a regular basis during Ivey’s first five years of practice here.
He both recruited visiting physicians and convinced many others to make Payson their home.
Ivey has saved lives, delivered babies and helped others achieve a better quality of life in spite of chronic health conditions.
His association with Payson actually stretches back to the visits he made after his grandmother, Rinda Elms, moved here in 1953 when her husband retired from mining in Ajo. His father came to Payson a little later.
“I was in Vietnam in 1967 and on Dec. 28 I received word my 41-year-old father had had a heart attack.”
Ivey was serving with the U.S. Army; initially sent to be a combat medic, he said he wound up playing with the 266 Army Band and driving both a bus and a 1-ton truck after the driver was killed.
Ivey was discharged 46 days early to tend to his father, who survived the heart attack. After that, his father wanted to move to Rim Country “to be close to Granny.” She was the central figure of the family.
“She left Oklahoma in 1932 to go to California. The trip took 15 days in an old Model T pickup with five kids, the youngest being my father, her mother and brother-in-law, his wife and their three kids.”
Ivey said police were then patrolling the eastern border of California to keep out the migrants from the Dust Bowl country and elsewhere.
“If you didn’t have a work permit or $50 they could arrest you and hold you for 72 hours. Granny told them, ‘I ain’t never seen no $50.’ So, she was turned away.”
The family made its way to Ajo where his grandmother did ironing for the miners for 50 cents a day. His father left school early to go to work to help the family. Because he never finished school, Ivey’s father pressed him to get an education.
Ivey came “home” to Payson in August 1969 and worked as an orderly at Lewis R. Pyle Memorial Hospital, taking home $56 a week and picking up an extra $25 on weekends singing and playing his guitar at Pete’s Place in Star Valley when it was a steakhouse and cowboy bar.
Ivey’s father died April 8, 1970. After that, the future doctor resolved to go back to college. He had spent two years at the University of Arizona out of high school and then went to Northern Arizona University following his father’s death.
“I don’t know. Maybe I had PTSD, but I quit six units shy of my degree and went to work in the mines in Superior,” he said.
He knocked around in a couple of other mining towns and then went to Timmons, Ontario to work in another mine.
He’d been driving almost straight through when he stopped at a soup place and decided to go in another direction. Ivey ended up in Pt. Gatineau across from Ottawa working in a rehabilitation center for para- and quadriplegics. That work inspired him to apply to McGill.
“There was a group interview and they asked each of us the same question, ‘What makes you better than the other candidates?’ I’d listened to all these people rattle off all their experience and education. I’d been a surgery technician and a combat medic. I told them, ‘It’s impossible for me to tell you what makes me better than these people because I don’t know them.’ Then I said I cared about people and the patient should always come first. I don’t know if that is what they were waiting to hear or not, but I was admitted.”
Ivey said he had always wanted to come back to Payson. After earning his medical degree, he interned at Good Samaritan in Phoenix and then made his way “home” to Payson again.
At the time, he and the few other doctors in town did everything themselves.
“We had a hospital and town lacking in health care. The others didn’t like bringing in specialists to town. But over the course of five years, I had 21 visiting specialists make regular visits to town and from those, recruited a number of physicians” to make Payson their home. He said over the years he has seen at least 50 doctors come and leave Payson.
“I don’t think anyone feels threatened by specialists coming to town anymore,” he said.
Ivey did not stop at the Payson town limits — he has worked to help establish functioning health care clinics in Pine-Strawberry, Tonto Basin and Young. He has been hands-on in Tonto Basin, he and his wife have a home there — “We’ve only been there once this past year,” Sandy said, explaining another reason for their “semi-retirement.” Ivey said they have a boat in Tonto Basin too, with a new engine, and it hasn’t even been in the water at Roosevelt yet.
The Tonto Basin clinic benefitted from oversight by both Good Samaritan and Columbia, then the largest health care provider in the world. Now, the Payson hospital, managed by Community Health Systems, will be working to help keep the clinic operational with Ivey’s retirement.
“They are helping bring in a physician assistant or nurse practitioner to run it,” Ivey said.
Ivey is retiring from regular office hours and seeing patients, but he will continue to serve as medical director for both Payson Regional Home Health and Rim Country Health Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation.
He also has plans to help develop an adult day care service and cardio-pulmonary rehabilitation service at Rim Country Health.
“I will look for where I can be of the most use and still get time off. I’m going to be 67 and my health is pretty good, though recently I had to have two stents put in my heart, but there was no damage.”
The big send off
At his July 25 surprise party, Ivey heard from a number of colleagues and friends and then serenaded the group — not only did Sandy keep the party a secret, she snuck his guitar in ahead of time.
Harvey Pelovsky, administrator for Rim Country Health, opened the event by saying Ivey had really helped the facility in the past several years.
Longtime friend John Dryer admitted he had a hard time thinking of a story he could tell on Ivey that would be appropriate for the setting — but he settled on a hunting story. He, Ivey and friend Jim Beam, were quail hunting and it got late and they got lost and had to make a nature call. They stopped the truck and got out and in the glow of the headlights they discovered they’d come just short of a cliff.
Dryer then took a more personal tone, “We have had a great relationship in Tonto Basin and he has given great care to so many of my family. He delivered my grandchild and he saved my son, who has diabetes, two times. Bringing him back from the edge.”
Dr. Alfonso Munoz was one of the doctors Ivey recruited. “I was going to stay for only a year and it’s been 35 years. The most important thing I learned from Mark was to never forget the patient comes first.”
PRMC chief executive officer Chris Wolf thanked Ivey for his service. “When we met he reminded me of my father, who has been practicing for 53 years and wears cowboy boots and suspenders.”
Longtime patient, Sherrie McQuerrey, sang his praises upon learning of his planned retirement from private practice:
“Dr. Ivey has a rare gift for putting his patients at ease. On one occasion, a woman expressed concerns about being able to maintain control of her bodily functions during a pelvic exam. Dr. Ivey reassured her with a chuckle ... ‘I’ve been peed on, pooped on, bled on and puked on. I’ve been covered in pus and placenta. I guarantee you there’s nothing that can come out of your body that hasn’t already come out of somebody else’s and landed on me, and it doesn’t bother me a bit.’
“That’s Doc Ivey — gentle and kind, funny and brilliant. He once made a house call to a young woman who couldn’t come to his office because she was paralyzed by panic attacks, and he prescribed a new medication that gave her the first relief she had known in years. He correctly diagnosed another woman’s brain tumor just by listening to her describe her symptoms, and immediately referred her to a neurosurgeon.”
Ivey said the decision to semi-retire has been one of the hardest things he has had to do in his life. “The last two weeks have been the most emotional of my life. My patients are friends. The hard part is giving up all the day-to-day contact with the patients. If I don’t like it I’ll come back,” he said.