Dr. Kriebel retires

Dr. Stephen Kriebel

Forks Forum file photo

Dr. Stephen Kriebel (right) performs in a Rainforest Players adaptation of a Chekhov play. 

Dr. Stephen Kriebel retired from his Family Medical Center practice in late December following 37 years of serving the West End community.

Dr. Kriebel moved to Forks in 1975 to take over from Dr. Edwin Liebold. He was then Forks only full-time local physician.

Forks would be his first and only medical practice. Dr. Liebold had been Forks’ doctor since the 1950s. His patients came from a widespread area, from the Hoh River valley up to Neah Bay.

The move to Forks came through Dr. Kriebel’s participation in the National Health Service Corp, a program that placed health care professionals in rural areas, and he was given a deferment from military service through participating. The program was sponsored during the Vietnam War era by Washington state U.S. Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

He and his wife Lela were given a choice of about eight rural sites in Washington state, mostly in Eastern Washington. “We looked at several,” Dr. Kriebel recalls. “Forks was one of the only ones on the west side of the state. We liked Forks.”

The couple were married in 1969. She was from Iowa and he from a suburb of Philadelphia in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The couple met while in college in Ohio.

Dr. Kriebel graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1972, did his internship at the University of Washington, and moved to the Northwest for his residency in family practice at the University of Washington, which led to his connection with Forks.

When the Kriebels moved to Forks their daughter Meredith was nine months old. Their son Westin was delivered at Forks Hospital in 1977. Since Dr. Kriebel’s arrival, Forks Community Hospital has tripled in size. The first surgeries at the hospital were performed at the hospital in his early years in Forks. Prior to that, he said, patients drove to Port Angeles to deliver babies, resulting in a number of “lake babies” being born enroute.

He said it seemed like every five years a doctor would arrive who would stay permanently in Forks, he said.

“I was the only full-time doctor at the time I started, and for the whole first year; the second year another doctor arrived.” He said among those staying were Dr. John Shima, who arrived in 1980, and later Dr. Richard Dickson. “There are six full-time doctors now.”

His first office was in the three-suite office at Forks Community Hospital that would later be used as the former Bogachiel Clinic. The building was then located on the other side of the Forks Hospital’s campus. He saw patients there for 10 years.

In 1985 Dr. Kriebel built his own clinic building, on G Street, and spent the remainder of his career in Forks treating patients there. He still owns the building and now leases it to Harrison Health Partners.

“It was absolutley the peak of the logging boom,” he recalls of his arrival in the mid-1970s. “If you needed a job you put logging clothes, stood on the corner by the Vagabond and a crummy would be by to pick you up.”

He said in those days his father-in-law counted timber loads going back on log trucks during a drive to Port Angeles. The tally showed about 110 loads in one hour.

“And they were running 12-14 hours per day then,” he said. “I remember looking in the phone book and counting 55 shake mills in operation. Logging was more dangerous then, everything was done by hand. There were horrendous trauma injuries from mills and logging. I sewed up a sawed-off finger twice a week from shake mills. The first 10 years there were two chain saw lacerations a day, every day.”

When asked about bartering for services back in his early years, Dr. Kriebel gave an example of a fisherman who came into his clinic with an injury and gave him a fresh halibut in exchange. “We weighed the halibut on the baby scale, figured out how much it was worth per pound and traded it off.” He said bartering medical services for game and fish wasn’t an uncommon practice.

He also made house calls in the early days in Forks, including a memorable one to care for pioneer Bear Creek homesteading family member Olga Hillstrom. “A nice lady and interesting character, what a privilege it was to have known her,” he said.

Today, at the end of his career in rural medicine in Forks, Dr. Kriebel sees the town “completely changed” when comparing it to the mid-1970s. The biggest change, he said, is the aging of the overall population. “It’s aged a lot, used to be a young person’s town. In 1975 the average age was 25.” Today, he said, the average age is noticeably higher.

With the downturn in logging the construction and opening of Clallam Bay Prison “changed everything, the prisons became the main industry.”

“That was a good thing,” he said, with logging an up and down industy due to the market prices of resources, crashing at times. The prisons provide reliable pay checks and good employee benefits, he said, they have “smoothed out the economy.”

In addition to his years of service to the West End community, Dr. Kriebel had an active life in the world of medical education in the Seattle area. He was an Associate Clinical Professor with the University of Washington School of Medicine, and served as president of the Washington Rural Health Association, plus was a board member of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians and was on the executive admissions committee of the University of Washington School of Medicine for 18 years.

“I usually went over on Friday, twice a month. I kept my hand in the outside world of medicine. I rubbed elbows, contributed a lot in terms of rural practice. kept them aware of needs of a rural practice. I was the token rural doctor on the admissions committee.”

In 2004 Dr. Kriebel was awarded the Washington Academy of Family Physicians’ Family Physician of the Year Award.

The Kriebels plan to spend their retirement at home in Forks. He is active with the Rainforest Players. He and Lela became involved with the acting troupe in the mid-1980s, not long after the group was founded.

Dr. Kriebel manages the family land on the West End, and he enjoys raising poultry including chickens, ducks and geese.

The Kriebel’s daughter Meredith is now a Doctor of Nurse Practice on staff at Harborview in Seattle. Son Westin does corporate computer consulting in the Washington D.C. Area for Microsoft. Both graduated from Forks High School.

Summing up his medical career in Forks, Dr. Kriebel said, “It’s been a wonderful experience and privilege, a unique opportunity and an amazing experience.”

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