Dr. Patrick Fitz-Gerald exemplifies CHC dedication to patient mental health
Updated: Oct 11
When Dr. Patrick Fitz-Gerald graduated from medical school, many classmates couldn’t wait to move to a big city and specialize in a lucrative medical field. That didn’t interest Fitz-Gerald in the least.
“We do a little bit of everything,” said Fitz-Gerald, 35, of River Valley Primary Care Services in Ratcliff in rural Logan County. “What I like about rural medicine is there is usually a pretty great work-life balance. You aren’t a nameless drone handing out antibiotics. You become part of the life of a community. You become part of their social groups, their spiritual groups. And, I’m married to a farm girl who has to have horses.”
Originally from Shreveport, La., he often visited Arkansas as a boy, camping with the Boy Scouts. With those memories, he specifically wanted to start his medical career in the Natural State.
Fitz-Gerald isn’t sure why his surname includes a hyphen. “Everyone just calls me ‘Dr. Fitz,’” he said.
He’s found the biggest need among River Valley patients to be mental health. It’s a subject he’s entirely comfortable addressing. His mother is a physician, and his father is a social worker. They stressed to him early on the importance of educating patients about mental health.
“I’ve been told I’m a calming presence,” he said. “Patients are always embarrassed to talk about their mental health. They feel like there is something wrong with them but aren’t sure what. They say they’ve been sad for three years but insist they aren’t depressed. I start asking them questions, and their symptoms indicate depression. You just have to fight the stigma and get to know them.”
He recalled a patient with social anxiety disorder. His biggest challenge was to help her view the clinic as a safe place. He gave her permission to be scared during the drive. But he asked her to do her best to relax during her appointment. She agreed. He prescribed anxiety medication. She’s taking it and is doing a lot better.
Another patient had post-partum depression. She just needed to be assured she wasn’t crazy.
“I went to medical school in New Orleans. I’ve seen crazy. You are not crazy,” he recalled telling her.
Poverty impacts mental health and physical health. If you are poor, it’s hard to gain access to healthy foods. It’s even harder when you must drive 20 or 30 miles to get fresh vegetables.
“Rural medicine is cool,” Fitz-Gerald said. “But it has its challenges.”