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Retiring Together: Drs. Steven and Janae Bell’s Journey Into Retirement

Published in Medical Professionals

After nearly 30 years serving patients in the Willmar area, Surgeon, Steven Bell, MD, and Internal Medicine specialist, Janae Bell, MD, are retiring from their medical practices.

Together From the Beginning

"Our story goes way, way back," said Dr. Janae Bell "We grew up in the same town (De Smet, S.D.) and his father, who was a family practice doctor, delivered me. We literally grew up together in this small town of 1,500."

After attending the same schools, going to the same church, even playing opposite each other in plays, Janae and Steven Bell began dating in their junior year of high school. They went on to attend Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he was a chemistry major, and she majored in biology. Following undergraduate studies, they both earned their medical degrees from the University of South Dakota School of Medicine.

Steven Bell, a freshman in medical school, receives help from his brother, Doug Bell, a sophomore medical student at USD medical school.

One of five children, Steven and three of his siblings followed in their father's footsteps and became doctors. Dr. G. Robert Bell was a family practitioner at Bell Medical Services in De Smet, and a clinical associate professor of Family Medicine with the University of South Dakota medical school.

"Steven's dad had a huge influence in that small town," shared Janae. "I would say the per capita number of people that went into the field of medicine over the course of 20 to 25 years was high. You can just tell he was a great mentor. I can't say enough great things about his dad."

Janae, who was the first one in her family to go to college, joined the Army out of college from a sense of duty and to help pay her way through medical school. The couple spent three years in Michigan where Janae completed Internal Medicine residency and Steven started surgery training. They then moved to South Carolina where Capt. J. Bell, MD was stationed at Ft. Jackson. Steven completed general surgery residency at the U. of South Carolina as Janae would rise to the rank of Major.

Steven and Janae Bell medical school graduation.

Initially, they both envisioned themselves becoming small-town family physicians.

"As medical school went along, it became more obvious to me that general surgery was where my interests were," said Steven. "There was no ‘aha' moment, it was more of a gradual thing."

Janae chose to focus on adult medicine, thinking it would give her the opportunity to subspecialize later if she wanted. "I found that I just loved general internal medicine," she said. "It was like family practice, but without the kiddos and the pregnancy care."

Beginning Their Practices

After completing residencies and Janae's active duty, they began the search for where they wanted to set up their medical practices.

"We had a number of criteria for the places we were looking to practice," remembers Steven. "We were knowledgeable of Willmar because we grew up three hours from here."

Janae added, "His brother married a woman from around this area, so we came to their wedding in Willmar."

"So that put it on the map for us as we realized that here you've got a big clinic in a small town," said Steven.

At the time, Affiliated Community Medical Center was actively recruiting for both a general surgeon and an internist.

"It was close to home, but here was the ability to practice in a small town with a large medical practice," said Janae. "The draw was huge; you had a lot of families, you had colleagues, we weren't practicing in a tiny town by ourselves. We had subspecialties here and we wouldn't be the first married physician couple that ever arrived."

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Making Willmar Home

In 1994, Drs. Steven and Janae Bell moved to Willmar with their daughters, ages five and seven. Their third daughter was born in Willmar a year later.

When Dr. Steven Bell joined the general surgery team at the ACMC clinic, it was a team of four. "That's a pretty good size department," said Steven. "That's one of the things that attracted us here. Most communities this size will have only one or two general surgeons but here there were twice as many."

Janae recalled that the internal medicine department was at its largest, around 11 physicians, when she first arrived in 1994. "The department had just stopped covering the emergency room that year, but we took call during the day, and you would run over to the hospital. There were no hospitalists back then."

Both agree that the Willmar community has been a great place for their medical careers.

"I think it's been just what we envisioned," said Steven. "Patients are very appreciative; the community puts a lot of resources into health care. They care for their facilities and their hospital. It's close enough to the cities, but not too close."

As Janae explained, the location allowed them to practice how they wanted. "We're far enough from the cities and the tertiary care centers that we could practice a broad spectrum of medicine to your comfort level, which is great for the community and great for your own intelligence and ability to practice."

The couple also believed the Willmar area was a great place to raise a family while balancing the busy schedules of two physicians.

"We could get out to our kids' events. If there was a concert in the middle of the day you could maybe make it to that," said Janae. "I think given the size of the community it absolutely allowed us to have more of a family life."

Working As a Team

"It's been really fun to practice together," smiled Janae.

Looking back on nearly three decades of medicine, there have been many times when two Dr. Bells cared for the same patient.

"We'd both be in the hospital, and he's the surgeon, and I'm the patient's primary doctor," said Janae. "It feels good to be able to look at a patient and say, I know he'll take good care of you."

"And I. It's just vice versa," said Steven.

Along with working together, they commended their colleagues and the health system.

"I've been on a strong team," said Steven. "We hold each other accountable to maintain standards, get the extra training, go to meetings, so we can continue to provide the highest level of care to this region."

Amy Buffington, CNP, Jane Bell, MD, David Newcomer, MD.

Janae commented on the importance of the primary care team. "I think primary care is the backbone of medicine," said Janae. "These are the people that are really watching out for folks and fighting for them and help them go through this journey in healthcare that is getting increasingly complex."

Steven added, "I think the credit also goes to the system and the community. Looking at the past, these clinics needed a lot of good decision-making to get to where we are today. We've weathered a lot of storms."

Through the Years

Both Steven and Janae have experienced a lot during their time in medicine.

"One huge change was the electronic medical record," said Janae. "It doesn't come without a good deal of pain, but in the big picture, it's a tremendous asset."

Steven shared her viewpoint. "It's nice to be able to look at X-rays immediately and not have to run down and have them pull a pile of films and put them up on a board to look at. Now it's immediately there and we can take it for granted."

In September 2001, Dr. Steven Bell was one of 40 surgeons who volunteered at a makeshift triage center following the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. While attending a surgical conference in Manhattan, the two planes crashed into the twin towers. Steven and the other surgeons were set up to triage which victims may need emergency surgery. However, the volunteer surgeons didn't care for any victims at their location, as it was evident early on that there would be few survivors.

During his career as a rural general surgeon, Dr. Steven Bell performed a wide variety of subspecialty procedures. "When I first came, I did lots of vascular surgery," he shared. "Now we have Dr. Reigstad who is specialty trained and that's a great resource for the area." Dr. Bell was also instrumental in starting a bariatric surgery program at one time in Willmar.

Janae remarked that the development of the hospitalist program at Rice Memorial Hospital in 2005 has altered how inpatient care happens in our health system.

One of the most notable advancements Steven recalls is the expansion of minimally invasive surgery. "That's crescendoed since the start of my career," he explained. "Even the laparoscopic cholecystectomy was more in its infancy in the early nineties. It was being done, but it just wasn't a smooth mechanism. It's been exciting to be a part of that era."

Doctor-patient Relationships

When it comes down to it, both physicians expressed that it's been their patients who have meant the most to them.

"The patients in this region put their trust in us," said Steven. "I tell patients all the time that there is no such thing as a minor surgery. An operation is a journey that you take with the patient. I take every one of those operations very seriously and have always tried to impart that with my patients. I am going to miss taking those journeys with my patients."

"I will miss the privilege of these relationships," said Janae. "I treasure my long-term patient relationships and what a gift they have been to me. I would have three generations at once, and I'd have husbands and wives. There's really no relationship like a doctor-patient relationship."

Looking Ahead to Retirement

In 2021, Dr. Janae Bell fully transitioned from her internal medicine practice to a hospitalist role at Rice Memorial Hospital.

"When the pandemic hit, I returned to full time so I could work half-time at the clinic and half-time at Rice Hospital - but that proved to be quite challenging for a number of reasons", she recalled. Bell stated, "Then by 2021 the inpatient needs at Rice Memorial convinced me to practice hospital medicine only. As difficult as it was to give up my office practice, focusing on hospital medicine has been a good step toward retirement".

Twenty-nine years and thousands of patients after beginning their medical practices together, they've made the decision to retire together. While Dr. Steven Bell's last day is officially April 3, Dr. Janae Bell will stay on a little longer to help at the hospital until June.

In May, they'll celebrate 40 years of marriage, which includes three grown daughters and two grandsons, ages four and a half and almost seven. The Bells have come full circle to when they landed in Willmar with their seven- and five-year-old little girls at the beginning of their careers.

When asked about their plans for retirement, Janae spoke up, "First, we'll take our grandsons camping in the Boundary Waters. We're really looking forward to introducing the boys to wilderness camping."

"At least for this summer, it's going to be lake time and Black Hills time," added Steven.

While they don't have a specific retirement plan in place, they're open to what the future could include.

"If we can be fully retired, then we can really look at what our next chapter looks like," said Janae.

Given the Choice, Would You Do It Again?

Janae considered, then thoughtfully expressed, "Probably."

"Yeah, I would," nodded Steven. "Willmar has been a really nice fit for us. It really did fit our capabilities, our aspirations, and our dreams."