It was a typical day; my co-worker and I were doing physician visits, providing education on hospice and palliative care. The temperature outside was steadily climbing, trying for the 100-degree mark, exactly what we would expect to receive from Colorado on a summer day. I walked into Dr. Stjernholm’s office, whom I had never met, greeted by an outgoing, smiling nurse. “He’s not here today; he went to fix a patient’s air conditioner. I told him he had better not get on that roof,” she said, bringing smiles to all of our faces. Rhonda, who is an RN in the office, had the kind of realness that made me feel like I had known her my whole life. Her feistiness was met by her sincerity. As it turns out, she’s Dr. Stjernholm’s wife.

A doctor who is so invested in the well-being of his patient to, not only do a house call, but fix her air-conditioner? “The patient, who is 93, called and said she wasn’t feeling good; she had dry eyes and a dry nose. She was sitting in front of a fan because her air conditioner wasn’t working,” Dr. Stjernholm told me a few days later, as I sat across from him in his office. “It was a 95-degree-plus day, she’s a high-risk patient, so I went to see her and bought a few supplies to fix her AC. I ended up going back on Saturday to fix a few smoke alarms,” he said, telling me that he still does a few house calls, here-and-there.

Dr. James Stjernholm is the third of nine children, born to a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a nurse before she had her children; they met attending school together at the University of Colorado.

“My dad never tried to influence me but he was always big on education,” he said, telling me that what he really wanted to be was a veterinarian. “I had horses most of my life and I always enjoyed working with them. I was used to taking care of things.” Already in college, majoring in biology and still thinking he was going to be a vet, he began to watch his friends make plans for medical school.

His fellow friends in college and his great respect for his dad began the course of change that altered his path forever: it began at CU School of Medicine; Internal Medicine Residency, Gunderson Health Clinic in La Crosse Wisconsin; and then, he worked in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley for a couple of years as an emergency room doctor.

In all, he was away from Pueblo for 15 years. “In July of 1981 I started to practice with my dad’s group and did *moonlighting in the ER at St. Mary Corwin,” Dr. Stjernholm said. He told me coming back to Pueblo and working locally had its pros and cons. “I still got a little bit of ‘You’re Dr. Stjernholm’s son.’” He said he wanted to be his own man, wanted to be a doctor on his own merit; he had earned it: James Stjernholm, M.D., Internal Medicine. Gradually, he earned respect and people could separate the two of them.

“Today, I’m proud to be ‘Dr. Stjernholm’s son,’” he told me, as I sat imagining the memories that flooded him, leaving the corners of his mouth turned-up, his eyes gleaming. “I really miss him.” He said his dad, Dr. Thomas Stjernholm, passed away in 2011.

The doctor said he’s learned that medicine is about responding to people’s needs. “Through the years I’ve learned as much from my patients as I hope I have taught them,” he said humbly.

As a physician who is genuine about caring for his patients, I asked him about his own quality of life. Would he choose hospice if he had a terminal illness? “Absolutely—I see Rhonda’s strength and I wouldn’t want to diminish that. I would want to take the burden off my family, get help with medication and I would love to die at home,” he said, adding that even if a loved one is in the medical profession (as is the case in his situation—his wife is a nurse), it’s better to have someone who is removed from the situation.

“95 percent of patients and families know they need it, five percent have no idea,” Dr. Stjernholm said, about talking with patients and family members about hospice care. “Every family is different, some have critical stress. Hospice is able to be on the scene and determine who needs the most help—the patient and family is not alone—it’s medical management. Hospice holds together a plan to lean on.” He went on to say that hospice is more than physical care for the patient; it’s emotional care for the patient and the family.

Dr. Stjernholm told me, looking back, his biggest regret in life was not spending more time with his family. If he could do it again, he would. Likewise, his proudest accomplishment in his life is his children. “I have four good children; they’ve grown-up to be good people. This makes me proud,” he said, with a smile to match his words.

Living life? What does it mean to Dr. Stjernholm? “I’m not a golfer and I don’t have any individual hobbies. Living life is being at home or in Denver with family,” he explained to me, saying that Rhonda’s and his family are all relatively close by; his siblings (all except one) are in Colorado. He didn’t give me any definitive plans for retirement, only stating that he looks forward to spending time with Rhonda, his children and grandchildren after retiring.

“I think the greatest lessons I got from my dad came from watching him; he never tried telling me what to do.” He shared with me that his dad did lots of house calls in his day.

I left there that day feeling as though I was a better person to know there were Dr. Stjernholms; after all, the best lessons in life come from other people.

Editor’s Note: *Moonlighting is a reference made by physicians when working a secondary job, independently, and sometimes out of the realm of their residency training; e.g., an orthopedic surgeon moonlighting as an ER doctor at night.

This article was written by Gina Paradiso. She is the Marketing and Outreach Coordinator with Sangre de Cristo Hospice & Palliative Care and may be reached at (719) 542-0032. For more information: http://socohospice.org/