Job selection seldom hinges on only one factor, but for Thomas Withuhn, M.D., drive time to work was a biggie - especially after several years of enduring heavy traffic in medical school, internship and residency in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
So he went in search of the ideal job combined with minimal strain on the gas tank.
"During my residency, I had an opportunity to work in a smaller community hospital in Pasadena, and I really liked how much neater it ran with 150 beds, so I started seeking out all the similar opportunities within three hours of D.C., and narrowed it down to my two favorites: Salisbury, Md., and Martinsburg," he says. "They’re both beautiful little towns, but I didn’t want to negotiate the Chesapeake Bay Bridge" during frequent visits from Salisbury to friends and family in the D.C. area, he says.
Withuhn’s Valhalla turned out to be the historic municipality of Martinsburg, located in Berkeley County on the dangling Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, mostly bordered by the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
"It met everything I was looking for," he explains. A serendipity was the fact that his wife is an alumna of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, about 10 miles from their new home. City Hospital, where he works as a hospitalist, is licensed for 260 beds but currently staffs 140 to 160.
Among the most appealing aspects of this smaller hospital, Withuhn says, is that "you have a smaller group of people within which to work, and they know each other better. My (patients’) length of stay is much shorter because I can get things done faster. (For instance) it’s nice to get MRIs the same day or the next morning."
These days, he describes his home-to-work drive as "very short." In fact, he gloats that if it weren’t for recreational road trips, "I’d have to fill my gas tank only twice a year."
As for those road trips? "On a week off, we go down to visit friends or my wife’s parents near Baltimore. We’re driving 90 minutes, as opposed to that time every day to get to work."
D.C., as Panhandle residents call it, is a mere 80 miles away, with the option of morning and evening commuter trains that carry some 7,000 passengers a day.
Withuhn’s employer is actually one of two area healthcare facilities that became part of the state’s university medical system in a 2005 merger. They now operate as West Virginia University Hospitals - East (WVUH-East). City Hospital, and Jefferson Memorial Hospital in nearby Ranson, both have long histories in the area.
So far, the affiliation has spurred updates and major expansions in, among others, emergency departments and the ICU, a new cardiac cath lab and new 20-bed IC/coronary care unit. Another significant arrangement gives the two hospitals access to consultation with WVU physicians and new treatments developed by university researchers, and brings WVU students to Martinsburg for their third and fourth years of medical study associated with a family medicine residency program. There’s also a geriatric scholarship program and a rural hospital fellowship. An internal medicine program is on the wish list for the near future.
The merger was, as physician recruitment director Tina Stover puts it, "a growth movement." Since 2005, more than 110 new physicians have arrived. "But," she says, "we haven’t touched (the requirement). It’s staggering what we still need, and we see a great need for specialties."
The expansion couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.
This one-time home of Revolutionary War generals is now, with 17,000 residents, the largest city in the Panhandle, and the ninth largest - and fastest-growing - city in the state.
On a national level, Berkeley County, according to city manager Mark Baldwin, is the fastest growing county in all of the United States.
Martinsburg itself is preparing for the continuing population "onslaught." Baldwin reports that additional rural land is being annexed to make room for more housing, complete with access to the city water supply, which was enhanced in 2001 with new filtration plants and storage tanks. Adding to the mix are an expanding school system, a mile-long business corridor, street extensions and incentives for new downtown businesses.
At the same time city leaders, and especially the Berkeley County Historical Society, are striving to preserve what the Chamber of Commerce calls "a careful blend of small and charming towns boiling over with a sense of community."
It’s an ambience that seems tailor-made for residents as well as newcomers like Withuhn and his wife. Adding to the ambience is a very attractive cost of living.
"A two-bed condo in Arlington, Va., (the D.C. suburb) equals a five-bedroom home in Martinsburg," says Andrea Ball, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Back in the early 1700’s, the first white man - with a name (Morgan Morgan) that sounded like a stutter - built a cabin in the area. Martinsburg is a dream location waiting to be discovered by the producer of an 18th or 19th-century-period movie. There are 10 historic districts with some 3,000 individual properties.
A Civil War Discovery Trail has also been organized to cover some of America’s bloodiest fields of strife, including Antietam and Gettysburg. And the Washington Heritage Trail takes drivers on a 136-mile exploration of more than 40 sites related to our first president and covering almost 300 years of history. George Washington’s relatives settled in the area, and George himself would later survey much of the territory.
The abundance of local history sites couldn’t be more exciting to at least two physician history lovers - Withuhn and Vivek Padha, M.D. Thanks to fierce Civil War fighting over the territory, the "neighborhood" includes several battle sites for both to visit. Withuhn particularly enjoys hiking the portion of the 2,178-miles Appalachian Trail that enters West Virginia at Harpers Ferry, well-remembered because of John Brown’s infamous 1859, war-sparking raid on its U.S. arsenal.
Padha’s military-related favorites include Gettysburg and Antietam. After both battles, public buildings in Martinsburg were turned into hospitals to care for the wounded on both sides.
"All of us have military backgrounds," Padha explains. "My dad and my wife’s dad were generals in the Indian army." He himself is a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, and his brother, who lives in D.C., is a second lieutenant. "So we like to see either military installations or historic forts."
The slogan over the bridges into West Virginia is true. The Mountain State is definitely wild and wonderful, with terrain that doesn’t leave much room for flat land, and most of whose highways can best be described as endless "S" curves. They enhance the scenic beauty.
For Eastern Panhandle residents, the leisure time lineup also encompasses a multitude of events and cultural opportunities.
Outdoor enthusiasts quickly find that West Virginia is a paradise of mountain climbing, trail hiking and biking, mountain biking, rock climbing, wild caving and guided cave tours. Skiers need to go no farther than the Canaan Valley, with slopes easily equal to the better-known Colorado and Utah resorts.
Two rivers, the New and the Gauley, are noted for wild whitewater rafting. The area’s biggest draw, though, is a spectator sport. On Bridge Day (officialbridgeday.com), the third Saturday of October, some 80,000 visitors stream into the Fayette area to watch this "most extreme of extreme sports" - parachutists jumping 876 feet from the spectacular New River Gorge Bridge. There’s also team rappelling from the bridge. Highlining, or zipping, is a thrilling, but less dangerous, way for intrepid spectators to participate.
Closer to home are calmer experiences along the Eastern Panhandle’s two border rivers, the Potomac and the Shenandoah. River outfitters can supply canoes, kayaks and tubes.
Also nearby are two exceptional hiking/biking trails. Thomas Withuhn, M.D., spends free time on the West Virginia section of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the longest marked footpath in the U.S., stretching 2,178 miles from Maine to Georgia. It enters the Mountain State at Harpers Ferry, whose ambience also strikes fire with the history-loving Withuhn. Among many other trails are the C&O Canal Towpath (bike rentals available); the new Great Eastern Trail extending from New York to Alabama, and the Tuscarora Trail along a creek well stocked with trout but rough terrain billed as "well beyond the Sunday stroll category." Vintage train rides offer another way to "invade" rugged territory, as do scenic flights.
Camping is a preferred getaway for Sarah Moerschel, M.D., and her family. "Lately we’ve stayed in West Virginia state parks (there are 35 altogether)," she reports. "We have beautiful mountains and beautiful campgrounds." These come in two "sizes," such as the luxury lodge at Cacapon Resort State Park (pronounced ka-Kay-pon) where activities include horseback riding and golf, or Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, where camping comes under the heading of early pioneer life.
Back in "civilization," Eastern Panhandle towns are alive with festivals, theater performances, surprisingly good restaurants and interesting shops, not to mention the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races (hollywoodcasino charlestown.com) and Berkeley Springs’ thermal spas (berkeleysprings.com), whose healing powers have attracted visitors, including George Washington, for centuries. Shepherdstown hosts an annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (catf2.org), bringing American playwrights to produce new works starring well-known actors. The town is also the site of the American Conservation Film Festival (conservationfilm.org), featuring dozens of productions on various environmental aspects.
A short list of diverse events includes the Apple Harvest Festival, the Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival, Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Air Show, and Pickin’ in the Panhandle, a state barbecue and bluegrass celebration.
Main Street Martinsburg’s (mainstreetmartinsburg.com) efforts are reinvigorating downtown life with unusual events, such as the Palette Project contest, which challenges artists to do their best with palette shaped canvases; the Scarecrow Project, with handmade figures attached to lampposts; and the congeniality of First Saturdays throughout the year when downtown establishments stay open late, among others.
And there’s always the refuge of dinner at one of several local restaurants.
Or, for the diehard symphony, ballet, opera and professional sports aficionados, there’s always that quick day or weekend trip to the big, sophisticated and accessible cities of Washington and Baltimore.
Martinsburg’s population spurt couldn’t have come at a better time for Padha. He’s the newest member of Martinsburg Radiology Associates, starting work
in July as Berkeley County’s first interventional radiologist. His four partners are diagnosticians. "I do all the procedures," he says. "Angioplasties, aortic stents, endographs, varicose veins, lasers, image-guided biopsies and cancer treatments with image-guided equipment."
Having grown up amid turmoil and violence in the Kashmiri city of Jammu, and receiving a medical degree from Government Medical College, Padha and his family began looking at other options. The impetus came from his younger brother, who had visited the U.S. and liked it. "Everyone was very nice and friendly. He was in the Navy and had been all over the world. He said the U.S. was matchless."
Fast forward to 2009 where, after several years of U.S. training and practice in other cities, he was the chief radiology resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital. A colleague had joined Radiology Associates. "I had never heard of City Hospital," Padha recalls, "but he and I kept in touch. Every time we met, he talked about this hospital. I said, ’Maybe there’s a chance to go and make a difference.’ The other thing that piqued my curiosity was that the hospital was only about 80 or 90 miles from D.C., but they didn’t have some of the cutting-edge procedures, which can really help the community. Patients had to travel 20 or 25 miles to get some of the procedures done - or they go to D.C. or Winchester, Va., or Hagerstown, Md."
Padha is one of five physicians in the Martinsburg group. Four of them, he reports, are from Yale, making for a comfortable relationship. "These are guys I have never met in my life who are 10 years or more senior to me, and they are doing a procedure exactly how I would do it. You know the grueling training they have gone through, because you went through it yourself, so you have confidence in them." The job is a challenge, and he says the hospital is trying very hard to get all the equipment he needs. "If it works out, all these people will be able to receive treatment here," he says.
Like Withuhn, Padha appreciates the hours saved by his own commute - even though he drives about 20 miles to work from Hagerstown, Md. The difference is that it’s a pleasant ride, he says. "It’s on a highway, but it’s a scenic drive, nice and green, bright and sunny. It just relaxes you. You don’t get stuck on the Beltway every day."
The patient explosion also came at a propitious time for Sarah Moerschel, M.D., a pediatrician who relocated to Shepherdstown, about 10 miles from Martinsburg, almost six years ago from Philadelphia and is affiliated with Jefferson Memorial - a very short commute.
The move was a homecoming for her husband, a computer consultant, who grew up there. Moerschel says she’s found a hometown that offers her a take-time-to-smell-the-flowers life.
"We originally decided to live in a big city," she recalls, "so through the course of going to medical school and doing my residency, we lived in D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia. After my residency, we had two children and life seemed a little bit different. So we looked for somewhere that we could put down roots and raise a family and have a better quality of life than we were getting in Philadelphia."
The search, as she tells it, "happened to be right around the time that WVUH-East was in its infancy." By then she was on the University of Pennsylvania medical school faculty and knew she wanted to teach and see residents. "WVUH hired me as its first pediatric faculty member. I was really pleased after thinking I was just going to do regular community pediatrics. It’s been a nice balance. I’m in charge of educating our medical students in pediatrics, I’m doing some clinical work and some formal classroom teaching, plus seeing patients."
There’s a slight ulterior motive in training the young doctors, she admits. "We want to expose them to the community and hope they return to practice here. The population has grown faster than the medical community, so if you look at the numbers, we are a very underserved area." Bottom line? "Lots of opportunities for more people to come and help us out."
Moerschel is pleased to tell about her own recruiting success. "One of my medical students from five years ago who finished her pediatric residency moved here in July," she reports, "And the next week she started in the practice with me, which is really fun, because we know each other so well."
Convenience is one keyword for Shepherdstown residents. "We can walk to the library, to the coffee shop, to any of five restaurants and to the park," Moerschel says. "The college brings an interesting element to town - educated people and creative arts," among other pluses.
As for economic success, Martinsburg itself could be compared to the mythical phoenix that’s risen - repeatedly - from the ashes. It’s been known for its agricultural products, especially apples, but its early era of prosperity stemmed from flour mills powered by the waters of the Tuscarora Creek, as well as brick plants, distilleries and food-processing operations.
There’s a short answer to questions about the phoenix’s most recent flight: the recently deceased Senator Robert C. Byrd. During his record-setting Congressional tenure, he faced varying sentiments. At the Convention & Visitors Bureau, executive director Andrea Ball’s version is, "Robert Byrd has been a savior."
One after another, he brought government offices and agencies to the Panhandle.
Several "civilian" companies or branches thereof have made their way to Martinsburg because of a ready-made labor force, including current or former Washington commuters who would prefer to work closer to home. One of the largest is Quad/Graphics, whose many clients include National Geographic Magazine. Plant manager Pam Rostagno lists other Martinsburg pluses: affordable utilities, distribution access along the I-81 corridor running from the New York-Canadian border to mid-Tennessee, and convenient access for clients.
Quad/Graphics has made its own contribution to the city’s health care scene. Worried about impending shortages of primary care physicians, company founder Harry V. Quadracci 20 years ago decided to provide guaranteed care for employees and recruited his physician brother to get the ball rolling. Today, QuadMed clinics have been established at five Quad/Graphics plants. The concept is also being marketed to other U.S. companies, as "a sustainable way to manage healthcare costs," according to WVU Health, a publication of WVU’s Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center in Morgantown.
The Martinsburg clinic became a perfect fit for Jeff Whyte, M.D., a family medicine graduate of WVU who had been associated with a clinic in nearby Harpers Ferry. The company setting gave him a dream opportunity to spend more time with patients and provide wellness counseling. He oversees two part-time physicians. Under the company’s self-insurance program, employees pay a simple $7 per visit and a one-time $10 fee for physical therapy. A fitness center is free, and the company offers cash incentives for those who try hard to lose weight.
For specialty care, the company depends upon City Hospital physicians - one more reason for the hospital to continue its recruiting efforts.
Eileen Lockwood has traveled to all 50 states, producing stories about all but four. Her credits also include articles based on travels in some 35 foreign countries. Eileen currently lives in St. Joseph, Mo., with her journalist husband, George, and has four children in Arizona, California and Australia.