Doc helped shape hospital care

Dr. Harless retires, leaves legacy of medical students, smoke-free campus

Published Dec 16, 2012 at 04:00AM

In the early 1980s, just one hallway led to both the critical care and intensive care units of St. Charles Bend. Dr. Keith Harless, who worked in those units, remembers that the corridor was often lined with hospital visitors taking cigarette breaks.

“I regularly got stopped by a person smoking, asking how their loved one was doing, who was dying of lung cancer,” he says.

That’s when the pulmonary and critical care specialist knew something had to change.

So he asked Sister Catherine Hellmann, the hospital president at the time, to move the cigarettes sold in the hospital gift shop behind the counter.

Next, he convinced the hospital to stop selling cigarettes altogether. Then, Harless wrote a policy to ban smoking by visitors to the hospital.

“There was no model at the time,” he says.

Harless later wrote a new policy that extended the smoking ban to patients. Eventually, St. Charles became one of the first hospitals in Oregon with a smoke-free campus.

This is just one piece of Harless’ 35-year medical legacy in Central Oregon. At the end of this year, Harless, 66, is retiring.

Harless says he knew he wanted to be a doctor when he was 9. He decided to specialize in pulmonary and critical care in part because, as a scuba diver, he was particularly familiar with lung functions.

The specialty encompasses all care within the ICU, where patients are often in the throes of respiratory, heart or neurological failure.

“What, to this day, fascinates me about critical care is: You have to know medicine very well,” Harless says. “You need to know how to intervene immediately. And you need to have the wisdom to know whether to be patient or to intervene, as necessary.”

In 1977, Harless moved to Bend and became the first pulmonary and critical care specialist east of the Cascades. He joined the Bend Memorial Clinic and began working in the ICU at St. Charles.

Throughout his career, Harless has witnessed immense changes in medicine. Imaging technology, such as CAT scans and echocardiograms, have altered the way doctors monitor patients. And new diseases, such as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, have appeared.

More recently, Harless notes growing attention paid to hospice care and end-of-life decisions.

In 1981, Harless launched a medical education program that now rotates dozens of medical students and residents through Central Oregon each year.

Dr. Jennifer Laughlin recently took over Harless’ post as medical education director of St. Charles. She says that when the program first started, medical students stayed at Harless’ house.

“I don’t think there are many physicians out there that would go to that level,” she said with a laugh.

In 1984, Harless joined a Bend committee to improve air quality. At the time, a “hat band” of smog settled around Pilot Butte each winter.

Everyone assumed wood smoke — from stoves and the mills — was to blame. But a study found that cinders, spread on roads to improve traction in icy weather, made up 70 percent of the particulate. So the state ramped up efforts to sweep up the cinders on dry days.

Margo Pitts, Harless’ nurse since 1977, says Harless’ commitment to patients is evident in the fact that he still makes house calls.

“I mean, that’s practically unheard of,” she said.

Harless says he’s not sure what he’ll do in retirement but it won’t involve medicine. Volunteering part-time, he says, he wouldn’t be able to offer the level of care that he has come to expect. Looking back on his career, Harless says he feels thankful to have cared for thousands of patients. At his retirement party, he recited a list of lessons he learned from them.