BLUE RAPIDS – After 39 years in family practice, Dr. Kenneth Duensing will retire from Community Memorial Healthcare (CMH) at the beginning of June 2022. He will celebrate his retirement with a come-and-go reception hosted by the Duensings and CMH on Friday, June 3, 2022. The reception will be from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Duensing’s home at 312 Alcove Dr., Blue Rapids. Brats will be served from 5 to 7 p.m., and a band will play from 6 to 8 p.m. Cake will be served throughout. Patients, friends, family, and the public are invited to help him celebrate his long career in medicine.
Dr. Duensing grew up in the Bremen area, attending Immanuel Lutheran School before graduating from Marysville High School in 1972. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Kansas in 1976, and attended pharmacy school before enrolling in medical school. He graduated from the University of Health Sciences in Kansas City, Mo., in 1982 as a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). He then completed a family practice residency at Rocky Mountain Hospital, Denver, Colo., before being recruited back to private practice in Blue Rapids.
“My first job was working for a farmer in the Bremen area in the eighth grade, when the farmer’s son was drafted to go to Vietnam,” Dr. Duensing said. “I learned hard work, long hours, and independent thinking,” he said. After throwing a lot of small alfalfa bales for local farmers, Duensing got his second job at age 16 – working as an orderly at Community Memorial Hospital in Marysville. “That’s where I got my first experiences caring for patients – I saw what it took, to provide hands-on care at all levels,” he said. “I worked with several nurses like Donna Marples and Dorothy Peschel, whom I then would also work with as a physician.”
Duensing said working with Dr. Harold Lawless as an orderly, and later as a medical student, solidified his desire to practice rural family medicine. “Dr. Lawless was really my influence to come back,” he said. “I knew I wanted to practice in a rural area, but wasn’t particular about where. And when I was recruited by Dr. Lawless, it just felt right.”
“When I came back to Marshall County, there were some that said it wouldn’t be good to go back to where you grew up, but I always felt it was a positive,” Dr. Duensing said. “I had so many patients, and still do, that I went to grade school with, high school with. I grew up in this community, and I have a lot of people who come to see me because they know me. And I’ve never felt that was a negative.”
Duensing joined Dr. Lawless at his private family practice in Blue Rapids in 1983. “When I first started practice, family physicians did a lot more procedures than they do today,” Duensing said. “We were the orthopedist, obstetrician, cardiologist, and surgeon. We took care of heart attacks at Marysville without sending those patients on. We pinned hips and did a lot of abdominal surgeries. Doing a tonsillectomy in children and adults was routine, but now would be unheard of for family practice to do.”
“It was just a different era, because in that time, that’s what family practice did, and I fortunately had the guidance of Dr. Lawless to really help me with all this.”
Dr. Duensing attributes the biggest changes in his practice to the implementation of electronic medical records.
“When I started practice, I really felt that direct patient care was ninety percent of my time, and only ten percent paperwork. Now it feels more like thirty percent of my time is spent with patients, and seventy percent is spent on paperwork or dealing with insurance companies,” he said. “I didn’t grow up with a computer in my hand, so it really takes a lot of extra time.”
“But, the positives are we’ve had such medical advancement with like, cardiology – stents, bypass, heart transplants,” Duensing said. “Stents and bypass are so common now, with good outcomes. Joint replacement is commonplace.”
Duensing has worked at the Blue Rapids Medical Clinic since he started in private practice with Dr. Lawless in the fall of 1983. They added a third physician, Dr. Buck, for a short time, and then when Dr. Lawless retired in the ‘90s, the private practice was bought by CMH and the staff became employees of the hospital.
Dr. Duensing said he thinks the greatest challenge for rural healthcare going forward will continue to be politics and politicians and how they will vote to fund reimbursement for healthcare in the rural areas.
“Rural areas typically have a high amount of patients on Medicare, or uninsured,” he said, “and I think (how hospitals are paid) is going to be key to the survival of rural hospitals – as well as recruiting physicians to work in rural medicine.”
Duensing said in his retirement that he plans to “stay busy with the cattle.” Duensing and his wife, Zita, bought a ranch in 1997 from Dr. Lawless when he retired, who had bought the land in the 1960s from Koester Hammett. Duensing and Zita raise registered Black Angus cattle as Alcove Cattle Co., and have a bull and heifer sale every March at their bull facility in Blue Rapids. They usually have about sixty-five cow-calf pairs, and sell about thirty bulls and twenty heifers each spring.
“Alcove Cattle Co. has always been my ‘out’ after leaving the office,” Duensing said. “I didn’t golf, I didn’t fly planes – I had cattle as a hobby, instead. For my midlife crisis, I didn’t go out and buy a fancy car or ‘chase women’, like they say – I bought cattle.”
“And you know, we’re talking about my 39 years in medicine, but really I feel like it’s also celebrating Zita’s 39 years of medicine, as she really had to step up to the plate in our family when I couldn’t,” Duensing said. “She did everything for the kids herself, because I was always working, and with the cattle – same thing; when I was working, Zita was working the cattle. I really just want to give her credit – she was not raised on a farm, and I grabbed her out of the big ‘city’ of Marysville, and turned her into a doctor’s wife and a rancher’s wife.”
“Early on in my practice, people were less likely to go to the emergency room than they are now for certain incidents, like lacerations. They would just show up on the front steps of my home, bleeding,” Dr. Duensing remarked. “We kept a hose close by the porch so that after I left with the patient to go to the clinic, Zita could hose the blood off the steps.”
“Unfortunately, I missed a lot of activities of my kids and some out of town family weddings because of the hours I worked and being on call every other weekend,” Duensing said. “I think the younger physicians now have a better work-life balance, which has helped them.”
Along with caring for their cattle, Duensing and Zita plan to travel to national parks, possibly spending a summer working in Yellowstone National Park, he said, and spend more time with their grandchildren. “My wife also has found a lot of daytrips in Kansas for us to do – we get a daily email titled “Only in Kansas” that we’ve been saving ideas from.”
Dr. Duensing said, in particular, he’d like to follow the wolves in Yellowstone in Lamar Valley, maybe even track some of the wolf packs. “The reintroduction of wolves has changed the whole environment of Yellowstone in such a positive way that it’s even starting to change the landscape of the park; it’s even changed the streams,” he said.
He said what he will miss the most about practicing medicine is not seeing his friends as often, because they were also his patients. “And just the day-to-day of working with a great group of nurses and nurse aides,” he said.
The advice he would give to any students interested in pursuing a medical education or career would be “to come back – make your own community here with other young professionals.”
“There are so many advantages to having a family raised in Marshall County: there’s more one- on-one time with teachers and coaches, and opportunities to play sports and do activities here, more so than in other cities,” he said. “And kids that participate in activities in high school have so many more opportunities and doors open to them in life from the lessons they learn by being involved.”
He also advises spending time working in the medical field before applying to medical school. “Get a job as a nurse aide, EMT, etc.,” he said. And if you want to practice in rural America, he said, find a spouse also from a rural area, or someone who just “gets it.”
Dr. Duensing said that being a physician is still one of the best jobs in America. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to help someone, and there’s the opportunity to help someone every day,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty with any of our jobs in healthcare today, but there is uncertainty in many career paths these days.”
“I certainly wouldn’t encourage anybody to go into medicine for the initials by the name, or financial reasons, though,” he said, “because medicine is going to impact your entire life.”
Dr. Duensing is board certified in family practice medicine, is a member of the American Osteopathic Association and the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, and is a member of Kansas Association of Osteopathic Medicine, of which he served as president in 1997-1998.
He served as the medical director for the Frankfort nursing home for over thirty years, served one term as a city council member for the City of Blue Rapids, and on the Valley Heights school board. He and Zita were also active in helping fundraise for the Marshall County Arts Cooperative concerts presented at Alcove Spring (The Beach Boys and KANSAS). They were also the Marshall County leaders for the Kansas Honors Program for several years.
In his spare time, Dr. Duensing enjoys golfing, and following the KU Jayhawks basketball and football teams and the Green Bay Packers.
He and Zita, an accountant, have been married for 45 years, and have three children, and six grandchildren. Their son Christopher and his wife Brittany live in Las Vegas, Nev. Christopher works for a private contractor training Air Force personnel on drones, and is a member of the Air Force Reserves. The Duensings’ daughter Kimberly is a middle school English teacher in Loveland, Colo., where she lives with her husband Brian and their children. Their son Kirk, his wife Lisa, and their family live on the ranch in Blue Rapids; Kirk is employed by Bankers Life, Manhattan.