Good-bye, Dr. Zichal, Physician hanging up stethoscope

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Dr. Ken Zichal and Amy Amsden, an LPN at Medical Associations Clinic share a moment prior to Dr. Zichal’s last day at the clinic.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

Though long-time Elkader physician Ken Zichal has retired after practicing medicine for nearly 40 years, he has no intention of slowing down.

“Oh, I have quite a list of things to accomplish,” he said, flashing the easy grin that has endeared him to a long list of patients. “Pretty sure I’ll manage to stay busy.”

There’s a grandson in Newport News, VA to spend more time with, a stack of books to read and a stockpile of military modeling kits to put together.

“My particular interest is 1/35th-scale tanks, and I have plenty of them to do,” he explained. “My wife buys shoes; I buy tanks.”

Dr. Zichal will be honored at a reception Sunday, October 18, at Johnson’s Banquet Hall in Elkader. The event, hosted by Medical Associates Clinics and Central Community Hospital, is from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The public is invited; Dr. Zichal is looking forward to greeting many former and current patients at the open house.

After growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Dr. Zichal made his way to Cedar Rapids, IA where he earned an undergraduate degree at Coe College in 1971. An older sister graduated from Knox College. The two schools belong to the same consortium.

“My dad really liked that network of schools,” Dr. Zichal said. “I didn’t want to go where my sister went and Coe had a reputation for having a good science program so I went there.”

Other than time spent in Park Ridge, IL for his internship and residency, Dr. Zichal has never lived beyond the borders of the Hawkeye state. He had several offers for medical school but his science professors at Coe advocated for the University of Iowa.

In addition to being educated in Iowa, Dr. Zichal met his wife, Fran, here. 

“One of my outreach programs after freshman year was an externship at Waukon Hospital, and I met Fran there,” he said. She shares his commitment to health care. Fran has long served as CEO at Central Community Hospital. She will retire in March 2016.

Dr. Zichal fell in love with northeast Iowa during his externship; Fran, who grew up south of Lansing, was already familiar with the area. They decided to stay in the Waukon area after Dr. Zichal completed his residency. He even had a job lined up.

“The job fell through at the last minute and we were scrambling for something in the area,” he said. “This position came open and I broke every rule I had (for my future) to come here. Yet, I had a gut feeling that this would be a great place, and it has been. We have absolutely no regrets.”

The Zichals raised their two children here. Their son is now a vascular surgeon in Newport News; their daughter, once a member of President Obama’s cabinet, works in the Washington D.C. area. The couple plans to continue living in Elkader.

Said Dr. Zichal, “There’s really no place we’d rather be. I really don’t mind winters.”

Medicine has changed drastically since Dr. Zichal arrived in Elkader in 1977. There were only two CT scanners in the U.S., one of which was at the University of Iowa Hospital. Ultrasound technology had not yet been developed, there were very few scoping procedures and a diagnosis of cancer was almost always a “death sentence.” To stay current on technological advances, Dr. Zichal read all of the medical literature he could access, attended conferences and studies reports sent to him by specialists he refers patients to.

Though he would never have traded his experience for another medical setting, Dr. Zichal is straightforward about the challenges of practicing at a small clinic and hospital.

“One of the most difficult things about being a rural physician is that you have to do so much more with so much less,” he said. “Early on you learn the importance of understanding your limitations. For example, if you have to send someone to a bigger facility, you need to think ahead about that because of the time it takes to get a patient ready and transit time.”

“In a setting like this, you have to understand that you’re going to work long, long hours,” he continued. “The average family doctor is on call maybe one night a week. I’ve been on call every other day and every other weekend since coming here. I was looking back at some records recently and realized that I’ve only had two Christmases off. It’s tough but you do it and you do it for the people. They become another family to you.”

Patients become so much like family that Dr. Zichal delayed his retirement until another physician was in place.“I wanted to retire last fall but there was nobody to replace me,” he said, “and I wasn’t about to leave people in the lurch. This is my family; you can’t just leave family.”

Dr. Zichal was finally able to walk away on September 30th knowing that “his family” was in the capable hands of Dr. Donna Lawlor. (See the October 14 issue of the Register for a profile on Dr. Lawlor.) And as he left, he had these words of advice for her: “Enjoy the people. They will endear themselves to you. You’ll get inundated but it gets easier and easier.”

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