BY KIMBALL PIER

When Alexander Cushing won the bid to host the 1960 Winter Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, he reached out to former Harvard classmate Gardiner Pier, a physician, suggesting that he open a clinic at the mountain. The year was 1959, and it was then that Gardiner, my father, got behind the wheel of his Volkswagen Beetle and moved our family from Marin County to Squaw Valley. Alex’s idea was to establish a medical practice there to serve the Olympians and growing community.

It was the beginning of what would eventually become the Truckee Tahoe Medical Group. A legacy that remains six decades later, TTMG started with two physicians I remember as founders: Benjamin King, M.D., practicing primarily in Truckee, and Douglas Brody, M.D., who practiced in Tahoe City.

In its infancy, the Squaw Valley office was in the space now occupied by Dave’s Deli. With a back door opening to the base of the mountain, it was easy to bring broken bodies off the slopes and inside for repair. My father’s idea was to make it a self-contained clinic, complete with a portable X-ray machine, an autoclave for sterilizing instruments, microscopes, and all that was necessary for treating everything from broken bones and lacerated heads to sore throats and chicken pox. It was not a luxurious space: no soft chairs in a waiting room, just a bench along the wall facing the bathroom, which fortunately had a loud fan affording some sense of privacy given the clinic was in such close quarters.

At the time, there was no system for keeping track of patient fees, which explains why my father never made any money until a few very organized nurses and doctors’ wives took over and created actual patient files and prescription pads printed with the names of the physicians.

“They probably saved the practice,” said Dr. Charlie Kellermeyer, who joined TTMG in 1969. “If not for Jean Sproehnle, Joan Klaussen (fondly called “Nurse Joan” by pretty much everyone), and Jan Ganong, we might have gone broke.”

NURSE JOAN, aka Joan Klaussen, a legendary early TTMG nurse, lounged at a party at Dr. Charlie Kellermeyer’s house. “It wasn’t until just before I retired in 2002 that I learned what healing was. I could diagnose and treat, but when the medical field woke up and began to welcome women, it changed everything,”Charlie said. “I feel very fortunate and thankful for the skill and healing ability of our female nurses and physicians.” Dr. Gina Barta, who joined the practice in 1999, helped him understand “healing” in this new way when she helped a Tahoe City patient facing the loss of his leg. Courtesy photo

The Squaw Valley office continued to grow, adding nurses and physicians who sought life in the mountains and hoping to practice in the tradition of rural medicine. “Several doctors had come and gone between 1960 and 1969, discouraged that the money was about a third of what they could make elsewhere, and they didn’t want to stay,” Charlie recalled with a chuckle. “In 1970, we charged $6 for an office visit. Then [Gardiner] and I thought maybe we ought to raise the fee to $7. If people couldn’t pay, we didn’t turn them away. We asked them to make monthly payments, even if it was only a dollar a month.”

For my father and Charlie, the trade-off between being in a more urban area and practicing in Squaw without as easy access to modern amenities was a no-brainer: They’d take the opportunity to live where they could row in a single shell at sunrise on Lake Tahoe and have the west face of KT-22 almost to themselves on a powder day — if it wasn’t on a weekend.

Medicine in the mountains and the vital role of TTMG’s nurses

Bunny Martin, who worked for TTMG from 1961 until about 2004, was one of two nurses in the Squaw Valley office in its first couple of years. In fact, Bunny, now nearly 80, was one California’s very first nurse practitioners. My father was delighted that she could suture wounds, deliver babies, and was willing to trudge alongside him through the snow on snowshoes (as he often did) to see patients who were homebound in the winter. 

“We were a family,” Bunny said. “In those early days, we didn’t have patient charts. All the patient information was on index cards that we kept in a recipe box. We kept the patient’s name, phone number, and address, what they came in for, and how much they paid. ‘ST’ meant sore throat. We would bring patients to the hospital in a pickup truck, bundling them up in down sleeping bags if it was cold, and when the roads were closed, I got picked up in a snowmobile to get to the hospital or to make a house call.”

Carol Lindsay, a nurse practitioner who joined TTMG in 1996, agreed with Bunny about the family feel of TTMG, and added, “I always felt respected as a peer, which as a female in a male dominated profession, was a great experience.”

In 1964, a young girl from Montreal wrote my father a letter asking if she could have a job as an X-ray tech, and he replied saying she could start immediately if she could get herself to Squaw Valley. Jody Scowcroft-Record made the trek from Montreal via several bus routes, the last of which dropped her off at the entrance of Squaw Valley at the Flying A gas station, now home to Tahoe Dave’s.

From there, she set out on foot, bags in hand, walking the length of Squaw Valley Road until she reached the medical office. Upon arriving, there was no one to be seen so she called out, “Hello? Anyone here? Dr. Pier?” She wandered around until she saw a pair of legs sticking out from under the sink in the casting room.

“I thought he was a plumber,” Jody recalled. “He was wearing paint-spattered jeans, an undershirt, and old sneakers.”

Her first task was to paint the X-ray room — despite having never painted anything in her life — since it had been expanded to accommodate more patients.

“He handed me a bucket of paint and a roller, smiled, and said he’d see me later. He was going to make rounds at the hospital,” Jody remembered. “I began by painting the ceiling with the roller, which of course, did not go well.”

My father, the doctor, serving as the office handyman, would often throw a nice blazer over his paint-spattered T-shirt and jeans when patients arrived, thinking it made him appear “more doctorly.”

A favorite shared memory for Charlie, Bunny, Jody, and the rest of the early TTMG squad were the gatherings in Room 4.

“We’d all gather at the end of days that often stretched into 10 hours waiting for the last patient to be picked up, or for the ski patrol to radio the office telling the staff that sweep was in, meaning that all the skiers were safely off the mountain,” Charlie said. “Then we’d open the wine and talk about the day while the parking lot emptied out. [Gardiner] and I sometimes walked home, having had too much wine to drive. It was a really wonderful group. In 25 years, I worked with the same eight people. Nobody ever left.”

As a child, I spent my after-school hours with my father at the office. I learned how to set up a sterile tray at the age of 8; I sat with patients throughout their ordeals, unafraid of the blood, and read them stories from my Ranger Rick magazine — whether they liked it or not.

My heart remembers my father’s unpretentious way of interacting with patients, from children to elders. He delivered babies, following their development through illnesses, broken bones, and lacerations, promising to let them listen to their hearts with his stethoscope if they were brave, just as the doctors and staff have continued to do over the past 60 years. He retrieved fish bones from throats and marbles lodged in little noses, comforting and unflappable as children screamed or vomited on his clothing. Though 60 years have come and gone — with the TTMG physicians, nurses, and support staff providing invaluable service — I still can hear the voice of my father calling from long ago as the winter sun faded on the mountain, “Sweep’s in!”