Leelanau News and Events

Personalities of the Peninsula: Country Doctor Cyrus Ghaemi

By Emily Tyra | Oct. 11, 2021

So much depends upon a rural doctor, as Cyrus Ghaemi, DO has discovered as Empire Family Care’s only full-time family physician. He sees up to 70 patients a week — ages newborn to 90-plus — who come from the coastal and rural reaches of Leelanau and Benzie Counties. “We’re a primary care clinic, and the only one in our area, so all kinds of things come up,” he says. “I’ll see a kid with an injury one moment, an adult with emotional concerns the next, and have a conversation with an elderly patient about end-of-life goals afterwards.”

The opportunity to practice in Leelanau County popped up right after Ghaemi graduated from the family medicine residency program at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. He now works with Karen Volas — a family nurse practitioner with a long history in the community — at the clinic, part of Munson Healthcare and affiliated with Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital in Frankfort.

Glen Arbor’s Elizabeth Edwards is among the longtime residents grateful he chose their corner of Leelanau to practice. “Dr. Ghaemi reminds many of us in the community of a younger version of Doc Houghton [who had a family clinic in Glen Arbor for decades, served as physician for Glen Lake football for 42 seasons and was the county medical examiner]. When he started out, Doc Houghton did house calls—on snowshoes or cross-country skis in the winter if he needed. He looked out for everyone—and was adored by everyone. When he passed on seven years ago, the community really grieved. Dr. Ghaemi had big shoes to fill here, but people are already very fond of him for his skill and thoughtfulness.”

Ghaemi treats everyone in Edwards’ family “from my 24-year-old son to my 89-year-old mom — with absolute wisdom, empathy and care” and she credits him with life-changing help for her adult daughter. Edwards says, “Dr. Ghaemi could have gone anywhere in the United States, and he came to a little clinic in Empire and helped save my daughter’s life.”

Frederik Stig-Nielsen, a defense attorney at the Frankfort law firm Mas/Stig-Nielsen is also patient of Ghaemi’s, as is his young daughter, and two-month-old son. Stig-Nielsen recently shared in an interview in Traverse City Business News’ 40Under40 issue that Ghaemi is the local who inspires him most. “He has this manner of gently steering you in the right direction without disregarding or belittling your concerns. It’s a wonderful reminder that you can excel in your profession and still be a genuine, good human.” Stig-Nielsen also gives a nod to Ghaemi’s holistic approach to medicine: “He’s a medically trained doctor who also understands the benefit of organic, local foods, lifestyle choices and who isn’t always reaching for a prescription pad.”

Leelanau Ticker hears more from Ghaemi, who lives in Cedar with wife Christina Barkel, on the life of a small-town doctor:

What do you hear from locals about getting care right where they live? Folks share that they really enjoy being able to access healthcare closer to home, and that includes the lab, pharmacy, and multiple options for physical therapy out here now. This is particularly true for our elderly population and those with mobility and transportation barriers, and especially during the winter when driving conditions decline. Some folks are more inclined to stay home and defer care than brave the trek into town. This is not just limited to elder patients and those with mobility barriers: many of our younger families and families with children would have to take significant amounts of time out of their day to travel in for care for themselves and their children. Also, with a lack of consistent, reliable high-speed internet and technology access throughout all areas in the county — which severely limits options for remote healthcare/telemedicine — having a clinic closer to home makes healthcare much more accessible.

What is something you hope your patients know about you as their doctor? I really value looking at the whole picture with my patients, I feel very strongly that multiple factors influence peoples’ health, including emotional and psychological factors, socioeconomic factors, and so on. I also like people to know that I see myself playing a supporting role in their health. We each have our own agency over how we live our lives; I hope to be able to share insight, information, and another perspective.

Hopes for Leelanau’s ongoing health? We could use more accessible and affordable childcare, elder care and senior services — such as transportation, home care services — and mental health care for people of all ages. There are places in the county that have more limited access to grocery stores; yet we also have a strong agricultural presence. I’d like to see more connection between the communities, farmers, and food suppliers so that people throughout the county can access affordable healthy food close to home.

Your wife Christina is a food rescuer of sorts, working for [the nonprofit] Groundwork doing outreach with food equity. Sounds like work you share interest in? Food and health is a strong passion of mine for sure, I talk about it regularly with my patients. We experience the effects of what we eat and drink every single day of our lives from the day we’re born. We can choose to invest in healthy food systems that nourish us from the ground up, or we can decide to skimp on that and end up paying more in costly illness management as we age. I make a point as well to share this sentiment with my pediatric patients too; if I can encourage kids and families to cook together and develop skills and appreciation for preparing healthy and delicious food, skills that will serve them well into adulthood, then I feel like I’ve done something good.

I’m extremely proud and grateful for all the work that Paula Martin and Groundwork have put in to developing the Culinary Medicine program locally, as it has highlighted the great connections between agriculture, food systems, and healthcare where new relationships and ideas can blossom. I’m looking forward to their new teaching kitchen (in the Commongrounds building in Traverse City) that will be a focal point for health care professionals to learn more and better ways to incorporate nutrition education into their practices.

How's life in Leelanau overall? We've developed some wonderful friendships and love the access to nature in so many forms. We have been doing gardening and soil restoration since we moved here, and have had an evolving flock of chickens and ducks. We recognize that it's a significant privilege to live here and recognize the disparities that exist within Leelanau county, where many people retire and live seasonally while many families experience significant housing insecurity, not earning enough money from local wages to afford the high cost of rent or buying a home. We hope to contribute to this community for years to come and hopefully work in solidarity with others to make it a more equitable place where all people can thrive. 

Pictured: Dr. Cyrus Ghaemi. He notes while an employee of Munson Healthcare, the positions and statements made here are entirely his own. This interview has been edited and condensed for space.

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