Local Heros_1 2016

Dr. Deborah Biller reflects on a career practicing medicine the old-fashioned way.

Starting in the seventh grade, Deborah Biller knew she was going to be a doctor.

She doesn’t ride in a horse and buggy carrying a black doctor’s valise like she imagined she would, but she’s more than fulfilled her younger self’s destiny.

After receiving her medical degree, she served as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy at various bases in places like San Diego and Hawaii. (She continued in the reserves for nearly 30 years, until she retired last year as a commander.)

When she got out of the active Navy, Biller landed in Monterey in 1986 with her family, and set up a private family practice that she ran for 12 years.

She also worked at Community Hospital for the Monterey Peninsula, where she’s still on courtesy staff.

From 1995-2000, she worked at CHOMP’s Outpatient Immunology Services caring for patients with HIV and AIDS, which at the time carried a stigma.

“There was a lot of discrimination,” she says. “A lot of doctors were afraid of AIDS. Staff would be afraid to draw blood.”

Ironically, that discrimination steered patients into more personalized care, in the experienced hands of people like Biller. She and her team monitored the progress of their patients’ illness, prescribed medication and provided routine gynecological care.

She worked at convalescent centers and nursing homes for more than 16 years. She still does house calls part-time on behalf of Heartland Hospice, traveling from King City to Hollister to examine patients and make sure they’re comfortable in their remaining days.

Her medical work pre-dated cell phones. “I knew where every pay phone in Monterey was,” Biller says. “Then, in 1988 or ’89, I carried a cell phone in a whole separate tote bag on my shoulder. I could go to the beach with my kids.”

She explains how she was able to manage her boggling array of duties.

“For a small-town doctor, a lot of things can get crammed into an 80-hour week,” she says.

After years of seven-days-a-week work, she decided to spend a year with one day off a week, taking time off from the AIDS team at CHOMP. Then her mother got sick, and eventually died. By the time Biller was ready to go back, the pace of HIV/AIDS care and medicine had surpassed her knowledge. So she looked to be useful elsewhere. (That one-day-off-a-week “experiment” didn’t work.)

She began working part-time at the Big Sur Health Center in 1987 – once a month at first, and more as time went on. She would make sure all business at her private practice was settled, do rounds at CHOMP, then drive to Big Sur. She describes it as “kind of a break” from the rest of her hectic routine. One time, she was called upon to remove a splinter from a dog’s paw. For bigger problems, they called an ambulance to take patients into town.

Sharen Carey, executive director of the Big Sur Health Center, says Biller would always find a way to get there, even if meant taking the long way, via Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. “During fires, mudslides and other disasters, she was always willing to brave the highways,” Carey writes by email.

Even more imporant, Carey says, is Biller’s willingness to admit what she doesn’t know, the absence of ego: “[She’s] never afraid to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out and get back to you.’”

Biller just stepped down as medical director of the Big Sur Health Center in March. She says her family medical training allows for a wide range of duties, like serving as a general medical officer part-time at Salinas Valley State Prison.

She does newborn, hospice and chronic care for inmates in prison. “We can do a little bit of everything,” she says.

She says she can’t stay home for too long, that she’s always looking forward. When she turned 65 last year and got a Medicare card in the mail, it shocked her.

But she allows herself a look back.

She remembers a man who came early to appointments at her Monterey practice and puttered around the office making small talk. He would drop in even when he didn’t have an appointment.

“He was probably just lonely,” Biller muses.

She stops and stifles tears. Surprised, she apologizes and continues on. Some of the most joyous moments, she says, involved kids.

“Family practice is, theoretically, cradle to grave,” she says. “People now often jump around different doctors according to their health plan. At the Big Sur Health Center, we always enjoyed taking care of the kids. It’s marvelous to see a child grow up and go on to college.”

She’s guided her journey with a simple principle: “I like people. I enjoy being able to help them when I can.”

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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