At 87, longtime Antioch physician is tireless in his retirement
By Lou Fancher
Reflecting on nearly 50 years spent building a medical dynasty in Antioch and locations around the globe, longtime family practice physician Dr. Gene Zimmerman's unquenchable thirst for work continues unabated.
"I'm finishing a radio station project in Bolivia with one of my sons," the 87-year-old go-getter says upon his retirement.
"He's only happy if he's got another project," says Dr. Daniel Zimmerman, who in his 60s is the youngest of the elder Zimmerman's three sons and himself an OB/GYN. "He was always go, go, go. He worked until almost 88. I ask him, can I retire and you keep working?"
Zimmerman began treating patients in Antioch in 1967. He used his construction skills to design and build six of the buildings in the Antioch Medical Park complex at which he has practiced for 41 years. Helped by his middle son, Ed, who today owns a construction company, Zimmerman also remodeled a nearby Seventh Day Adventist church and school.
"My dad was a general contractor and I never met him, but I suspect his genes run in my blood," Zimmerman says. "I started building things at age 12."
"Things" eventually included the cabinets he got up at 5 in the morning to complete, before heading off to medical school at 9 a.m. During his college years at La Sierra University and while attending Loma Linda University Medical School, construction paid for Zimmerman's education and supported his family, which in addition to Daniel and Ed includes his wife, Esther, oldest son, David, and daughter, Ellen Zimmerman Amador. "Never had a student loan," he says.
Accustomed to hardship, Zimmerman grew up in Farris, Okla., the son of a single parent mother who sold bibles and worked as a domestic to get by during the Depression.
"My mother and father were separated one year after they were married, so I never saw my dad. Moving from place to place, I don't think I ever attended a school for more than one year."
"He always excelled at treating the poor and that was his philosophy -- that everyone deserved a doctor, not just the rich," says Daniel Zimmerman. "We treat a high volume of people on MediCal, patients at high risk and without ability to pay sometimes."
Medical practice has been a family business, with Daniel handling thriving OB offices adjacent to his father's family practice. Esther and Ellen work in managerial positions. David and Ed are involved in maintenance, business and construction departments.
"Family works hardest, but it's hard to fire them," Daniel says. "You have to resolve the issues, but we worked together for 30 years, so I guess it worked out."
And not just here in the United States, but in Ethiopia, where Zimmerman took his young family in 1960 and built a 180-bed, two-story hospital and nursing school.
"I'm a Seventh Day Adventist and we have a high mission program," he says. "When they asked if anyone wanted to go into mission work, I had four children so they didn't want me. Later, they asked me why I was avoiding it. I told them I wasn't avoiding it and wanted to serve.
"A month later, I had the chance to go to Ethiopia."
Treating as many as 40 hospital patients and up to 120 people in outpatient clinics each day, Zimmerman leaned to work efficiently. "We handled the problem and nothing else. Nowadays, you have to do 14 pages of reports for a kid with a cold," he says.
He is proud of the 1,700 babies he and other doctors delivered in one year in Ethiopia -- and of the 300-per-month deliveries accomplished
safely during a later missionary trip in Bangkok, Thailand. Many, if not all of the patients were indigent.
"I did the same thing in Antioch.
"My work here has always been about dealing with the poor. Other docs didn't want to deal with them. MediCal would pay me about $20 for a visit. Private insurance would pay a lot more, like $150. Yes, I earned less."
His youngest son says his father works in more areas (construction and missions) than he's chosen to work, but even so, "the bible says a wise man has many counselors, so I keep my ears open and listen to the ways he used to practice surgeries."
His father, predictably, follows the advice he has given to patients for over 40 years: never discriminate, practice thanksgiving and peace, leave worry at the Lord's doorstep, and "if a plant grows, you're fine. If it doesn't grow, find something new to plant."