STERLING – You might say Dr. Thomas Vinje is good with his hands.
The 67-year-old orthopedic surgeon works not only on muscles, bones and joints in the operating room, but also on vintage race cars in the shop.
“Things are very black and white,” Vinje said of orthopedics. “You know that you can do well for people with your experience, with your knowledge, and also with your manual skills.”
Automobile maintenance is similar, he agreed.
Vinje of Sterling was an orthopedist with the Sterling-Rock Falls Clinic, then with CGH Medical Center for 32 years. He is retiring Thursday.
Vinje is a third-generation physician. His grandfather and his father, Ralph, also an orthopedic surgeon, were great influences on him.
“He made friends with his patients and he helped them,” he said of his father.
Vinje, like his father, takes time to befriend his patients and truly listen to them. He is one of probably very few doctors who have their personal numbers in the phone book.
“I try to make myself available so that when problems occur, they are small problems, rather than waiting and having them become big problems,” he said.
Vinje believes the extra effort makes him a much better physician. His nurse of 32 years, Jamie Long, agrees.
“He has always cared very much about his patients and made sure they got taken care of the best way they could be taken care of,” she said. “He’s just a very concerned man who cares very much. It’s very obvious.”
Vinje, who grew up in Bismarck, N.D., went to college at the University of Hawaii to escape the bitter cold winters of the northern Great Plains.
“It was a day in February. It was 23 degrees below zero,” he recalled. “The out-of-state tuition in Hawaii was nonexistent. You could go to the university for $108 a semester, and if you worked in the state for 6 months, tuition dropped to $60.
“It was one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made,” he said with a laugh.
Vinje served 11 months in the Army medical service corps in Vietnam, then attended medical school at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico to cut short his military service.
“At that time, everybody and their brother was trying to get a deferment so they didn’t have to go to Vietnam,” he said. “There were 100 to 150 applicants for every spot in American medical schools. So I figured if [the Mexican school] would accept me without an interview, simply on my grades, that I would go there.”
Vinje did his orthopedic residency at what now is OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
He joined the former Sterling-Rock Falls Clinic in 1981. He has specialized in sports medicine and joint replacement. He also was one of the first arthroscopists in the area.
Vinje has seen a number of changes in orthopedics over his more than three decades in practice.
The number of injuries as a result of drunken driving and industrial workplace accidents has greatly decreased.
Hospital stays are shorter and outpatient procedures are more the norm with the advent of technology that makes surgery less invasive.
The number of joint replacements and other older-age-related ailments has increased, but the life expectancy after injuries such as a hip fracture is much longer.
“When I started here, in my first year, I did two total joint replacements,” Vinje said. “Now, in a normal year, Dr. [Shawn] Hanlon and I do about 250 total replacements.”
Vinje, of course, will miss his patients – many of whom he knows well beyond their office visits and surgeries. But he will miss his co-workers more.
“The people here [at the clinic] and at the hospital, by and large, have fairly low turnover, so we’re all very good friends,” he said.
His co-workers – and the community – will miss him.
“It is really hard to put into words, because he has made such a great impact not only on patients, but also on those of us who have worked closely with him,” Long said. “He’s always been there to talk it over, to give you a hug.
“I think he’s done a lot for the community – some of it no one even knows the lives he’s touched, except for those people.”
Vinje plans to enjoy his second home on Lake Carroll with his family – his wife, Laura, (and their standard poodle) and their two daughters and four grandchildren. He also plans to spend more time at the “speed shop” working on his vintage race cars, as well as out on the course racing.