Craig Garrett was the doctor with a formal disposition so it was not uncommon that his drollery often went unnoticed.
What everybody — patients and staff alike — noticed was the integrity, humility, trust and care for those around him that Garrett exhibited during his 21-year tenure as chief of internal medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in Minneapolis.
In a revolutionary move at the time, Garrett in the early 1990s developed clinics within the hospital to serve new immigrants, high-needs patients with complex illnesses, and patients with urgent care needs. He assembled a team of committed doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants to improve patient outcomes. He mentored hundreds of doctors in residence — using texts, lectures, modules and videos — to integrate formal knowledge and skills training “to be sure that the doctors we sent out to practice had a solid foundation under their clinical experience,” said Steve Hillson, who learned under Garrett’s tutelage.
Garrett was always on the go, yet the warmhearted doctor was never too busy to stop and hold a patient’s hand and talk to them about their care. And he made it a priority to be home for dinner with his family, those who knew him said.
“He was an exemplary primary care physician,” said David Hilden, doctor of internal medicine at HCMC. “He was an inspirational influence to dozens of young doctors.”
Garrett, 70, died Oct. 25 of prostate cancer at home in St. Paul.
Garrett developed his leadership skills at Colfax (Iowa) High School, where he played in the band and on the basketball team and was student council president. After graduating in 1965, he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before earning a degree from the University of Iowa Medical School in 1975. He served as a doctor in the Army for another 14 years before arriving at HCMC in 1990.
Garrett wanted to be a general internist rather than specialize because “he wanted to serve the entire individual, not just the heart or the lungs,” said his wife, Kendra, of St. Paul. In the process he recruited a team of like-minded physicians to provide the primary care needs of HCMC patients, Hillson said.
Garrett led by doing and brought people along to help get the job done, said Peter Weissmann, who worked for Garrett at HCMC and is now a physician at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.
“There was nothing he ever asked me to do that he wasn’t willing to do himself,” he said. “Craig was the first one rolling up his sleeves and grabbing a shovel. It’s easy to follow someone like that, and in that sense he was a great leader.”
Committed to patient care, Garrett kept things light, too, often throwing out off-the-cuff commentary in a deadpan voice. “It was a dry sort of humor and you often didn’t realize he’d made a joke until much later,” Hillson said.
Garrett enjoyed traveling, was an avid genealogist and an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church. He penned poetry, including one, “Unremembered in the Heartland of Iowa,” which was recently selected to be published in a quarterly Unitarian magazine called Cairns.
His annual Christmas letters, which included a mix of truths and absurdities often written in the form of multiple choice questions, were eagerly anticipated. He also was a sweet tooth as evidenced by the candy bar wrappers that littered his car, said his daughter Megan Judy, of Chicago.
Besides his wife and daughter, Garrett is survived by another daughter, Laurel Stephenson, of Minneapolis; son, Evan, of Las Vegas; brother, Ken, of Wilmington, N.C., and four grandchildren. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Unity Church, 733 Portland Avenue, St. Paul.