If you never had the privilege of knowing Dr. A.J. Rice, I am quite sorry for you. He was an icon of the Central Valley medical community. This is my story of him, and it might not be 100% accurate, so maybe his daughter, Leigh, will chime in if there are flaws in my tale. It’s been three years since I spoke at his funeral, and I miss him often!
Dr. Andrew Joel Rice was born in Pittsburgh, PA (coincidentally, about 45 min from my home town) to a stay at home mom and a busy pharmacist. He and his brother worked in his father’s pharmacy from a young age and they knew the city block well, but they knew the customers of the pharmacy even better. I remember a picture that I saw of him in high school in which he strongly resembled Buddy Holly, very clean cut. He was a strong student and his parents raised him with to work hard, and pursue a career that would be respectable and keep him financially stable. He studied pharmacy for his undergraduate degree and then went on to Medical School at the University of Iowa where he had his first ever beer. He was a die hard Hawkeye fan and loved to chastise me about my Buckeye roots.
When choosing his residency, he decided on Internal Medicine which is the most medical of the specialties, requiring a lot of complex decision making regarding physiological processes as well as the interactions of potentially MANY medications that his patients were taking. His career was leading him to the world of academic medicine at Stanford, at which time he chose a different road. He wanted something different, so instead of Stanford, he landed in the little town of Three Rivers, California and went to work at Kaweah Delta emergency room to pay the bills and figure out where his place in medicine would be.
This was in the mid 1970’s and A.J. was a classic HIPPY, with long hair and living in a teepee. He had to have a phone line installed to be “on call” at the hospital and apparently the telephone company had to come three times because the serviceman couldn’t believe the teepee was the right address for the job. He had a great lifestyle and shared a rental cabin in Lake Tahoe with some others so that he could ski and spend time in the mountains between ER shifts. There were also some interesting months spent in Mexico during those years!
Working in the ER, Dr. Rice quickly saw that the people coming in and out (and in and out) were not really getting any better. He knew there was a better way to achieve health and he started a small family practice in Three Rivers focused on lifestyle changes. He knew that people felt and lived better when they ate right and exercised, but he quickly realized that people did NOT want to CHANGE. Looking for another alternative, he discovered HOMEOPATHY.
By that time he had met Karen (his wife), and the two of them began studying Homeopathy under George Vithoulkas. They went to Greece several times to study with Vithoulkas as well as attended lectures here in the U.S. Dr. Rice saw Homeopathy as a way to help people more naturally and cause lasting improvements without the risk of side effects and adverse reactions from medications. He saw people heal from homeopathy without making dramatic lifestyle changes. He and Karen, who had become a Physician Assistant, worked together in the small family practice in Three Rivers from the mid 1980’s (I believe) until 2001 when Family HealthCare Network bought them out to fill a big part of their Complementary and Alternative Medicine department.
Dr. Rice always told me that the reason he decided to sell to FHCN was that he knew it would guarantee that there would always be health care in Three Rivers. He saw that the business side of the medical model was going to phase out the small town practitioner, and he thought it was the best decision for the community. Though he swam against the stream he always continued to practice not only homeopathy but also allopathic medicine and was the epitome of a small town family doctor. There are plenty of Three Rivers residents that have stories about getting stitches on his kitchen counter.
In the eight years that I worked with Dr. Rice I was honored to learn from him on so many levels. He was an incredibly personable man, which I don’t think is all that common in physicians (no offense MD’s). The first few years while I was trying to win the love of the community, I had free hours with which I sat in on his homeopathy cases and learned first hand his case taking techniques and his skill of making people comfortable and as if they were old friends from the start.
He would always come into my office with a cup of tea first thing in the morning and get an update on my life, and give me an update on his. My mom and I spent one Christmas with his family at his house and I always felt like I was part of his team from the beginning. He was honest and real and knew almost ever single patient’s family members for several generations (and their nicknames). He could calm me down in my “medicine anxiety” being fresh out of PA school and 45 minutes from a hospital.
He was a down to earth MD that listened well to his patients wants and needs and offered sound advice, but also left decisions up to them. When I found out that he was sick, I was on a year long sabatical/adventure and I wasn’t sure that I would return to Three Rivers, but knowing that he “needed” me brought me back. When he started referring homeopathic cases to me, I knew I had reached a level of trust from him that was really flattering.
It’s not often in this day and age to have a real live mentor in the world of medicine. I had an incredible journey as a physician assistant and brand new homeopath to work hand in hand with Dr. A.J. Rice who followed his instincts and swam against the stream in a VERY powerful medical machine. Another local MD told Dr. Rice’s daughter that they thought he was the bravest person that they knew, and I wouldn’t disagree. Rest in peace, A.J., you are missed by many on a daily basis.