Faculty in Focus

Everything old is new again: Cynthia Olsen leads the charge to sustain tradition, spur innovation

By Phil Neal
Vital Signs » Spring 2010
Photo of Cynthia Olsen, M.D., enjoying the opportunity to forge long-term relationships with her patients as she cares for them over the course of many years or even decades.

Cynthia Olsen, M.D. (’85), believes in tradition.

Whether it’s a family legacy of teaching and learning, the personal care and commitment exemplified by many old-fashioned country doctors, or a family practice’s half-century history of service to the community, Olsen is passionate about preserving the best of the past, even as she eagerly prepares for the future.

As professor and executive vice-chair of family medicine, director of clinical operations for Wright State Physicians, and director of the Yellow Springs Family Health Center, Olsen is at the midpoint of a successful career as a physician and educator. To the extent that she dwells on her many achievements, though, it is only to trace their origins to early influences and experiences—and to consider the best ways to build on them while moving forward.

A father’s example and encouragement
The earliest and strongest influence on Olsen was undoubtedly that of her father, a teacher and researcher with a Ph.D. in virology and immunology.

“I blame him for a lot of my choices,” Olsen joked.

“As a child. I was fortunate to be exposed a lot to the biologic sciences,” she explained. “My father spent a lot of time with me in the backyard explaining how things worked, so I knew that in some way I would have a career that involved science.”

She originally planned to follow closely in her father’s footsteps and become a research scientist, especially given the excitement of working with him on his most successful project: the development of the first feline leukemia vaccine. Five years of laboratory work as an undergraduate at the Ohio State University, however, convinced Olsen that while she could certainly handle the rigor of a research career, she disliked its solitude.

“I found that to be intellectually rewarding but socially isolating,” she said.

She had already planned to come to Wright State for graduate studies in microbiology, so it was a natural transition to apply to the medical school, where she enrolled in 1982.

“The people here were incredibly friendly,” she said of her attraction to Wright State. In addition, having grown up on a small farm outside of Columbus, she was drawn to the young university’s comparatively bucolic setting.

“It wasn’t as developed then,” Olsen said. “In my day, there were cows across the street. You could look out front, from the medical school, and see Holsteins instead of the mall. It kind of felt like home.”

Olsen liked Wright State so much that she stayed in Dayton after graduation to complete a family medicine residency program. When a faculty position opened in the department near the end of her program, she decided to apply, and she has been with the school ever since.

“I had not planned to stay in the area,” Olsen said, but neither did she have any compelling urge to move on, again due largely to her father’s influence. In addition to graduate studies that took him all over the country, Olsen’s father used his summer breaks from teaching high school to take his family on extended road trips.

“We had this wonderful benefit,” Olsen said, “of seeing everything there was to see from the back of a station wagon.”

Based on her extensive travels, Olsen said, “I found that central Ohio is actually a very good place to be. The Midwest has a lot to offer in terms of jobs, economy, and the kindness of its people, so I decided to stay put.”

The opportunity to become a teacher and mentor in addition to practicing medicine was also impossible to resist, and the role felt natural after so many years of witnessing her father’s work with students. “He thinks that what I’m doing,” she said, “in terms of mentoring young family doctors, is just as important as what he did (in developing a breakthrough vaccine), if not more so.”

Physicians illustrating the best in patient care
Olsen’s decision to enter medicine was based on more than a dislike of full-time laboratory research. Her path was also strongly influenced by an experience with her family doctor when she was hospitalized for a minor procedure while in high school.

“He was an older gentleman, a country doctor,” Olsen said. “He came to the bedside and saw me doing my homework, and he wanted to know what I was working on.”

Olsen told him about her assignment, a paper on leukemia for her science class. The doctor not only asked to read the paper, but he also complimented her on it and spent several minutes discussing it with her.

“It amazed me that he would spend time with a kid,” Olsen said, “not talking about her complaints or upcoming surgery, or doing his ‘doctor routine,’ but talking about something completely different.

“It was the end of the day,” Olsen added. “I knew that he’d spent the whole day in the office, and he was very busy, and he probably hadn’t gone home yet for dinner. He was probably tired, but he spent that 10 or 15 minutes talking to me.”

In her own practice, Olsen has tried to live up to the selfless standard set by that country doctor with his old-fashioned beside manner. She works to build personal relationships with her patients, and she refuses to let the demands of practice management, administrative duties, or other obligations take priority over patient care.

She was encouraged in this approach early in her education by the example of another exceptional physician: John C. Gillen, M.D. Gillen joined the medical school faculty in 1975, welcomed the school’s charter class in 1976, and became chair of family medicine in 1978, a position he held until 1992. His tenure encompassed Olsen’s time as a medical student, resident, and new faculty member.

“Dr. Gillen was a huge influence on me,” she said. “He espoused many of the traits that a family physician should have. He was someone who talked to his patients. He had a well-grounded knowledge in a broad array of medical topics. He seemed to be very compassionate and nurturing towards younger people and enjoyed mentoring them.

“In many ways,” she reflected, “he reminded me of my family physician back home. It was an easy leap for me to choose family medicine, at this school, as my specialty of choice.”

Patients who become part of the family
A large part of the appeal of becoming a Wright State faculty member lay in the opportunity to join a practice Olsen had grown to love over the years: the Yellow Springs Family Health Center. She completed a family medicine rotation there as a third-year medical student, visited periodically as a resident at Good Samaritan Hospital, and leapt at the opportunity to return to the center.

“I found it to be a wonderful teaching environment,” Olsen said. “The residents were very welcoming, and the patients reminded me of folks back in Madison County. The opportunity to work here felt very much like being at home.”

The transition from student to colleague didn’t present any serious challenges either, as the family medicine facultywelcomed Olsen enthusiastically. She still vividly recalls those exciting, early days as a new assistant professor, which sometimes makes it hard to believe they occurred more than two decades ago.

“The Yellow Springs Family Health Center has been my home for 21 years,” she said. “It does seem like it’s gone fast.”

Over the years, both in her interactions with patients and eventually as director of the center, Olsen said she has tried to stay focused on a few important goals.

“I’ve tried to maintain the friendliness and the hominess that was the personality of the practice,” she said, “while increasing the technological advances, both on the practice management side, and also clinical advances.”

The first goal is largely accomplished by Olsen herself, who sets the tone for the practice with her tireless dedication to friendly, personal care for every patient.

“All of my work is at the bedside,” she said. “In the clinic, at the nursing home, and even home visits for hospice patients and elderly patients who are homebound.”

Like the country doctors she admired growing up, Olsen, who lives in Yellow Springs within walking distance of the health center, finds the sacrifice of her time and energy amply repaid.

“I know the people in my community,” she said. “I have longevity with my patients, and continuity. I can sit, talk with them, laugh with them, cry with them. I know their grandkids’ names. Sometimes I worry about them, which I try not to do, but that happens. That is emotionally rewarding.”

Determination in a time of crisis
One thing Olsen hasn’t been able to do, however, is halt the relentless march of time. After half a century of continuous use, the building the health center occupied had developed serious structural problems, and it had inefficient and outdated heating, cooling, and electrical systems that were extremely expensive to operate. In addition, the practice only used about half of the oversized structure.

With the devastating impact of the global economic crisis added to the mix, the practice was forced to shutter the facility in July 2009.

Fortunately, Olsen and her colleagues were able to offer uninterrupted care for patients due to the assistance of Greene Memorial Hospital in nearby Xenia, which set up temporary facilities for the practice in a former emergency room. Being located nine miles away from the original center isn’t ideal, especially for patients with limited mobility, but Olsen is proud to still be in business, and grateful for the support that made this possible.

Even so, she insists, the current location “isn’t where we want to be permanently. We want to be back home in our community.”

“You don’t take out the health center that’s been there for 50 years and not feel a big vacuum,” she added, “and the community is really feeling that loss now.”

Olsen’s dedication to her patients and community remains as unwavering as ever, though. In fact, she is leading an effort to develop plans to design and build a new and better facility in place of the old one.

“I’ve made a commitment to the northern part of the county,” she said, “and to the people of Yellow Springs in particular, to return their health center to them. I’ve shared with them my fundraising plans, my building plans, and I think they’re starting to realize that my timeline to have this done is real, that I’m committed to making it happen.”

Olsen is infectiously optimistic about the center’s prospects for a bright future. When it returns to Yellow Springs, the center will occupy a modern, energyefficient, and environmentally friendly 11,500- square-foot facility designed in every detail to meet the needs of patients and their families, and to support the clinical and educational mission of the practice and the medical school.

Initial fund-raising efforts have been going well, Olsen said, and if the trend continues, there should be enough capital to break ground on the new facility in 2010. This would allow the center to return to Yellow Springs in as little as two years, begin a new chapter in its rich history, and enable its vital traditions to survive.

“I have no doubt we will make good on our promise,” she said, “and continue to provide outstanding care and essential services for the people of Yellow Springs— yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” VS

Last edited on 09/22/2015.