DARLINGTON—After 30 years practicing medicine in Darlington, doctor Robert Bernardoni has decided to switch gears and follow his other passion in life, farming.
On Dec. 31, 2011, Bernardoni traded in the white coat for a pair of overalls. He said he has wanted to be a farmer most of his life, which led him to Darlington.
“I was 16 and going through the throws of trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I had two predominating themes that I was toying with. One was going into the medical profession and the other was being a farmer. Since I was a second generation off-the-farm person, I didn’t have a ready farm to step into. I thought it would be pretty difficult to purchase a farm on farmhand wages, so I decided to go into medicine and then use the medical income to buy a farm.”
Bernardoni said he went to medical school and residency and then picked a primarily agricultural area to practice in.
“I wanted to pick a community where the city wouldn’t come out and consume me,” Bernardoni said. “I was raised in the Chicago suburbs. What used to be 40 miles of cornfields between my house and Chicago is now 40 miles of suburbs.”
Thirty years ago Bernardoni married Charlotte Doherty, the Lafayette County District attorney for the last 15 years, and together they have four grown children: Jeve, Silas, Nella and Eamon.
“As an attorney and as a physician, we could really go anywhere we decided to go in the United States,” Bernardoni said.
He and Charlotte pulled out a map and looked at topography, climate, seasons and work ethic and weighed their options, which eventually led them to southwest Wisconsin. Bernardoni landed a job in Darlington through Lafayette County Community Health and six months later the federal funds dried up, putting Lafayette County Community Health out of business. It prompted him to start a practice in Darlington 30 years ago.
Eventually, Bernardoni also opened offices in Shullsburg and Argyle to expand a medical presence throughout the county.
“In general those are towns that aren’t big enough to support a physician,” Bernardoni said. “We decided those neighbors and friends needed care as well, so we invested not only in the facilities to be there, but in the personnel at those facilities, sometimes at a loss. But I would do it again because I think money isn’t the only thing in life as long as you feel good about what you do. I do and I did.”
Bernardoni said one thing about working in a small community is that there is no anonymity.
“That can be very, very rewarding, but also potentially very, very emotionally difficult,” Bernardoni said.
He recounted a story about being oncall and getting a call about a choking child being delivered by car. He said he thought it couldn’t be too bad if they were coming by car, but when they came through the door it was his neighbor carrying his young son, blue in the face.
“I remember coming down the hall thinking the stakes are too high,” Bernardoni said. “If this child died, and it was fairly likely that he would have, I’d have to face these people for the rest of my life. Thank God he didn’t [die].”
He said the job is rewarding, but very stressful.
“Generally I think doctors tend to partition it [stress] in their mind,” Bernardoni said.
He said after battling throat cancer in 2000 it was more difficult to partition the stress in his mind.
“I could feel the pain a little more acutely than was healthy,” Bernardoni said.
He said learning to deal with the stress is something doctors have to do on their own. They either sink or swim.
“I can’t think of a more stressful job,” Bernardoni said. “When you’re dealing with people’s lives, futures, health, feeling of well being, and you’re participating in the responsibility to make sure that it goes well, it is stressful. I say participating in the responsibility because a lot of the responsibility is the patient’s too.”
He said he likes that in a small rural community people are based in reality.
“A lot of them have come from a farming background and they realize that death is a part of life,” Bernardoni said. “Their expectations are generally centered on reality, not the fact that no one sees death and nobody sees people die. Unfortunately that happens in the city. There are people who have never seen a dead thing or a dead person. That’s not the way it is out here.”
He said there is a manpower shortage in rural areas, causing a fair amount of expense to get and keep the number of practitioners the community needs.
“The dynamics of a small area, your patients are your friends and neighbors,” Bernardoni said. “It’s hard to sometimes do what you should do for business purposes if it would harm the community. So, we always kept an open practice, we would never close it even in times that were quite tight for providers.”
He said family practice is surrounded by a really big dose of reality. “In a small rural community, you get everything that there is and exists,” Bernardoni said. “There is no toe specialist that the people are going to go to.”
He said he saw his patients for everything from the common cold to surgery.
“You have to be able to deal with whatever walks through the door,” Bernardoni said.
Bernardoni arrived in Lafayette County with more than 1,000 baby deliveries under his belt. He said he stopped keeping track after that, but knows he has delivered many more than that over the years.
“I’ve done a fair share,” Bernardoni said. “I’ve also developed the expertise to do some procedural medicine because I knew I was coming to a small rural community.”
Bernardoni’s official last day was Dec. 31, 2011. He still performs some procedures at the hospital until the hospital can hire someone to do the emergency appendectomies, tubal ligations, remove foreign bodies from people’s throats, colonoscopies, vasectomies and such.
“I told them that since there was no specific reason why I had to retire that I would continue to do that so I didn’t leave the community in the lurch until they found someone who could do that,” Bernardoni said.
He said he bought his farm before he moved to the area. His family has been farming there for 30 years. The main operation throughout the years included sheep. They had approximately 80 ewes, which has expanded to 100 now. He said in the last decade the family has invested in 40 head of beef, 8 sows and 35 pigs. He doesn’t do any row cropping at this point as most of his farm is used for foraging. He also has chickens, geese, turkeys, peacocks, guinneys, dogs, cats and other small animals around the farm.
“Now that all of our kids are away and we’re empty nesters, we’re finding that both my wife and I have two full time jobs,” Bernardoni said. “I’m not going to sit around in my retirement. It’s not my nature.”
Bernardoni said he appreciates the people in the community for providing him the privilege of caring for them.
“I always wanted to stop when I was ahead,” Bernardoni said. “I didn’t want to have someone come in and tell me that I needed to quit. This is just the right time I think. I always wanted to retire while I had vitality to work the farm that I purchased, and this seemed to be the right time.”