Dr. John McGuckin, a longtime Sanford family physician, retires from his practice on Wednesday. He talked about the early years, advances in medicine and the importance of listening to patients in a recent interview. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

SANFORD –  If one were to ask Dr. John McGuckin what he considers to be of the utmost importance when seeing a patient, he’d likely say listening and observing.

McGuckin, who is retiring from his medical practice, has been listening and observing patients – and then applying experience and medical knowledge – since he and his wife Sheila arrived in Sanford and made the community their home in August 1977.

He’s treated patients from all around this area of York County – in some cases, five generations of the same family, he said.

Now, it’s time to take life a little easier. His last day on the job in his Winter Street office will be Wednesday, Aug. 28.

McGuckin, whose voice retains more than a hint of his Irish roots, talked one-on-one about his life practicing family medicine in an interview at his office late last week.

He’s accepted new patients throughout the last year of his medical practice.

“I want to exercise my brain and be challenged by the need for diagnosis,” he said. “A good diagnosis makes my day.”

He’s a listener – for all sorts of reasons, chiefly because the more he hears, the better he is able to diagnose.

Sometimes, the diagnosis isn’t good, he noted, and patients need someone to talk to them, someone to listen, to give them a hug.

Comfort can be found in many ways – sometimes in  the message in the framed poem his mother, Anetta McGuckin, gave him in 1974, called “Don’t Quit.” It hangs on the wall in one of his examination rooms – where patients can read it.

And there is faith.

“Believe in a higher being,” said McGuckin, a Roman Catholic. “It’s gotten people through such terrible things … faith is a huge part of healing.”

McGuckin’s reputation in the community is that he is a skilled, treasured physician who is also a blunt sort of fellow – sometimes with patients and sometimes with what could be called the medical machine.

Dr. John McGuckin of Sanford reads a poem given to him by his mother in 1974 called “Don’t Quit.” TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

He tells it as he sees it because “I want people to look after themselves,” he said.

Throughout the years, he’s tried to get people to quit smoking, wear seat belts, and wear helmets when riding motorcycles, ATVs and the like.

So far, Maine hasn’t passed a helmet law for everyone, but McGuckin said he had a fair amount of success in getting people to quit smoking and confessed he was a “pain in the neck” when it came to encouraging people to wear seat belts.

McGuckin arrived in Sanford via the University of Rochester, New York, after attending a university in Ireland.

He first arrived in the United States in 1969, sponsored by an aunt, and worked as an intern at a hospital in Coral Gables, Florida, for four months before returning home to Ireland.

He earned $1.73 an hour, he recalled.

“The best thing I learned there was how to put a catheter in,” he said. The patient thought so too, and thanked him.

After returning to Rochester and completing his university studies and a residency, McGuckin and Sheila, whom he married in 1975 and who he calls his anchor, mainstay and rock,  explored both coasts of the United  States. They looked at a number of practices before choosing to come to Sanford. At the time, Peter Booth was the administrator at Goodall Hospital, and said there was a need for family physicians.

Patients at Dr. John McGuckin’s office in Sanford often see this framed poem, called “Don’t Quit” in one of his exam rooms. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

Booth was right.

“I delivered seven babies the first weekend I was on call in 1977,” McGuckin recalled from his small, homey office on the second floor of the building at 14 Winter St.

In all, McGuckin delivered about 500 babies, until he decided to end that part of his medical practice in 1986.

McGuckin initially worked with Dr. Walter Peterline at an office on Main Street in Springvale. Peterline then left the area, and McGuckin moved into the 14 Winter St. premises on St. Patrick’s Day in 1978. He and associate Dr. William Frank shared the space from when Frank arrived in 1980 until he retired from his practice in 2016.

In those days, physicians saw patients in their office but were always keeping an eye on their patients in the hospital, and of course, there was on-call duty. That all changed with the advent of hospitalists and in Sanford, further still when hospital officials made the decision to close the inpatient floors in 2015.

Looking back to the changes that have occurred since he was a young physician, McGuckin noted 40 percent of people smoked, now down to 23 percent, he said, which has led to fewer heart attacks and less new cases of lung cancer. In the 1980s, AIDS emerged, but advances in medicine has meant that people are living with AIDs, not dying from it. He noted Hepatitis C is now treatable, and because of new medicines, more people are living five years after a lung cancer diagnosis.

“That is amazing to me,” he said.

Throughout his years in Sanford, McGuckin has had a loyal staff and he pointed out that the four members still with him have a total of 100 years of service with his practice. Among them is physician assistant Stephanie Williams, whom he called his right hand.

McGuckin has made the three A’s his motto: Availability, affability, and ability.

He referenced one more important attribute to being a good doctor: humility.

McGuckin believes that if he doesn’t listen to a patient carefully enough, something could be missed, something important.

“Doctors can’t afford to be arrogant,” he said.

When a patient invokes a “by the way” moment, he responds, “tell me more.”

What’s next, after Wednesday, when the office door closes for the last time?

The father of five is a grandfather of 11, six of whom live nearby, and he and Sheila are enthusiastic grandparents.

“We’re big into babysitting,” he said, “And seeing them grow up.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 780-9016 or [email protected]

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