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Alumni Spotlight | Richard Stennes, M.D., M.B.A.

When he's not on a cruise ship, Richard Stennes, M.D., M.B.A., spends time on the water at the Moose Lake Resort, which he co-owns, near Bemidji, Minn. (Photo: John Connelly)

Is there a doctor on board?

Richard Stennes, M.D., M.B.A., isn’t sure just how many passports he has gone through in his life. When you’ve visited 176 countries as well as the North Pole and Antarctica, that can happen.

Stennes will need a fresh passport by February, when he heads from Singapore to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, through his job as a cruise ship physician, a job well suited to this longtime emergency physician. A member of the University of Minnesota Medical School Class of 1969, Stennes is prepared to handle an assortment of health concerns — as simple as respiratory illnesses and rashes and as complex as heart attacks, ruptured appendixes, and diarrhea epidemics.

“You’ve got to be really resourceful,” says Stennes, who has worked on cruise ships since 2000. “Whatever you would see in a city of 2,000 to 5,000 is going to occur on a ship.”

With the average age of cruise ship passengers hovering around 67, people do get sick and even die, Stennes says. But the ships that he staffs these days come well equipped for most health concerns. Besides being able to find a wealth of information via his smart phone and tablet, he has access to nurses (one to five, depending on the size of the ship) and basically all of the technologies he’d have in a hospital except for a CT scanner and surgical equipment.

More major emergencies usually have to wait until the ship gets to a port, he says. Usually.

“You can evacuate the patient to shore, but you can’t send them ashore to a lower level of care,” Stennes says. “In many parts of the world, the ship is the highest level of care in the area.”

And he would know.

“I typically go to the hospital or emergency department in every little town around the world that I end up in,” he says. “A way to find out about the level of care available on any island is to go visit the hospital.”

Catching the travel bug

Stennes’s love for travel was born during his fourth year of medical school. At that point, the Bemidji native hadn’t been outside of Minnesota much. On a fall rotation at the University of Minnesota Hospitals, “I saw a guy with a tan and asked him where he got it,” Stennes recalls. He learned that the doctor had been working overseas.

Suddenly Stennes was inspired. He petitioned to do his January rotations in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, Australia, instead of at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., as planned.

He got the University’s blessing and promptly took out a $3,000 loan to travel the world — allowing himself a $3-per-day budget. He took two weeks to get to Australia, stopping on the way to visit Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand. After his rotations down under, he visited several countries in Asia (he met his German wife, Nilla, in the Hong Kong airport) and Europe before heading back home to complete his internship in Duluth and two years in the Navy before starting his medical career in San Diego.

Because Nilla was an international tour guide, Stennes found more opportunities to travel. (Today Nilla joins her husband on his working cruises.)

“I did the first private jet cruise around the world in 1978 for 63 millionaires. I was the assistant baggage handler,” he says. “It turns out that there were a lot of people on there who needed medical attention along the way.”

More to see

Between trips, Stennes spent 30 years in private practice and staffing emergency departments. He also started a billing company and marketing company to help make emergency departments more patient-friendly. He earned his M.B.A. at the University of California, Irvine, in 1998 — long after he entered the business world. “I learned from the school of hard knocks along the way,” he says.

Today he is “semiretired,” and though La Jolla, California, is his primary residence, Bemidji still feels like home. Stennes works occasional shifts in the emergency department at Sanford Bemidji when he’s in town, and he co-owns the Bemidji area’s Moose Lake Resort, which has been in his family since 1946.

And through it all, travel has remained one of his greatest joys. He has no plans to retire from that hobby — or the cruise business — any time soon.

“As long as I’m clinically able and of sound mind and they’ll have me,” Stennes says, “I’ll probably keep doing it.”

By Nicole Endres, managing editor of the Medical Bulletin.

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