Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale.
When Dr. Walt Larimore gets comfortable in his living room chair, crossing his legs in his cozy, holiday-decorated home in northeastern Colorado Springs, you know it’s time to settle in with your mug of hot Earl Grey tea. You know the yarns will be good and plentiful and will likely warm you from the inside out. Probably they’ll nudge you to reflect on your own life and beliefs. After all, Larimore’s got more than enough material to choose from after about four decades practicing family medicine across the country.
He’s a natural storyteller, evident in the number of mostly nonfiction books he’s written, though there also are several co-written fiction books in the mix. His latest, “The Best Medicine: Tales of Humor and Hope from a Small-Town Doctor,” was released in October and is straight from the “All Creatures Great and Small” genre — vignettes about his practice written by Yorkshire country veterinarian James Herriott. Many of Larimore’s anecdotes come from his time in Kissimmee, Fla., where he moved his family in 1985 to start a small-town medical practice.
“The purpose of these books is to tell stories that are really sweet. Some of them are heartbreaking,” Larimore says.
“But that opens the door to talking about where you are spiritually, your family relationships and your mental health. If there’s an area you’re wrestling with, how do you find help and hope?”
Larimore and his family landed in the Springs almost 20 years ago when he accepted the position of vice president and physician-in-residence at Focus on the Family. He later served as medical director of Mission Medical Clinic and now practices occupational health medicine two days a week at UCHealth.
His life is a tale of two careers: doctoring and writing. Which came first? Doctoring, thanks to his father-in-law, who told him he had three choices — law, military or medicine — if he wanted to marry his daughter, Barb, whom Larimore met when they were in kindergarten in Baton Rouge, La., and started dating in high school.
He was accepted to medical school and eventually completed his family medicine residency with an emphasis in sports medicine at Duke University Medical Center, where he was named one of the top 12 family medicine residents in the country.
“I really fell in love with medicine early on,” he says.
It wasn’t too long before others in his field noticed his inherent talent as a raconteur. After spending four years practicing medicine in Bryson City, N.C., the Larimores moved to Kissimmee, Fla., where he was often asked to speak at residencies. The chairman of Georgetown University School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine had a request. He wanted Larimore to write a diary of daily life at his medical practice.
“He said obviously you like telling stories,” remembers Larimore. “I wrote a couple thousand. I learned what an editor is and what red ink is. I kind of learned by doing.”
That was 40 books ago. His resume is littered with award-winners and bestsellers, including a series of books inspired by his Bryson City days, such as “Bryson City Tales.” Other offerings include “Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook,” “Fit over 50: Make Simple Choices for a Healthier, Happier You” and “His Brain, Her Brain: How Divinely Designed Differences Can Strengthen Your Marriage,” co-written with Barb.
Coming next year are “Natural Medicines: The Truth about the Most Effective Herbs, Vitamins, and Supplements for Common Conditions” and “The Best Gift: Tales of a Small-Town Doctor Learning Life’s Greatest Lessons.” And in 2022, “At First Light: A World War II Hero’s Story of Sacrifice, Struggles, and Saving the Lipizzaners,” a book about his father.
His natural folksiness played well on TV, too. From 1996 to 2001, Larimore hosted the “Ask the Family Doctor” show on Fox’s Health Network, earning a Gracie Award from American Women in Radio and Television in 2000. And when he got to the Springs, he hosted “Focus on Your Family’s Health,” a nationally syndicated radio and TV feature for Focus on the Family.
“Walt Larimore is nothing if not a storyteller,” writes Jerry Jenkins, the author of the bestselling “Left Behind” religious series, in the forward to Larimore’s latest book. “But Dr. Walt is also self-effacing and brutally honest about his own humanity — despite all the accolades that pepper his exhaustive resume. He was not always the best husband, having to face — and fix — the reality that he allowed his work to interfere with both his spiritual life and his home life.”
While Larimore’s life might look like a pretty postcard with all its successes, it’s true he hasn’t gotten this far unscathed. After his daughter, Kate, was born with cerebral palsy in 1978, his marriage struggled under the weight of the diagnosis.
“It was such a difficult thing,” he says. “I got so mad at God. So mad at Barb. I abandoned them. I had an affair with medicine. It was just real ugly. I couldn’t take care of myself.”
What saved the struggling family was a new neighborhood full of strangers, some of whom hoped a couple with little kids would move in so they could be doting grandparents and mentors to a newly wedded couple. Down the street were three psychiatry residents who were “hoping someone really screwed up psychologically would move in,” laughs Larimore. And catty-corner to their house was a church attended by nurses from a cerebral palsy hospital who wanted to set up a respite ministry for families with special needs children. The pastor agreed, but didn’t know anybody who could partake. Until the Larimores moved in.
“And those four groups took us in and prayed for us. Their idea was God loves you, even in the storms. You’ve just got to find out where he’s at and what he’s doing,” says Larimore. “You may not know the why, but you can ask what are you trying to teach me. And that little girl has taught us so much.”
But there was still trouble ahead. While living in Bryson City, the Larimores, now with a second child, Scott, experienced trauma — both kids were sexually abused by a babysitter. They left town, moved to Kissimmee and were advised to just keep life moving forward for their children, providing them with a loving home and standard sex education.
It wasn’t until years later that Kate, then 20, called them one night crying and asking if what she remembered from her childhood was true. The family convened and the sister and brother, who had always remembered the abuse, decided they wanted to tell their stories with the hope it would prevent the same thing happening to another family. Kate, who lives in the Springs, went on to develop a ministry to help other abuse victims.
“He (God) might have allowed it, but it was for a good purpose and that purpose was for what he did in my heart and what he did in his (Walt’s) heart and Kate’s heart and her husband’s heart after learning their story,” says Barb. “Was it hard? Oh yes, it was really hard. There were years when we just cried, or so it seemed.”
Those difficult life lessons, combined with his own lifelong spirituality and religion, greatly informed Larimore’s path through medicine and his relationships with patients. He learned from one of his first mentors, Dr. Paul Brand, one of the most famous medical missionaries in the world due to his work with lepers, that if you only care for a person physically, you’ve missed out on who they really are.
“He took care of people physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually,” says Larimore. “He was the one who taught me when people get sick or even pregnant, almost invariably they begin thinking about eternal things. You could be an atheist or agnostic, but you begin to wonder: Where am I going? Where is this coming from? What does this mean?”
For Larimore, faith is inseparable from medicine, though his profession tends to ignore it, he says, to the detriment of patients and health professionals. He learned to take a spiritual history from every patient and let them know he was there as their doctor whenever a crisis hit. He learned how and when to pray with patients, with their permission.
“It’s how to do spiritual consults the same way we do physical or mental consults,” he says. “You don’t separate people. You take care of the whole person. If there’s something emotionally, how do you care for that? If there’s something spiritually, how do you care for that?”
To better care for his patients, Larimore helped develop a spiritual consult team. It first started with Barb, who had four miscarriages after Kate and Scott were born and wanted to have a ministry for women who had lost their babies. The team grew into a group of volunteer patients who had all struggled with such traumas as cancer, loss of a child and suicide. They were lay ministers, Larimore says, who could come alongside the doctor and offer their own wisdom and empathy.
“If someone thinks they got cancer because God’s punishing them, we now know that person is going to do worse,” says Larimore. “Someone who thinks God’s caused their daughter to have cerebral palsy like I did. You get some people around him who can help him. And save a marriage, save a family, save a relationship of a daddy and a daughter.”
Contact the writer: 636-0270