Thirty-two years is a long time to hold the same job — but Detroit Lakes ophthalmologist Dr. Armand Radke says that if not for the advent of the novel coronavirus, he might have stayed with Sanford Health a little longer.

"About six weeks ago, they (i.e., Sanford Health) recommended that I consider retiring, because COVID-19 wasn't going to go away," he said in a recent interview, "and until there is an adequate vaccine, which may be a few years out, I am considered high risk (for contracting the virus)."

Radke, who is 67, has a chronic form of leukemia which, while not fatal in itself, requires regular treatments that suppress his immune system. That means even though he tries to do everything he can to stay healthy, such as maintaining good diet and exercise habits, Radke has an elevated risk of contracting the virus, and being unable to fight off its more serious effects.

"The treatment works great," Radke said, but even before the pandemic hit, he still had to wear a mask when seeing patients due to his impeded ability to fight off infections.

As such, Radke has not been able to see patients at his office in the local Sanford Health clinic since the end of February, when he and his wife, Maricela, went to Mexico on a six-week eye care mission trip with the local Lions Club. Though he is hopeful that a vaccine will be developed in time to allow him to reopen his practice for a few more years, Radke says that, for now, he is hanging up his shingle.

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"It wasn't my plan to do that just yet," Radke admitted, but added, "We had a family joke that 2020 would be the perfect year for an eye doctor to retire — and guess what?"

A farewell celebration in his honor is scheduled for next Tuesday, Oct. 13. There will be a tent set up in the parking lot at Sanford Health (1245 Washington Ave.) from 2 to 4 p.m., with all social distancing protocols observed (i.e., masks will be required). The public is invited to come in, enjoy some light refreshments and wish Dr. Radke well in his retirement.

"I'm not saying 'goodbye,' I'm just saying 'see you later,'" he said.

Radke, who along with Maricela has raised two children in the community, began his tenure with the local health care organization in 1988, after about eight years of operating his own local practice. At that time, it was part of the Fargo Clinic system. Later, the clinic would become part of MeritCare Health Systems, and in 2009, MeritCare merged with Sanford. The clinic will celebrate its 35th year in the community next month.

There was a brief period when Radke and another local physician became co-directors of the clinic, due to the sudden resignation of their predecessor. "It was kind of fun," he said of his short stint as an administrator, "but I wouldn't want to do it again."

He says the thing he will miss most about his job at Sanford is the people — both co-workers and patients — who have become part of his extended family over the years.

"I spent more time with them (i.e., the clinic staff) than I did at home some days," he said. "I'll miss my patients. If at any point they need any advice they are welcome to contact the clinic here and I would be more than glad to get back to them."

The Radkes' son, Phillip, also went on to enter the eye care field as a surgeon, and performs some types of facial plastic surgery in his Twin Cities practice. He has accompanied his parents on their "Eyes for Mexico" eye care mission trips to Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas for several years now.

Those trips began about 14 years ago. Since then, the Radkes and their fellow Lions Club volunteers have assisted thousands of patients in both Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas with their eye care needs. In 2017, Dr. Radke was honored for his work with Lions International's highest honor, the Ambassador of Goodwill Award.

Daughter Brittany, meanwhile, followed in her mother's footsteps and became a dancer. Mari was the owner and director of Summit Dance School in Detroit Lakes until her retirement last year; she currently teaches part-time at her daughter's performing arts school in the Twin Cities. Brittany, who is married to another well-known Minnesota dancer, Ricci Milan, has given the Radkes two grandchildren: Leonardo, 4, and Raphael, 6 months.

Though the Radkes have no plans to leave Detroit Lakes permanently, Armand says that they will be spending the winter months in the Twin Cities, to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

"We'll still spend our summers here," he said.

And of course, they intend to continue making their twice yearly mission trips to Mexico — though for the time being, Armand will be acting in an administrative capacity only. "I won't be able to see any patients there," he said, for the same reasons why he is leaving Sanford now.

Though Radke has accepted the fact that he won't be able to work in his chosen field until a vaccine is developed, he still hopes to be able to return to it someday.

"I kind of felt cheated," he said of his reaction to the news when he was told he had to stop seeing patients.

"I knew when I hit 70 that I would consider it (retirement), but being forced into it like this took a while to accept. For now, I'm going to hold onto my license and keep taking classes. I will also remain on staff with the University of Minnesota's ophthalmology department as a teacher."

As for returning to working with patients, however, Radke has accepted that it's not in the cards, at least for now.

"I'm allergic to certain vaccines, so any vaccine that's developed (for coronavirus) would have to be very preservative free for me to be able to take it," he said, "and unfortunately, it'll probably be a couple of years before that happens."



If you go

What: Dr. Armand Radke's Farewell Celebration

When: Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2-4 p.m.

Where: Parking lot of Sanford Health, 1245 Washington Ave., Detroit Lakes

Coronavirus Precautions: Masks will be required, and social distancing guidelines will be observed. Call Sanford Health at 218-846-2000 with any additional questions.