Growing up on a farm near Caledonia taught him the work ethic he needed to become a successful doctor. Dr. James Wishau, who has been practicing in Lake Mills and Fort Atkinson since the early 1980s says that early work prepared him for a hectic life as a physician.
“Our main thing was vegetables,” he said of his family farm. He remembers sitting on the nine-row planter planting cabbage and the times he and his dad would get up at 4:30 in the morning to pick bushels of asparagus.
When he was older, he picked tomatoes for 10 cents a bucket.
“That was a really happy time in my life,” he said. “It taught me a great work ethic.”
He was born with a dislocated hip, which might have sullied the idea of being involved in the medical field for most people.
“I had eight or nine surgeries before I ever went to grade school.”
He was 18 months-old before they knew what the problem was.
“In the 1950s they didn’t know boys got dislocated hips, they thought it was a female problem. I went 18 months and they didn’t even know I had it, except when I would walk if I got tired, I would fall.”
Wishau said because his hip was out of the socket, he didn’t have one.
“When your hip is out of the socket, it doesn’t form,” he said. “I was kind on the wrong end of medicine.”
Even as a child he was intrigued by the medical field.
“I don’t remember a day in my life where I haven’t had pain,” he said. “I was interested in science and did well in school.”
In high school he couldn’t play sports due to his early medical history, but he was a member of the Racine Elk’s Youth Band. He played the baritone horn and euphonium. Racine was the drum corps capital of the world, Wishau said.
The band is where he first met his wife Deb, little did he know at the time, 37 years later when they were both single again, they would be married in 2007.
He was 32nd in his class of over 800 students at J.I. Case High School in Racine. He attended UW-Parkside for his undergrad and majored in biochemistry. He said at the time the acceptance rate for medical school was one in three. He had a professor who took an interest in him, which he credits as the reason he got in.
“It’s nice to have a mentor like that who takes an interest,” he said. “Doug LaFollette was also one of my professors.”
He worked odd jobs around campus and was able to graduate with his undergrad with no debt.
“Medical school is a different story. You don’t have time to work,” he said.
He attended the University of Wisconsin Medical School graduating in 1978, doing his internal medicine residency in Dayton, Ohio at the Kettering Medical Center.
“During medical school you check out from society for four years.”
He says he did well in school, but still the first few months of medical school were an adjustment.
His first experiences in medical school are ones he won’t forget.
“The very first day I get there and it’s an OB rotation and walk in and the attending physician says, ‘OK Wishau come with me we are delivering a baby right now.’ The nurses were laughing I’ve never put on a gown before they were helping me.”
He said he thought he would just watch but he helped to stich the woman up after she gave birth.
He recalled taking care of an older Italian man, who had a heart attack, after learning someone cut off his grape vines at the root.
“People were coming from all over the place to see him. He was a retired mafia boss. They said we’ll take care of the people who did this to you.”
His residency was in internal medicine, but he did surgery, neonatal, delivered babies, oncology and family practice.
“We had a clinic and I had my first patients as a doctor.”
He said he would sit with people who were dying.
“They would call to have you with them during their dying moments,” he said. “It’s a moving experience.”
He came to Lake Mills in 1981 joining Dr. Manfred Effenhauser and Dr. Hendrik Leering at Lake Mills Medical Center.
“They were family practice and I was internal medicine, but when I was on call, I had to know about kids. They helped round out my education.”
A few years after he got there, he was approached by members of the Fort Atkinson Hospital staff because they didn’t have anyone to do endoscopies and colonoscopies.
He went back to the University of Wisconsin to train on the gastrointestinal procedures. He also trained at a digestive disease clinic in Racine.
“I went there three days a week for six months.”
Wishau says he’s grateful Effenhauser and Leering supported him during that time.
He’s now been doing endoscopies and colonoscopies since about 1984 and is pushing about 30,000 procedures.
There were years where he did around 1,000 procedures a year and with the emphasis on colorectal screening more people than ever before are having the screening done. Now there are more doctors who do the screenings but Wishau is still doing many of them.
While working at the Lake Mills Medical Center, Wishau said the doctors essentially had an urgent care operating with one of them always on call.
“It wasn’t unusual to go down to the office at one in the morning to sew somebody up because of cuts they would get on stainless steel,” he said referencing the manufacturing industry in Lake Mills.
They were also the emergency room doctors in Fort Atkinson, providing a care continuity to their patients.
“A professor once told me if you listen long enough the patient will tell you the diagnosis and it’s been true. Take the time and listen. That’s been something I’ve used all my life.”
Last year when elective procedures were postponed at hospitals due to COVID-19, many people put off having their routine colonoscopies.
“We weren’t doing any elective procedures, but people didn’t hear that part, they heard you couldn’t come to the hospital because of COVID. We are still fighting the perception that if you go to the hospital you will die.”
He says he’s had many conversations with patients who didn’t want to go to the hospital to seek emergency medicine because they thought they would get COVID and possibly die.
“The emergency room is a safe place,” he said. “One patient who didn’t want to go to the ER was there only about 15 minutes and he was on the helicopter and within the hour he was in Madison having triple bypass surgery. He was going to die because he was afraid to go to the hospital and that story is happening all over the place.”
He says this year they’ve found more developed breast and colon cancers.
“The cancers are more developed than they should be and instead of polyps they’ve turned to cancer.”
He also mentioned the pediatricians are treating more children for depression.
Right now, doctors are concerned about the South American variant coming from the south.
“We think that variant is perhaps more resistant to our vaccines.” But despite that he says getting the vaccine is the right thing to do and the best way to get immunity from the virus.
Wishau said the COVID-19 virus is going to infect everyone it can until there is no one left.
“Sooner or later you are going to become immune in some manner. You can get immunity the easy way by getting the vaccine or you can get it the hard way, which includes the risk of death.”
Wishau says right now studies show the vaccine is effective at least six months.
“There’s no sign of it dropping and now we are at seven months and there is no sign of it dropping.”
Doctors don’t know if immunity is higher for those who have COVID or those who get the shot.
“We will listen to the CDC as they do these studies. If we have antibodies, we won’t need a booster.”
He also said the COVID-19 virus isn’t like the movies.
“Viruses that kill everybody don’t go very far. If you get an illness that kills the host, they can’t give it to anybody. This virus was unique because most people hardly had any symptoms and they were running around spreading it.”
For some the best way to be encouraged to get the vaccine is to know someone who had COVID and was sick.
“I spend a lot of time with people telling them this is how it works; this is why it works, and I’ve been somewhat successful,” he said. “We’re left now with the group of people who are more hesitant to get the vaccine.”
Wishau has several stepchildren including Joe Cooper (Melissa Gruszynski) of Lake Mills, Elizabeth Dunkleberger (James) of Denver, Colorado and Nicholas Villers (Stephanie) of Naperville, Illinois along with grandchildren.
“This has been a wonderful place to practice,” he said of his time in Lake Mills. Wishau will retire Sept. 30. “After 40 years it’s just time to do something different.”
Wishau and his wife plan to eventually do some traveling during retirement. He hopes to golf, work on projects at home and in the garden. He’s been a member of the Lake Mills Rotary Club since 1982 and is involved in the Rotary Foundation.
“I’m just going to step back and take a breath for a little while. I work 60 to 80 hours a week,” he said.
For those looking to find an appointment to get their COVID-19 vaccine go to www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/vaccine-get.htm