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Yuma’s first pediatrician to retire after 50 years of caring

Dr. Robert Cannell began practicing here 50 years ago. He wasn’t just the only pediatrician in Yuma. He was also the very first.

Dr. Robert Cannell chuckles when he’s asked to describe pediatric care in Yuma when he began practicing here.

It was a lonely affair.

And he was very busy.

His work was lonely in terms of colleagues, but the young pediatrician certainly had lots of babies, moms and dads to keep him company. That’s because when Cannell began practicing here 50 years ago, he wasn’t just the only pediatrician in Yuma. He was also the very first.

“Before I got here, there really was nothing. Yuma was just too small,” the doctor recalled. “We had some really good family doctors, but pediatrics wise we were really 20 years behind the times. We had to really work to get everything up to snuff.”

Two years passed before a second pediatrician arrived on the scene, which was certainly good news for Yuma families – and Cannell.

“Since I was the only pediatrician in town, I was taking care of a lot of sick kids. I had to get a partner before I could even leave town for vacation,” he said. “At first, if I wasn’t in town, there was no one to take care of the babies.”

The veteran pediatrician is certainly not complaining. In fact, hearing him describe those early days certainly paints a picture of a career that started out incredibly rich with meaning – and has remained so half a century later.

“I have always felt like I have been exactly where I was meant to be,” he said.

That connection to his calling and dedication to the little ones he cares for explains why Cannell has only struggled with one aspect of his career – successfully retiring.

“I have tried to retire a couple times. This will be my third time trying. It hasn’t worked out for me to quit all together – yet. Old doctors like me, we’re usually doctors until we go into the grave,” he said, chuckling. “Basically, I just love kids. It is so rewarding to see them develop and grow.”

However, Cannell recently announced that he once again plans to retire this summer. He insists that he is serious this time. “I want to go while I am still doing well, before anyone has to tell me it’s time to go. I’ve seen too many docs stay longer than they should have,” he said. “I will keep my license for a year. We’ll just have to see.”

Looking back, Cannell describes the great satisfaction he felt in getting to help build the level of pediatric care that is offered in Yuma today. He is quick to stress that what began as a one-man venture quickly grew into a shared vision, one blessed with teamwork between local doctors and Yuma Regional Medical Center (YRMC), which itself was a youngster when Cannell came to town.

As the doctor stands at the half century mark, YRMC itself celebrated a service record last year that’s just a decade longer than Cannell’s.

“I’ve spent most of my life at this hospital. YRMC has always been supportive, extremely helpful along the way between the board and the staff in general,” he lauded. “I am very proud of our hospital. YRMC really has grown to have great facilities. Things have come a long way since those early days.”

Prior to becoming a pediatrician, Cannell followed a calling that involved similar work, but in a much different context. He cared for adults – Marines, in fact. He came to Yuma to serve as a Naval medical officer at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. He also consulted at Parkview Baptist Hospital, the predecessor to YRMC, beginning in 1969.

Cannell quickly fell in love with Yuma and realized he had found the perfect place to serve, settle down and raise a family.

After graduating from the University of Arizona and becoming board certified, Cannell began practicing as Yuma’s full-time pediatrician in 1972.

“There would be nights in a row where I wouldn’t sleep,” he said with gratitude. “My wife was tougher than nails and she got me through it.”

He was soon joined by Dr. Abe Podolsky and Dr. Frank (James F.) Martin in creating YRMC’s pediatric committee, which would evolve into today’s Pediatrics department.

Prior to the birth of pediatric care in Yuma, doctors and patients faced a landscape with few options. Arizona’s first NICU wasn’t created in Phoenix until the late 1960’s. 

YRMC offered about 140 beds back then. Moms were doubled up in rooms and their babies stayed in the nursery. “Along with some excellent family doctors when I came, we had three obstetricians, two or three anesthesiologists and some very good general surgeons,” he recalled. “Plus, we had Dr. Dale Webb in thoracic surgery and Dr. Henry Meyer in internal medicine.  But we had no orthopedists, no ENT specialists, no ER doctors and no internal medicine or pediatric subspecialists.”

He recalled how nurses would slip babies into the large pockets of their uniforms when a big storm would hit and the building would leak. “The staff at YRMC is great. The nurses here have always been great,” Cannell said.

He ran his own practice until 2002 and then worked for Yuma Pediatrics, which partnered not long ago with YRMC Pediatrics. Working with a new generation of pediatricians demonstrated to Cannell just how long he had been practicing in Yuma.

“Dr. Gowan Deckey used to follow me around years ago to see if she wanted to become a doctor,” Cannell said, smiling warmly. “Dr. Jean Amon was even a patient of mine.”

His inspiration as a role model physician certainly worked, of course. Today he and Dr. Deckey work side by side as esteemed colleagues.

“Dr. Cannell has deep knowledge of every aspect of pediatrics and is always gentle, thorough and thoughtful of each patient.  He is a wealth of information and has always been a delight to work with,” said Dr. Gowan Deckey. “He has helped create many medical opportunities for Yuma children for generations. Our community has been blessed to have such an outstanding pediatrician. I hope he enjoys retirement as much as we have enjoyed working alongside him.”

Although countless Yuma County residents know and love Cannell in his pediatrician role, he is also well-known and respected for his contributions as a lawmaker. Beginning in 2,000, he served for six years in the Arizona House, then the Arizona Senate.

Today, Cannell continues to practice, still finding the same fascination with little ones that he felt ever since he first began so many years ago. He knows, too, what he will very soon find himself missing the most.

“Oh boy, I am going to miss the kids. It’s a real upper working here because of them. I just love working with the babies. They are cool little things – so full of potential,” he said, adding that the kids and career truly shaped. “Also, when I started I was a basically a shy person. I found that to take care of patients you sometimes have to be aggressive, go after the details and ask the tough questions. My work as a pediatrician has helped me become more aggressive and stay extremely humble.”

That comment is followed by a warm laugh from Cannell.

“Being humble isn’t hard when you are a pediatrician. The kids call you weird names and they pee on your shirt! They don’t think you walk on water or anything.”

Cannell has always known that his assignment in life was taking care of kids. The right place to carry out that work has also been clear all along to the gentle doctor’s heart. For him, Yuma was always the place to live, work, grow – and share.

“I would rather make a difference,” the he said. “I could have practiced in Phoenix, but I never would have made a difference there – not like here. I also haven’t traveled all over the world or gotten excellent at golf. That isn’t what I chose to do. What I do is take care of patients. That’s what I trained to do…and it’s been my privilege.”

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