Gary Sterken, MD, UW Health Ophthalmologist, Retires From Mile Bluff Medical Center

Gary Sterken, MD, assistant professor and comprehensive ophthalmologist with the University of Wisconsin Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences (DOVS) and UW Health retired on October 10, 2020, after providing comprehensive eye care and cataract surgery to patients in Madison and the surrounding area for thirty years. He has provided eye care at Mile Bluff Medical Center since 2004. 

Dr. Sterken grew up on a dairy farm in southeastern Wisconsin. He attended Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He spent three years as a chemist at the Point Beach Nuclear Power Plant in Two Creeks, Wisconsin, followed by three years as a drug analysis chemist, crime scene investigator, and expert court witness for the Wisconsin State Crime Lab.

Dr. Sterken then earned his medical degree at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, followed by an internship year at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. After his internship, Dr. Sterken joined DOVS for an ophthalmology residency and a glaucoma fellowship.

Dr. Sterken spent eight years as a comprehensive ophthalmologist with Physicians Plus Medical Group. That group merged with UW Health in 1998, and Dr. Sterken continued with UW Health on the comprehensive ophthalmology team.

In 2004, Dr. Sterken took over the comprehensive ophthalmology position at UW Health Specialty Clinic at Mile Bluff Medical Center. He soon learned that the equipment, facilities and conditions at Mauston were excellent, and the physical space was bolstered with a uniformly wonderful, dedicated and highly competent team. 

“The Mile Bluff Clinic staff’s genuine concern for patients is evident daily. This is particularly important in a regional location, because the physician is not and cannot be present all the time, so the regional staff must triage and manage many situations without the physician’s immediate input. The Specialty Clinic receptionists, technicians, and nurses do an excellent job of triaging patient problems, directing them to the appropriate sub-specialty area when appropriate or to comprehensive ophthalmology for management or direction to the appropriate sub-specialty when necessary. My particular work involved lots of cataract evaluations and surgeries, as well as glaucoma, macular degeneration, double vision, eye pain, dry eyes, retinal vascular problems, and other less frequent problems.”

Cathy Cass, Jeanne Pollack, and Alyssa Walker, certified ophthalmic assistants, have worked with Dr. Sterken for a combined 25 years. All three are from the Mauston area and note that they see the direct impact that Dr. Sterken has made on the community. “Patients say that he is very personable,” Cass said, “He takes the time to listen to them.” Walker added, “A lot of patients note that he explains everything to them. He’s very generous and helpful.”

Renee Bokota, RN, and Lisa Sullivan, RN, registered nurses in Mile Bluff’s operating room, bid Dr. Sterken farewell on his last day of surgery at Mile Bluff Medical Center.

Sherise Vaassen, RN, department director of the operating room at Mile Bluff Medical Center, emphasized the importance of being able to service patients closer to home. “Giving a personalized touch and closeness to home is important to these patients. Dr. Sterken is part of us. He is the one to grab a warm blanket for the patient if that is needed. He has wheeled his patients back to the surgery department. He’s a team player. He’s all about being one with the team with the surgery folks and the patient.”

Vaassen also commented on Dr. Sterken’s innovation. “Dr. Sterken is very timely. He is always concerned with efficiency. With cataract surgery, a patient used to need five pre-operative eye drops. Dr. Sterken wanted to help, so he created a combination gel with the help of the Mile Bluff Pharmacy, which the staff calls the “eye cocktail.” The eye cocktail has been a godsend for patients and staff.”

Dr. Sterken had a full day of surgeries on his last day at Mile Bluff Medical Center.

Michael Wolf, DNP, CRNA, APNP, director of anesthesia services at Mile Bluff, has worked with Dr. Sterken for seven years. “Dr. Sterken lives and breathes taking care of people. And not just the patients but the staff as well. I had the luxury of having him as my ophthalmologist. He’s incredibly thorough.”

In addition to patient care, Dr. Sterken will be remembered for his dedication to education. Pollack is appreciative of Dr. Sterken’s interest in sponsoring staff as they applied for their certified ophthalmic assistant (COA) certification. “I remember when I was going through the COA program, and Dr. Sterken was always wanting to show you things. We had three corneal transplants, one in each exam room. He said, ‘okay, this is a really neat day. Let’s go check out this patient.’ He was always very good about grabbing you and saying check this out. Always teaching.”

Dr. Sterken returned the praise, saying, “Among the many outstanding qualities of the Mile Bluff Medical Center staff is an interest in learning, which makes their work more interesting and makes them even more qualified to understand our patients’ problems. I enjoyed teaching them so much because they were so interested and such great learners and, well, because eyes are just so cool!”

Dr. Sterken and Ken Hallwood, CRNA, APNP, one of Mile Bluff’s certified registered nurse anesthetists, spent many hours in the operating room together helping local patients regain their sight.

A beloved presence both in the Mauston area and in Madison, Dr. Sterken will be missed by patients, technicians, nurses, clinical staff, referring optometrists and physicians, and administrative colleagues.

Travis Rumery, DO, joined the UW Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and UW Health on October 1 and will fill the comprehensive ophthalmologist position at the Mile Bluff Medical Center.

“I am very happy to be turning over all of my work in Mauston to Dr. Rumery,” Dr. Sterken noted. “He is an excellent person and physician who will provide great clinical and surgical care to patients and will interact well with the staff at Mile Bluff.”

Mile Bluff Medical Center staff had the chance to work with Dr. Rumery before Dr. Sterken departed.  “Dr. Rumery came and spent a day, scrubbed in just this past week,” Wolf recalled. “These are pretty big shoes to fill but we understand that Dr. Rumery is incredibly well liked around the region. He is incredibly personable. And he understands the need here to take care of patients locally.”

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Dr. Rumery commented that he is excited for the opportunity to provide care to patients in Mauston and the surrounding communities.

“Over the past five years, I have provided comprehensive ophthalmologic care to numerous patients in many different communities, much like that of the Mauston area, exposing me to a broad variety of eye pathology. I have also performed high volumes of cataract surgeries, which has greatly honed my surgical skills. I enjoy establishing positive relationships with my patients and improving their quality of life through the practice of ophthalmology. Dr. Sterken is not only a great ophthalmologist, he is a fantastic person and friend. I appreciate his supportive role as I transition into providing ophthalmologic care in the Mauston area and wish him the best in his retirement.”