Outstanding Physician Award Honors Dr. Steve Ayres

Early in Dr. Steve Ayres' practice, he treated a young judge with an unexplained iron deficiency. The man had gone through several tests without much to show for it, but Dr. Ayres thought there might be something that had been overlooked, something he could find as a gastroenterologist. 

So Dr. Ayres used an extra long scope for an upper endoscopy to reach a little further than he'd normally look. X-rays hadn't picked it up, but Dr. Ayres and his scope had found a very rare case of cancer of the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. Thanks in part to an early diagnosis, the young man survived his bout of cancer. 

Moments like that reinforced Dr. Ayres' interest in gastroenterology, which he described as a good mix of thought and technical challenges and an opportunity to provide a full range of care for his patients' digestive diseases. 

For his leadership, his mentorship, and his patient-centered care, Benefis presented this year's Dr. J.W. Bloemendaal Outstanding Physician Award to Dr. Ayres.

The award was created to honor a physician who best exemplifies the character and the manner in which Dr. Bloemendaal, a longtime orthopedic surgeon in our community, practiced for more than 50 years.

“I am honored and filled with gratitude to have received this award, especially in the model of Dr. Bloemendaal. With his character and his manner, he exemplified excellence and compassion," Dr. Ayres said. "I would like to dedicate the award to my patients and to the world-class staff here at Benefis." 

Dr. Ayres is "universally liked and well respected by his patients and his colleagues," Dr. Bridget Brennan, Benefis Medical Group chief medical officer, said as she presented the award at the recent Benefis employee banquet. 

In recent years, Dr. Ayres has become a certified provider coach while also getting involved in teaching medical students using a framework he developed for himself based the acronym APEC. That stands for awareness, presence, empathy, and compassion, each of which are key pillars in Dr. Ayres’ daily practice. 

"It’s important to be in touch with the power of connection, empathy and compassion," he said. "Understand the importance and impact of simply being with someone in their struggle and their suffering.”  

Dr. Ayres was introduced to hard work at an early age as he grew up on a dairy farm until age 9. When his family moved to South St. Paul, Minn., Dr. Ayres began working as a caddie and then on the grounds crew - sparking a zeal for golf that continues. He worked in a meat packing plant to help pay for college, where he majored in biology and minored in chemistry. His love of science and working with people led him to medicine. 

"I had little exposure to a medical community or what it would really mean to be a doctor," he said. 

When he wasn't accepted to medical school the first time he applied, he spent a year as a nurse's aide on a med-surge floor and then as an emergency room orderly. 

"Viewing hospital life, patients, and staff from a completely different perspective than a medical student or doctor would experience was an important factor in my evolution as a healthcare professional," he said. "I gained an appreciation for the hard work and important roles played by various hospital staff to make the whole system function well."

Dr. Ayres graduated from medical school in Minnesota and did his residency at the University of Colorado. 

He and his wife of 40 years, Cathy, moved to Great Falls from Denver as “empty nesters” 12 years ago. They are competitive duplicate bridge players and supporters of the Great Falls Symphony. Theirs is a close-knit family. Their daughter Lauren is an OB/GYN physician in Denver, and their son Sam, a former Army Ranger, is an attorney in Washington, D.C. They are also the very proud grandparents of three grandsons. 

Dr. Ayres said he's optimistic about the future of medicine in general and particularly at Benefis, where he looks forward to welcoming the new medical school to the city.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Ayres.