Dr. James Pace Clayton, owner and medical director of Red Hook Family Practice, died Sunday, May 11, in Canmore, Canada, after a seven-month battle with lung cancer. He was 60.
A resident of the Virgin Islands for 24 years, Clayton built his original St. John family practice into three thriving institutions in Red Hook, Cruz Bay and at Yacht Haven Grande. All three health centers provide round-the-clock family and urgent care for residents and visitors.
"James was a fiercely loyal friend whose main passion in life was to provide the best medical care possible to those who crossed his path," said Lani Clark, longtime finance manager for the centers. "He felt very strongly that patients are not sick from 9 to 5 and needed to have access to medical care 24/7. He had a very patient-centered view of how medicine should be practiced, and that in the office the patient should always come first."
For that reason, Clark said, Clayton used a voicemail system only after working hours. He wanted patients to "connect with a caring human being" when they called, she said.
One of those "caring human beings" is June Francis, front-desk supervisor, who worked with Clayton for nine years. News of his illness sent her into a tailspin.
"He showed me that I am great at what I do, and it’s OK to mess up as long as I fix it, and fix it in the right way," Francis said, adding, "His philosophy is to provide the best medical care for everyone."
Providing a level of excellence meant that Clayton "constantly researched and connected with other specialists around the country to get second opinions or just to see if they concurred with his diagnosis," Clark said.
She saw that philosophy put into action first hand.
"James helped me monitor my chronic illness over the years to the point where I feel pretty free of its effects," she said. "When I was diagnosed with melanoma, he took charge and to the end consulted with the melanoma specialist I worked with at Emory. There are thousands of people with similar stories who will miss his ability to diagnose and hold your hand through your medical crisis."
Clark described Clayton as "a relentless perfectionist who never stopped trying to keep the practice ahead of the curve, both in terms of the practice of medicine and technologically. He likes to think that this legacy will continue at Red Hook Family Practice."
Dr. Mark S. Harris of Hanover, N.H., a friend for more than 30 years, saw Clayton in a similar way, both professionally and personally.
"Despite his success and accomplishments, James seemed to always be searching for something else, or something more," Harris said. "He was never satisfied with the status quo, always believing that there were even better things to see and behold. He had ants in his pants!"
Harris met Clayton in 1983 "when he came to Vermont as a third-year medical student to spend the summer working with me in my pediatric practice. My oldest daughter was almost one year old, while my youngest daughter was a year from being born. They grew up with James as a sort of older brother, and my wife and I thought of him as our ever-wandering almost son."
"We vacationed with him, stayed in his New York apartment with him. Our girls would go to St. John during their school breaks and stay with him … He was my protege in forming his private practice, and we consulted with each other about difficult or challenging patients all the time."
Over time, Harris said, "the student became the teacher as James kept me up to date on adult medicine and counseled me regularly on how to keep my practice efficient and successful.”
"A startling intellect,” Harris said, Clayton “knew art and music and cars and history and politics and motorcycles and geography and sailing and finance and culture like no one else I have ever met. He had an enormous sense of justice and fairness, and he had a very generous heart. He was a fierce and loyal friend, and he expected that in return."
Clayton was a true outdoorsman, which led him to buy a second home more than a decade ago in the Canadian Rockies.
"James had a passion for sailing and mountain biking, especially in Moab," Clark said. "He loved being in the mountains in Canada.”
But, she added, “he told me that one of his favorite things to do is connect and spend time with close friends."
Clayton graduated from Queens College in New York in 1979 and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1984. He did his internship and residency at the University of Connecticut Department of Family Medicine, graduating in 1988. He was a doctor in emergency medicine at York Hospital in Maine from 1988-90.
Starting in 1980 he began spending weeks, and then months, working in St. John, first at the Keplinger Retreat at Cinnamon Bay and later at the deCastro Clinic. He moved full time to St. John in 1990 and worked for the V.I. government. He opened Cruz Bay Family Practice in 1991 and remained with the territorial government until 1997. He was board certified in family medicine.
Survivors include his wife, Lee Eng Khauv, one sister, Vivian Clayton of San Francisco, and scores of friends in the Virgin Islands, the U.S. and Canada.
A memorial service will be held in St. John sometime in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, expressions of sympathy in Clayton’s memory can be made to Healthcare for the Homeless Fund at the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. Checks should be made payable to the Community Foundation for the Virgin Islands, with a memo noting Healthcare for the Homeless, P.O. Box 11790, St. Thomas, VI 00801-4790, 340-774-6031, or online at http://www.cfvi.net/> www.cfvi.net.