Dr. James Merrell’s job is extremely gratifying. “In the trauma world, patients would be deformed for the rest of their lives or deal with total loss of function and we’re able to fix those things and see results instantly,” he shares. “Sometimes you have a patient who’s born deaf, and you put in a cochlear implant, and they can hear. It’s extremely rewarding.”
Dr. Merrell has been a provider at Colorado West Otolaryngologists for 15 years. Often referred to as Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT), the specialty officially known as “Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery” includes both medical and surgical knowledge. The clinic offers comprehensive, tertiary-level care, taking on everything from ruptured ear drums to damaged vocal cords to sinus issues to swallowing conditions.
Grand Junction is unique in that it’s more than four hours from a large academic medical center, too large to be rural, but also not as sub-specialized as an urban center. Grand Valley’s Colorado West Otolaryngologists is nearly as comprehensive as a full-blown academic practice, allowing the providers to expertly take on most specialized ENT surgeries. The clinic repairs deviated septums, performs rhinoplasty, removes skin cancer, and treats trauma to the face and neck caused by dog bites, car accidents and other hazards. “It ends up being a lot more than people realize,” Dr. Merrell explains. “There aren’t many gaps in what we don’t do. We are committed to taking care of needs that come to us.”
“Some surgeries are like a detailed jigsaw puzzle,” he explains. Ear surgeries, such as cochlear implants, are conducted under a microscope and require surgeons working with tiny bones only four millimeters in size. A complex cancer surgery may require lymph nodes being removed from the neck, part of the jaw being taken out and reconstructed using a bone from the leg, and blood vessels attached to vessels in the neck to provide the bone a blood supply. In addition to the technical ability this demands, there is an artistic nature to reconstruction, as well. Merrell comments, “The art is that it draws on your experience and what has worked for people, and sometimes even a gut feeling…things we couldn’t program a computer to do.”
Dr. Merrell values taking time with patients. “A short appointment isn’t much time to understand what they’re going through, reflect that back, figure out what’s wrong, prescribe a treatment plan, and teach it to the patient. It’s a constant struggle to balance efficiency and really connect with people.”
Merrell grew up with a dad who encouraged him to get as much education as possible and reinforced the idea that “you can do anything you want to do.” As a college student at Brigham Young University, Merrell changed his mind about his major constantly. While on a mission in Brazil, a friend told James why he’d make a good doctor, saying, “I’d bring my family to you.” Something clicked. “All the things I was interested in—science, teaching, helping people—seemed to fit into the realm of medicine,” Merrell recalls. It wasn’t until he got to his surgery rotation in medical school that he found the exact fit. “The first time the surgeon handed me the suture to close the incision it was just a ‘wow experience.’ I realized: I need to do things with my hands. I want to fix things, and surgery allows you to do that.”
Dr. Merrell spent five years of residency at The Ohio State University in Cincinnati rotating through surgery sub-specializations like pediatric ENT, head/neck cancer, and otology (ear surgery) as a junior resident, senior resident, and then chief resident. After residency some surgeons choose to further specialize. “I chose to utilize all that training and not give any of it up,” says Merrell, who found Grand Junction the perfect place to put his highly focused, diverse training to good use.
Only two hours from where he grew up in Vernal, Utah, Merrell appreciates the small town feel of Grand Junction where his out-of-town home backs up to wide open spaces and he can see the stars. “I have great partners here and a great group, and St. Mary’s is also a great partner. I appreciate the rest of the valley’s medical community and what Monument Health is trying to do,” he expresses. “We have a great legacy in this community of excellent health care.”
Merrell enjoys hunting, mountain biking, running, road biking, and skiing, and competes in races such as 10k, half marathon, marathon, triathlon, and bike races like LoToJa– a 200-mile race from Logan, Utah to Jackson, Wyoming. He and his wife have a 21-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter who also enjoy outdoor, physical activities.
To learn more about Colorado West Otolaryngologists based in Grand Junction, Colorado, visit their website at cwoto.com.