General surgeons to retire, leave legacy

After nearly four decades of service, both Drs. Paul Severson and Howard McCollister will retire from clinical practice as program directors, at Riverwood Healthcare Center in Aitkin, in July.

“The stellar surgery legacy these two surgeons are leaving is tremendous,” said Riverwood CEO Ken Westman. “Their contribution to the development of surgical capacity and advanced procedures have greatly enhanced patient outcomes with smaller incisions, less pain and faster recovery with shorter hospital stays or more frequently no hospital stay at all.”

Dr. Paul Severson began his distinguished career as a general surgeon in 1984, spending nearly four decades as a specialist, leader, mentor and educator in the medical community. He served as Chief of Surgery at Riverwood for many years.

Dr. Paul Severson earned his Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Medicine degrees from the University of Minnesota. He completed his General Surgery Residency at Hennepin County Medical Center in 1984. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Surgery and became a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1988. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery and a founding member of the American Foregut Society. He serves the University of Minnesota Medical School as Clinical Adjunct Professor and has been honored repeatedly as Clinical Teacher of the Year by the medical students in Duluth. The University of Minnesota Medical Alumni Society presented him with the “Distinguished Alumni Award” for his educational and humanitarian contributions.

He has contributed as a leader and faculty for SAGES (Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons) and is the 2017 recipient of their “Excellence in Humanistic Clinical Care Award” for his global work. SAGES Global Affairs appointed him to lead the development of the Global Surgical Curriculum, which is a systematic approach to sharing the most up-to-date medical knowledge with the rest of the world’s surgical residents, starting with the country of Haiti. He has recently served as editor of the SAGES Global Laparoscopic Advancement Program manual.

Growing up in St. Paul, Dr. Severson originally wanted to become a missionary priest. Instead, while pursuing a prestigious surgical practice in Aitkin and Crosby, he pursued his passion for serving others as a missionary physician for Project Haiti, a charitable organization which he founded.

“Project Haiti started right here at our Aitkin hospital,” Dr. Severson explained. “When I suggested a mission trip to Haiti, the whole OR team was enthusiastic and volunteered to go with me. Our first fundraising grant was $2,500 from the McGregor Lions. Over the years, we’ve raised millions of dollars that have helped not only to build the Pignon hospital’s facilities but infrastructure like the airport, a primary school, dormitory, and education facilities.”

Dr. Severson added: “We donated the entire operating room and surgical equipment from the original Aitkin Community Hospital that is still in use today at the hospital in Pignon. Project Haiti has been a labor of love that has changed the lives of many who have volunteered and the lives of the people in Haiti as well.”

Dr. Howard McCollister began his illustrious medical career at Riverwood in May 1987. He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska obtaining his medical degree and completing his surgical residency at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He first started practicing in Virginia, Minnesota moving to Minnesota so that they could be closer to his wife Sally’s family. In 1987, Dr. Paul Severson recruited Dr. McCollister to join him in practice in Aitkin and Crosby.

Dr. McCollister was a hospital board member for 9 years. When the former Aitkin Community Hospital outgrew its original facility on Minnesota Avenue in the 1990’s, Dr. McCollister, in association with Michael Ryan who owned the property on Bunker Hill Drive where Riverwood is now located and served as a board member for 20 years, advocated for Riverwood to build a new hospital and clinic facility.

Dr. McCollister states, “It was so gratifying to see the hospital grow in reference to surgery and be able to up the game in delivering surgical services that exceeded those of many surrounding larger hospitals. The board and administration were helpful and generous and had confidence in our recommendations leading to continual progression. Dr. Severson and I always worked well together and that has led to our successful 35-year friendship and partnership. It has been one of those relationships where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Today, the hospitals we serve are bucking the general trend in that we are one of those relatively few rural critical access hospitals that is expanding rather than closing. The future is bright for Riverwood Healthcare Center, and we are pleased to have contributed to its success over the years. We are proud of the legacy that we leave.”

Dr. McCollister is a Diplomate of the American Board of Surgery. He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and a Fellow of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgeons, serving as President of the Minnesota Chapter of that society. Dr. McCollister is a member of several surgical specialty societies, including the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons and a Founding Member of the American Foregut Society. He has served on the affiliate academic faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School as well as clinical instructor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School for 18 years.

Building for the future

Working together, both surgeons built the surgical program into one that delivers advanced medical procedures not commonly offered in northern Minnesota. By 1994, the surgeons had gained a reputation as leaders in the newly developed and rapidly expanding area of laparoscopic surgery. They were struck by the scarcity of formal education in those very advanced techniques, so they developed programs for training other surgeons. They have trained more than 70 surgeons around the upper 5-state region.

Having become committed to education, in 2006 they established a highly regarded one-year fellowship in Minimally Invasive Surgery, Bariatric Surgery and Flexible Endoscopy. It became the first post-graduate fellowship program in the United States and Canada to become accredited in all three specialties. Together, they have trained 15 fellows, who now practice in leading surgical institutions all over the country.

Their outstanding legacy includes establishing the Minnesota Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIMIS) and the Minnesota Reflux and Heartburn Center. Both surgeons are two of the most experienced laparo-endoscopic, bariatric, and reflux surgeons in Minnesota.

“I have loved my job over the past 35 years. I’ve truly enjoyed my relationship with my patients, helping the people I’ve helped, and helping to build the things we’ve built.” Dr. McCollister said. “It’s been gratifying to watch and participate in the growth of this facility over all those years. It validates so many of the concepts that we believed in and showed us that our concepts of modern applications of surgery and advanced techniques, were correct along the way. I am so pleased to have been a part of this growth.”

Dr. Severson added: “It’s been an amazing journey these past 38 years as we added expert specialty surgeons and built new programs. There’s been unbelievable growth in the surgeries we’re able to do now, an estimated 12,000 procedures annually between the Aitkin and Crosby hospitals. And that is from only a few hundred in 1984!”

A team of four highly skilled general surgeons, partners of Drs. McCollister and Severson, will continue to offer patients excellent surgery care at Riverwood. They include Dr. Andrew Loveitt, Dr. Tim LeMieur, Dr. Shawn Roberts, and Dr. Evan Kelly. Both Dr. Kelly and Dr. Loveitt are diplomates of the MIMIS Fellowship and were trained in these advanced techniques by Dr. Severson and Dr. McCollister. Dr. Kelly will begin his practice here in 2023 after completing a second fellowship.

“We are pleased to offer our community continued access to a highly skilled team of general surgeons,” Westman said. “Thorough planning for this transition from Dr. McCollister and Dr. Severson leaves surgery patient care in great hands.”

Following retirement, Dr. McCollister will continue some of his consultant obligations as well as finish up a couple of research projects that he is committed to. He will retain his medical privileges at Riverwood to enable follow up with patients as necessary. He claims his entire 47-year career has been about change. The modern surgical techniques he practices and teaches today weren’t even dreamed of when he started his journey as a surgeon. Every step of the way, there was always something different and new to learn, to apply, and to teach. He sees retirement in that same light; another change.

Although the scalpel goes down, Dr. Severson will continue his involvement with medical research projects, developing new technology, teaching, lecturing, and volunteer work with Project Haiti. He plans to keep his endoscopic privileges at Riverwood and will continue working on a “first in the U.S.” clinical trial to improve the health of Type 2 diabetes patients. Dr. Severson states “Riverwood is just beginning. Like a fine wine, what we created here, it gets better with age. It has been an amazing journey. Riverwood is in expert hands with all the world-class surgeons and honorable staff we are entrusting to our community.”

Patient comments requested

Riverwood is inviting patients of both general surgeons to share comments on their experience receiving medical care from them over the years. Email comments to or mail comments to Lisa Kruse, Riverwood Healthcare Center, 200 Bunker Hill Drive, Aitkin, MN 56431. These comments will be shared at a retirement reception for Drs. McCollister and Severson in September.