DR. KENT HOBERT had a rare combination of skill, compassion, and dedication to his profession and his community — traits his friends, family and colleagues said never wavered after he became paralyzed from the chest down in 1983.
“He was so determined,” said his widow Nancy Hobert, when asked about her husband of 61 years. “I think his legacy is how he showed people the kind of quality life somebody in a wheelchair can have, and what it can be like.”
That life included almost 35 years as an OB-GYN with Contra Costa Health Services, 46 years as a family-practice doctor in Martinez (where he lived), 20 years as the Alhambra High School sideline doctor and involvement in and support of myriad local service and political groups.
All these things were happening both before and after he became paralyzed.
“He has been an incredible teacher, wonderful mentor and inspiration to many physicians,” said Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County’s health director, a longtime colleague within the county’s health system and hospital.
Hobert, 82, died Sept. 11 following a series of strokes about two weeks earlier.
Physician and educator
Donald Ken Hobert, born Jan. 2, 1938, was a native of Charles City, Iowa, and attended medical school at the University of Iowa, and did an internship at San Joaquin General Hospital in French Camp, near Stockton, and spent two years as a captain in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Miami during the Vietnam War.
He arrived at the Contra Costa County Hospital in 1967, where he was a doctor with the OB-GYN department, working under pioneering Contra Costa physician Dr. George Degnan. Hobert joined the teaching staff there in 1969, and was chair of the department from 1980 to 1998. He retired in 2001 from what by then was the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center.
“I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile on his face,” said Dr. William Walker, the former Contra Costa County health director who worked with Hobert from 1974 until 2001. Hobert, Walker said, was his personal hero.
“He was always gregarious, always talking with everybody.”
“People literally couldn’t keep up with him; he got faster in his wheelchair.”Dr. William Walker
That didn’t change even after Hobert woke up on a November 1983 morning unable to get out of bed. Walker said Hobert hadn’t suffered a physical injury, and that the cause of his paralysis was never clearly established.
“Despite his sudden and severe (paralysis), he went back to work within a month,” Farnitano said. “The story I was told is that he was on the phone from his hospital bed ordering a custom automobile with hand controls.”
Nancy Hobert said her husband was actually arranging for hand controls to be installed in the Mercedes-Benz coupe he already owned. That car, as well as a wheelchair that allowed him to “stand up” enabling him to continue performing surgeries, let Hobert keep up many of his previous activities.
When he wasn’t driving that coupe, Hobert could be seen piloting his wheelchair up and down Alhambra Avenue between the county hospital and his private practice office across the street from City Hall about a mile away.
“People literally couldn’t keep up with him; he got faster in his wheelchair,” Walker said. “It got problematic with the line of physicians following him around.”
Not slowing down
In 1973, Hobert and Dr. Ronald Fujimoto began their private medical practice in Martinez. Hobert continued with that practice until November 2019, when he was 81.
“When they started, there were 11 other doctors in Martinez,” said Nancy Hobert. “When he finished, he was the last ‘private’ doctor in Martinez,” not affiliated with a large health care plan.
His proudest moment, several people said, was his work championing the construction of the modern-day county hospital, which opened in January 1998.
The old county hospital needed serious upgrades, but building a new hospital was viewed by many as an unworthy endeavor. Hobert also found himself opposing his onetime mentor Degnan. Walker said Degnan favored closing the old hospital and not building a replacement to treat the indigent and people on the county’s health plan.
“Going against Degnan, an icon in health care and politics … that was a bold move,” Walker said.
In the later years of his practice, Hobert worked 20 to 25 hours a week, sometimes seeing patients who couldn’t pay. He also was a serious gardener, planting vegetables and flowers in his special raised beds, and also was an accomplished woodworker.
He was a longtime supporter of nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club in Martinez, and worked in support of elected officials, mostly Democrats. And over the years, many doctors who had suffered spinal cord injuries reached out to Hobert for advice and inspiration.
That a recent Contra Costa Board of Supervisors meeting led off with Farnitano talking at length about Hobert’s passing, and about his life, showed the high regard in which the supervisors held Hobert. County flags started flying at half-staff Sept. 21 in Hobert’s honor.
Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said he was her doctor for a while, and Supervisor Diane Burgis knew him as she grew up in Martinez.
“We were surrounded by grown-ups who modeled how to give to our community, and he was such a model for all of us,” Burgis said.