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Farewell reception

WILLMAR -- Dr. Mike and Laura Morris have already started downsizing and sorting through their belongings. There's a forsale sign posted in their front yard.

At the end of this month, Mike Morris, a family physician and chief executive at Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar, will depart for Washington, D.C, where he'll undergo orientation as one of the newest recruits to the U.S. Department of State Office of Medical Services.

By fall, the couple will be living overseas in one of the 30 cities -- from Islamabad in Pakistan to La Paz, Bolivia -- where regional medical officers are assigned by the State Department.

"Now is the time to try an adventure," said Morris, who has practiced family medicine in Willmar ever since finishing medical school 24 years ago.

"I would say this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," Laura Morris said. "People who know us say it's a great opportunity. There's been lots of encouragement."

The Morrises, who've both been extensively involved in community activities over more than two decades in Willmar, weren't looking at first for a new lifestyle.

Then last year Mike was browsing through the State Department's Web site on behalf of one of their sons, who was considering a career in foreign service.

He discovered by chance that there was an opening for a regional medical officer.

The job description read something like this:

Provide medical care, health information and disease prevention for U.S. State Department employees and their families living overseas. Arrange for evacuation of American patients who need advanced care. Coordinate with local health care professionals, hospitals and clinics. Manage the dayto-day operation of the health unit. Supervise emergency preparedness, including readiness for responding to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Background in primary care and emergency care preferred. Flexibility a must.

"The job sounded very intriguing," Morris said. "I felt that's exactly what I've been doing in Willmar for the last 20 years."

The chance to live abroad was especially appealing.

Both Mike and Laura Morris are seasoned travelers and speak a second language -- he's fluent in Norwegian and she in German. They and their three children lived in Norway for two months in the 1990s while Mike worked at a hospital for the national health service.

Over the years they've hosted seven exchange students, and their own children have all studied abroad. Mike has been involved in the Rotary youth exchange program and is currently the medical adviser for the exchange program's Minnesota district.

Laura called it "a window on the world."

"We both found great value in learning languages when we were in high school and college, and encouraged our children to do the same," she said.

The process for Mike Morris to become a regional medical officer took almost a year.

First he had to submit a 50-page application. Then he had to undergo an interview and receive security clearance. Once these hurdles were passed, his name was placed on a list of candidates.

He was offered a job at the end of February. The State Department has about two openings each year in its medical officer corps.

The Morrises likely will be stationed in Southeast Asia to begin with. They'll find out the exact assignment in late May or early June. Thereafter, they'll likely be transferred to a new post every couple of years.

"We anticipate 10 to 12 years in this," Mike Morris said.

Laura, who will complete a graduate degree this fall in public and nonprofit institutions at St. Cloud State University, hopes to work or volunteer in education, government service or at a nonprofit organization in the cities where they'll be stationed.

Some Foreign Service medical officers are assigned to less-developed nations -- such as Bangladesh, Nigeria or Kazakhstan -- where the health risks can be significant and local medical care falls short of U.S. standards. Regional medical officers also are posted in several major cities such as London, Berlin and Singapore.

"The opportunity to travel is very exciting," Mike Morris said. "The opportunity to meet a wide variety of Americans is exciting. We'll have opportunities to learn different languages and different flavors."

The Morrises are leaving Willmar with a long track record of involvement. Besides being a senior partner and CEO at Family Practice Medical Center, Mike has been on the Rice Memorial Hospital board and the Willmar Planning Commission. Laura was a member of the Willmar School Board and has been active with the Willmar Area Arts Council.

Both of the Morrises could often be heard playing their trumpets -- which they plan to bring with them overseas -- in the Prairie Winds Community Band or at their church, Calvary Lutheran, and at The Barn Theatre.

"I will be really proud as I travel around the world to tell the story of towns like Willmar," Laura said. "We're just really grateful for the chance to have lived in Willmar. I'm sure we'll be back from time to time for visits."

While it's a little difficult to leave the familiar behind, the timing is right to embark on something new, Mike said.

"So we're really leaving with a sense of adventure and no sense of regrets," he said.

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