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Colleagues, patients mourn lost physician

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Dr. Dell Weible has been Wendy Sanders' doctor for more than a decade. And like other longtime patients, she expected Weible would deliver her baby someday.

Now just three weeks shy of Sanders' due date, it appears Weible will not be there when she goes into labor, as she had hoped.

Weible, a gynecologist and obstetrician who has been delivering babies in Clearwater for 15 years, has been missing in the Gulf of Mexico since New Year's Eve.

The Coast Guard found his 23-foot Mako drifting 20 miles southwest of Clearwater Pass, but has not been able to find him. Crews looked for Weible for more than a day but called off their search Saturday after finding no clues.

On Monday, the first day his office opened since the accident, his staff fielded questions from confused and concerned patients who had heard about the doctor's disappearance or showed up for an appointment.

"It's such a shame," said Mary Giambarberee, who was waiting Monday to see another doctor. "He's such a nice guy, just a good guy. He's really an honest person who tells it like it is. He always took his time with you and asked how you were."

Weible's patients were seen on Monday by one of the four other doctors in the office.

Dan Bowman, practice administrator, said the staff is calling patients to reschedule Weible's appointments. His patients will also receive a letter in the next week notifying them of his disappearance.

Bowman said Weible had 100 appointments this week alone and had many others scheduled in the next two months.

"It's difficult because it's still unresolved," Bowman said. "There's no closure. It's difficult to come to grips with it. People want to know more. But we don't know what to tell them."

The staff, which includes about 35 people including the other doctors, got together Sunday to grieve and decide how to deal with questions this week.

"I think the word's out about what happened," said Kelly Schnur, Weible's patient for three years. "It's very shocking. Everyone's hoping this is some kind of a misunderstanding."

Staff left copies of newspaper articles about Weible's disappearance in the waiting room and left a burning candle on the front counter with a card from a concerned patient.

"We pray for your safe return home," the card read. "We pray for you and your family, friends and loved ones through this difficult time."

Weible, 51, who grew up in Clearwater and attended Clearwater High School, is widely known around town.

His wife, Debra, is an ophthalmologist who took over her practice from her father-in-law, David. Debra Weible, whose office is about a mile down the street on Fort Harrison Avenue, helped revitalize the Old Clearwater Bay neighborhood, where she lives and works.

His brother, Kent, is a former Belleair mayor. Their mother, Cheryl, served on the Town Commission.

Weible's family could not be reached for comment Monday.

Weible began seeing patients in Clearwater in 1983. He has been with his current practice for five years. In 1989, his colleagues named him chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Morton Plant Hospital, a one-year honor.

"He was very, very loved," said Dr. Patricia St. John, who works with Weible. "He was a very caring physician, very knowledgeable. We're stunned."

Patients describe Weible as the kind of doctor who would take the time to answer questions and chat. He often told his patients and the other doctors about his hobbies, running, fishing and scuba diving.

Coast Guard officials believe Weible may have been diving at the time of his accident. His diving gear is missing but searches found no equipment, nothing to indicate there had been a diving accident.

Weible set out for sea Wednesday. His brother reported him missing at 1:35 p.m. Thursday after Weible failed to show for an appointment.

Crews spent more than a day searching for him, using seven different search patterns, looking by sea and air, day and night. But the search, which spanned 1,500 square miles, stopped at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Lt. A.J. McGee said the Coast Guard can resume the search if any clues are discovered to Weible's whereabouts.