In his e-mail my father had typed “A Diverse Life” in the subject line. The opening paragraph announced the death of our former family doctor. He was 86 years of age.
My father had written earlier that this doctor had been confined to a hospital bed in the dining room of his red brick home, the same home which housed his office through forty-two years of general practice. It was a comfort to know that in the end he had been clever enough to circumvent the hospital and die at home.
This man had treated my father and my mother, my sister and me, and eventually, for a brief time, my wife and our first child over the course of his medical career. He was always reticent to prescribe medication—especially antibiotics—unless he could see a clear benefit for the patient. Initially, he treated my father’s high blood pressure by telling him to eat less salt in his diet. Later, when I read his obituary, I learned that the governor of Pennsylvania had appointed this man as chairman to oversee the establishment of all cardiac care units in the state.
I remember walking to the doctor’s office for the occasional physical exam, turning in at the narrow concrete walk that led up the steps to the front entrance in the big brick house on Maple Street.
The waiting room was paneled in dark wainscoting. Two rows of spindle-backed colonial chairs faced each other from opposite walls, and on those walls hung various framed prints depicting historic moments in medicine: Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood; Drs. Samuel Gross and D. Hayes Agnew in the surgical theatre; Galen; Hippocrates; Maimonides. There were copies of National Geographic and Reader’s Digest on the table in the corner. At the far end stood the door with a small polished stainless steel sign that displayed the words: “The Doctor Is In.” The only time that door ever opened was when the doctor’s nurse, a massive woman with a huge round face, appeared to call in the next patient.
There were two small exam rooms behind that door, each off the short narrow hallway where the nurse had her desk. All pertinent data—height, weight, blood pressure, pulse—were recorded on a 5 by 7 lined note card with a ballpoint pen. You sat in a wooden chair by the table that housed, among other things, a stainless-steel tray filled with surgical instruments and glass hypodermic syringes. A stethoscope hung from a brass hook on the back of the white peg-board paneled door. The exam table was covered in dark brown leather. Above this table, the doctor’s framed diploma hung on the wall.
Eventually, with a quick rap on the door, the doctor appeared, always dressed in his white coat, always with a stethoscope suspended from his neck, always with the hint of a smile on his face. His hair was grey and thin, even back then when I was a boy.
Our family doctor practiced in the days of big doctoring, when general practitioners routinely performed procedures in the office that most family physicians refer to specialists nowadays. Many times he was paid for house calls in huckleberries, dandelion wine, ham and chow-chow, a Pennsylvania Dutch pickled dish.
Once, when I was an adolescent, applying myself at school and working hard at distance running, I hit a rough stretch, where nothing seemed to be going right. My mother made me an appointment to see the doctor.
He quietly listened to my tale of adolescent woe, and then replied: “That’s how you shape iron, son. You thrust a piece of it into the fire and heat it red hot, pound it on an anvil with a smithy’s hammer and shove it into a barrel of cold water. Back and forth, back and forth—one extreme to the other—that’s what makes it strong.”
I never forgot that lesson.