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Growing Up American: When the Doctor-Patient Relationship was More than a Computer Screen

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Published on: April 4, 2015

‘Growing Up American’ is an article series dedicated to sharing and preserving eyewitness accounts of the way we lived – in a world that seems destined to forget.

Today, the average time a doctor spends with a patient is twelve minutes or less. Dr. Stephen Schimpff, an internist and former CEO of University of Maryland Medical Center, told Newsmax that, “Doctors who are in a rush don’t have the time to listen,” and that patients today “often get referred to specialists when the problem can be solved in the office visit.” The same article reported that doctors are stressed out and 9 out of ten would “discourage others from choosing their profession.” Also, “data suggests that 300 physicians will commit suicide this year.”

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Things weren’t always that way. In 1947, Norman Rockwell was on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post to record the lives of representative Americans in his artwork. In his painting Norman Rockwell Visits a Family Doctor, Rockwell painstakingly reproduced the office of his own family physician in Vermont. Underneath this painting, in a book of his illustrations (1) it reads: “The family doctor is a hometown’s man of miracles. The people want him, when they need him, and he is usually there. His office resembles a den more than an examining room. The doctor himself is a kindly, tolerant man with a reassuring manner and a good disposition, with friendly advice stemming beyond the field of medicine.”

This is an account of a similar doctor; a doctor not unlike many doctors in small towns across the America of yesteryear.

The winter of 1934 was one for the record books. Temperatures well below zero were plaguing my hometown. When it dropped to -21 on February 9th, folks didn’t think it could get much worse. Within a couple of weeks however, below average temperatures joined forces with a massive snowstorm that caused much of the Northeast to grind to a halt.

My grandfather, who walked the railroad tracks to his job at the paper mill, couldn’t get home to his wife and six children. My mother, the youngest, was only two months old and getting sicker by the hour. My grandmother knew the signs – the wheezing, the rising fever – it was the dreaded pneumonia. Grandma bundled up her two oldest children — girls aged 9 and 11 — and sent them down the long dark road to the nearest house that had a telephone. Kerosene lanterns in hand, they arrived at the elderly couple’s home and explained their urgent need to phone the family doctor. They returned with news that the doctor would “come as soon as he could.”

They waited. The girls took turns watching out the window, scraping the frost away to see down the long wavy road in the distance. But the snow got higher…and higher…and higher. With increasing anxiety they realized they had not seen a car in hours. The road had become impassible. Night came; then morning, another night and another morning. The baby was growing weaker.

Finally, as the exhausted family held vigil they heard a great rumbling sound. “It’s a plow! It’s a plow!” the children yelled. My grandmother and her five children held their breath as they squinted to see the large plow lumbering up the road in their direction. It inched closer, cascading mountains of snow into the air on either side. “There’s something behind it,” someone said. Closer and closer it came until everyone shrieked with joy and surprise. Like a chugging caboose the doctor’s car was following closely behind the plow! For how long and for how many miles had he steadfastly followed that plow to come to the aid of the baby he’d delivered just two months before? Not one of those six children would be lost on his watch. Those were his children; and so he felt about every child he’d brought into the world or for who he’d been hastily summoned when injury or illness threatened.

Under his care, the baby rallied quickly back to health. It was such an emotional event as to be retold by the children many times over the years. In fact, whenever the memory of some great family calamity was recounted, it always ended the same way: “Thank God for Dr. Simpson.”

There may have been others doctors, but like most towns across America, there was generally only one who the people trusted.

Dr. Simpson came to the house when my mother’s brother Richard was complaining of stomach pains after a family picnic on Labor Day. After a short examination, he scooped up the 12 year-old in his arms and carefully laid him in the backseat of his car and took him to the hospital. Time was of the essence as he rushed the boy in for emergency surgery; his appendix had already burst. Miraculously he lived and returned home less than two weeks later to celebrate his 13th birthday.

When my mother’s 10 year-old brother Maurice tore his leg open while sledding, family members rushed him to the hospital. It was Dr. Simpson who stopped the blood loss and put 22 stitches in his thigh; a scar that served as a lifelong reminder of the family doctor’s seemingly endless heroic efforts.

The doctor carried a bag that contained a stethoscope, thermometer, and other various instruments, including the most common medicines he might need to dispense.

Sometimes, the prescribed medicines were things we might scoff at today. When my mother’s two year-old niece had fever and couldn’t eat, the doctor prescribed a teaspoon of orange juice every two hours until she felt like eating. She recuperated quickly.

Of course, the doctor wasn’t limited to adults. When my grandmother broke her finger so badly it was pointing the opposite direction, Dr. Simpson came to the house to repair it. He called my grandfather home from work, put my grandmother under anesthesia on the couch, and used his strong hands to put the finger back in place.

If you wanted to visit the doctor, you went to his house. Like most doctors, he had a room set aside for receiving patients. His walls were filled with pictures of all the children he’d delivered; my mother and her five siblings were there. In addition to his desk, the room was teeming with books and glass bottles. From those glass bottles, the doctor retrieved his prescribed medicines, sealing pills or powder in a little white envelope with instructions handwritten on the outside.

He performed all of his surgeries at the hospital; a hospital built at the turn of the century and whose doors remained open until they were closed forever during the Obama administration.

While history has tales of country doctors accepting chickens and other odd forms of payment for their services, most small town doctors were amply compensated for their work. Most of all, they were generally happy – feeling themselves an intricate and needed part of their community.

If there was a doctor who was not skilled, had a poor bedside manner, or was not trusted by the community, he did not thrive as a doctor. If only we could say the same thing today.

There were no laptops; no practice management software. There wasn’t a different doctor every visit who had to review your medical history in less than five minutes, examine you quicker than a Valvoline oil change, then prescribe treatment with the assumption and hope that you fell into the same medical case model he’d learned in school. There were no doctors stopping to read their Tweets while pretending to listen to your ailments. While advances in medicine have saved millions of lives, it’s incontrovertible that in those dim years past, we left behind something of what it meant – not only to be a doctor – but to be healed.

(1), Faces of America, The Curtis Publishing Co., 1982

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