Monday, March 29, 2010
THE FAMILY DOCTOR: IT'S TIME FOR A REVIVAL
As the health care debate rages on and TV pundits froth at the mouth, one thing remains clear to me:
It's time to wake up and realize what an incredibly vital resource General Practitioners are. These Family Doctors not the bad guys. They don’t make a ton of money. They work hard. They live modestly. And they’ve been screwed over by insurance companies for years. It’s no wonder most med students have chosen to specialize rather than become GPs.
I'm not a medical professional, but take this issue personally. The doctor in the photo above, calling his patients back with their results? That's my dad. The funny looking girl in velour pants standing in front of the sign for his clinic? That's me.
Whenever I had a cold as a little kid, my neighbors on Whidbey Island would say to me,
“But your dad’s a doctor!” as though this connection alone would keep the sniffles away. People trusted my father to do everything, since he was a General Practitioner. And he did. He treated Strep throat and head lice, stitched up construction men, lanced moles, and served as a friendly person to talk to for old ladies with no real complaints except loneliness.
His patients loved him like a relative, and our house would always be filled with homemade cookies, fresh vegetables from gardens, and hand knit sweaters from people who wanted to express their gratitude. I think they felt closer to him than I did. Even now when people ask if he’s a good dad, I always say, “he’s a great doctor.” I have never had the privilege of seeing a doctor with as much genuine concern as my father had for his patients. Nor have I met one so willing to explain medications, side effects or just listen as you ramble on about disturbing nightmares that rob you of sleep.
My dad didn’t practice on Whidbey Island for his entire career. His first solo practice was in the rural town of LaMoure in North Dakota. It was here that a teenaged boy was rushed into his clinic with severe head injuries from motorcycle accident. The closest hospital with proper facilities was two hours away, and he would have died. With no other options, my father performed brain surgery with a drill from the local hardware store. The boy survived, experienced no subsequent mental problems and after a few months got back on a motorcycle.
From LaMoure, North Dakota he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. These were the heady days of the late 1970’s, and he practiced in a clinic ensconced in a Waikiki hotel that looked like a cross between a bordello and a disco. It was here that he diagnosed his first AIDS patient, back when it was called GRID.
But I was far too young to understand what it meant to be a doctor until he started his practice on Whidbey Island. It was a real mom and pop business. I worked there after school sometimes, filing charts and moodily answering the phone in the front as my mother took x-rays and did lab work in the back.
I’m not going to lie. I hated being there. I hated most things when I was a teenager. But I loved his office, lined with hardback books ranging from Tropical Medicine to Somerset Maugham. On the right wall was a chalkboard where he would draw diagrams for his patients to fully explain their medical issues. The wall behind his desk showcased his degrees. There was also a hockey stick, a Lucite plaque with a hemorrhoid encased in it (a joke from the doctor who removed it from his butt a day before my Dad ran the Honolulu marathon) and pictures of me.
Doctors like my father are nearly as extinct as carhops or paying for groceries with a check. For the majority of his career, he went on house calls with a beat up leather medical bag, traveling down winding, Douglass fir-lined roads in a Chevy Blazer. As he drove, he’d blast Willie Nelson or Puccini’s La Boheme, whichever suited his mood at the time. He’d knock on the doors of cabins, trailers and mansions overlooking Puget Sound. In these diverse homes, he’d soothe allergic reactions and calm colicky babies.
Every year he gave free physicals to all the kids doing high school sports. He was also the high school football team doctor, running up and down the length of the field in a ratty trench coat, cheering the loudest of anybody for the South Whidbey Falcons, and cringing when a kid would get hurt.
He worked on the barter system when people couldn’t afford to pay. So in exchange for medical treatment he’d accept window washing, lawn mowing, fresh salmon and sock eye fish, and (since we lived in Washington State) chainsaw carved totem poles.
He was on call 24 hours a day, and many nights was awakened at 2am, 3am, or 4am to stitch someone up at his office. He’d grumble a little, pull on a sweat suit and a University of Washington Huskies cap over his balding head and head out.
He was entrenched in the community; invited to graduations, weddings and family potlucks. He truly loved his patients, and they loved him back.
All these years later, I wish I had that beat up old doctor's bag of his. It amazes me that the contents of that bag and the man who carried it used to save lives. Me, I'm not that noble. I'd use it as a fashion accessory. But no matter what side of the health care debate you're on, that bag is a symbol of a medical era that really should return to style.