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The Physician

Dr. William B. Applegate

For the first 6 years of my life, my family lived in an apartment above the office of one our small town’s three general practitioners. Since I was asthmatic as a child, I was a frequent visitor to his office to receive epinephrine shots for asthma exacerbations. I hated those shots, but I came to love the physician. He was gruff, did not speak a lot, but was genuinely kind and dignified. He wore three-piece suits in the office every day and looked exactly like some of the classic paintings of famous physicians attending to patients at their bedside. I have an old photo of Osler at the bedside in my office today; the resemblance to the physician of my youth is uncanny.

From an early age, I was filled with wonder at the magical things that happened in the physician’s office below our apartment. One time my mother seemed to be in some prolonged pain so my father came home and took her downstairs to the physician’s office. Not long after they returned upstairs, and magically, they brought my new baby sister with them. My father was a traveling salesman, and the evenings he was out I would spend time with the physician at the end of the day. I was given roaming and inspection rights to his office and marveled at his stethoscopes and sphygmomanometers. I never went close to the needles and syringes in my roaming, I was already all too familiar with them.

My bed was just above the front door of the office and I would often slip out to the landing of the stairs outside our apartment where I had a very clear view into the physician’s area for vital signs and simple examinations. Late at night there were often knocks on the front door of the office and soon the physician would appear. Since my bed was so strategically placed, I was often out on the landing before the physician actually arrived. Over time I grew to think of myself as the physician’s junior partner. I kept watch over the late night patients until he arrived. On one particular evening, I watched as the physician attended to a large man with a breathing problem. As the physician attended to the large man, his wife began to cry. I will never forget what happened next. The wife said, sobbing, “he did not want to come in tonight because we already owe you so much money”. “Nonsense” the physician replied, “the only thing that would ever upset me is if you did not bring him in when he needs my care”.

Eventually, our family moved to a house some blocks away. However, the physician continued to play a big role in our family life. There were frequent house calls when I had an asthma exacerbation and I had to face the dreaded needle and syringe again. One evening when my father was traveling I was awakened by my mother literally screaming my name. I could see that she was bleeding and I immediately called my partner, the physician. He arrived very soon afterward and half walked, half carried my mother to his car. As they left our house he called out over his shoulder, “Bill, call your father and let him know that I have your mother and she will be fine”. It was a few years later before I understood that this statement was mainly meant to reassure me, since the physician always had my father’s travel schedule and contact information.

Not long afterwards, I fell ill and the physician diagnosed polio. My parents, understandably, were distraught. Upon hearing the diagnosis, they immediately called for the priest who administered the “last rites”. I had enough Catholic education by this time to understand that the situation was grave. The next day the physician stopped by for a visit and sat next to me and felt my pulse for the longest time. He said little, but as I watched my partner’s eyes, I had the clear feeling that he was thinking that my parents and the priest had over-reacted with the “last rites”. He never spoke this, but to this day I remember the immense sense of relief that flooded my brain. The physician did not think his junior partner was in any terrible danger. This communication was entirely nonverbal.

Once a year, the physician would go on a 2-week vacation. When he was out of town, there were several times when my mother took me to one of the other 2 doctors’ offices for the dreaded shots. On several occasions, I remarked to my mother about the absence of black people in the other doctors’ waiting rooms. Whenever I hung out in the physician’s waiting room, there was always a combination of black and white. My mother would respond to these questions: “Well, black people know who the best doctor really is and they will just wait for his return”. With great love and respect for my Mom, I never bought that one. The physician was dedicated to bringing care to all sectors of our society, regardless of race.  The physician was also in charge of the local health department. Since one of my mother’s favorite cousins was the chief public health nurse, I frequently was able to see the important work of the physician and the health department first hand. The range of services there was broad—from what I now know were pre-natal visits to immunizations. In addition, anyone could come in for general health care to see the physician or the public health nurses. At the health department no one was ever charged for any visit.

To me, this story speaks volumes about the values of medicine and its importance in the daily lives of us humans. Whenever I think of the physician I always remember the day the physician took my pulse and I realized I was not going to die. Whenever I have taught medical students or housestaff in clinical situations I always insist that they take the patient’s pulse on every encounter, and look into the patient’s eyes as they do so. Which brings me to the greatest lesson I ever learned from the physician: However sophisticated our inventions and interventions are in medicine, the relationships between health care professionals and their patients is even more important to heal the body and calm the soul.

The collegiality and mutual support we all give each other in our Medical Center is a thing we need to cherish and nurture every day we come to work here. There are so many truly capable and compassionate doctors, nurses and other health care professionals here that it makes me proud to be a part of all we do. I would like to personally thank and honor Billy Rice who made my original diagnosis and comforted me in one of my darkest hours. I would also like to thank and honor Bayard Powell who led my care and led me back to health. These two doctors (among many others here) are great physicians whose care and empathy support so many of us when in sickness and in health.

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Last Updated: 03-03-2016
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