Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: My friend, the doctor |

Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: My friend, the doctor

I was six years old and in the first grade. In the 1950s that meant it was time to have your tonsils removed. Dad sent me down the street to Doc Martin’s home/office, for a pre-surgery checkup. I didn’t think anything of it, going to his office by myself. He was a grandfatherly man that I saw every day around town, and he would stop and talk to me when we met at the post office. He looked in my mouth that day, asked me to say “aah”, then told me what would happen the next day at the hospital in Pierre. I would be in a room with several other boys my age, and when it was my time they would take me to a room, help my lay down on a table, give me a mask to wear, and then I would go to sleep. When I woke up, my tonsils would be gone, and the nurse would bring ice cream for everyone in the room. That didn’t sound too bad, and I liked vanilla ice cream.

That wasn’t quite the way it went. The room was full of boys, all in funny gowns, and the nurses did come to get me and wheel me into a cold, white room where they helped me onto a narrow table. They covered me with a warm blanket then put a cone-shaped wire mask over my nose and mouth and told me to start counting backwards from 100. As soon as I started counting, a terrible smelling odor filled the mask, but I was asleep by the time I had counted to 96.

When I woke up I was back in my room. The first waking thought was, “my throat is on fire!”. I tried to swallow, and pain shot up and down my throat and into my ears. I tried to yell or cry, but it hurt too much. What a cruel trick Doc had played on me! Mom sat by my bed for the rest of the day, and Dad stayed nearby during the night. By the next morning, I was ready to go home. The folks gave me a new baseball glove and bat for being such a ‘brave boy’, and I laid on the backseat of the car on the way home, moaning in pain every time I swallowed or tried to talk. Even though I could barely swallow water, I wanted to know how come I didn’t get any ice cream in the hospital! A few days later I saw Doc Martin in his office, and after he examined me, he patted me on the head and gave me a dime. “Go to the drugstore and get a big ice cream cone”, he said. He was my friend again.

Years later, when my mom was old and sick, she went to her personal doctor that she and Dad had gone to for many years. She didn’t feel well, was unsteady on her feet, and depressed because of the state of things in her life. The doctor seemed to become exasperated with her and said that she wasn’t going to get any better. He told her to accept it, she was old, and ended the visit. I was fuming as I helped Mom to the car. When I got back to my office, I called a good friend who was a doctor, explained my mom’s situation and asked if he would take her on as a patient. I told him she didn’t expect to be made well but longed for someone to talk to who would understand how she was feeling about her life at the moment. He said he would visit with her and then determine whether he could help. He went to her room in the retirement home, pulled a chair up in front of Mom and began a conversation about her life, her growing up in Florida, getting married and living in South Dakota. He told her his grandmother was from the South, and as he talked about her, he slipped into a southern accent, causing my mom to giggle and then laugh at his ability to entertain her. After she was tired of laughing with him so much, he checked her vitals, went over her medications, then promised he would be back to see her soon. He never talked to her that day about being old. He talked with her and became her friend. He continued to visit with her regularly until she passed away many months later.

I have the utmost respect for the knowledge, training and dedication that doctors have. They have saved my life several times, literally. I have gotten to know more than my share of great doctors. Besides the training and dedication, what makes them great in my judgement is the compassion, the concern they exhibit for their patient. Being empathetic is a great healing tool, in some cases the most effective and the most needed. I salute those doctors that have learned to treat the mind and spirit of a patient with understanding and empathy along with using their skill and knowledge to treat the body. May we all be so lucky to have a doctor we can call “friend”.


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