Litchfield County Sketches
By Newell Meeker Calhoun
Litchfield County University Club
The Country Doctor
IT would be an open question as to which occupied the first place in the affections of the people of a country town, the minister or the doctor. The lawyer would not have to be considered, for few of the smaller towns had one, and for the most part had little use for one. The doctor, however, was indispensable. Sooner or later he found his way into almost every home. This particular doctor belonged to the whole southern tier of towns in our county. He rode a circuit of twenty miles or more. If you wanted him you would first go to his house, and then if he was not at home, as was usually the case, and the call was an urgent one, you would find where he was going, how long he had been away, and start out to run him down. He was often gone a day and a night, and sometimes two whole days, from home. On such long trips he used to put up where night overtook him, unless there were pressing calls farther on. He often spent the night at my father’s house. I can see him now, rotund and jolly, his ruddy, weather-beaten face wreathed with smiles, with a kind word on his lips for all, especially the children. Often as he met us returning from school he would stop and greet us with the cheery “Hello, hub!” “Hello, sis !“ At such times he used to ask us to gather for him some of the different kinds of medicinal herbs which he used in his practice, rewarding us with pennies, greatly prized by our childish souls. His horse always had a weary look, and the carriage was bespattered with mud. He was accustomed to take out from under the seat a large medicine chest, to pat the children on the head, and follow them unannounced into the farm house kitchen. The mother was ordinarily the sick one, and lie would enter the bedroom, sit down by the bed, look at the tongue, feel of the pulse, and tell a story. The story was as necessary a part of his medical practice as anything else. One of his patients said to him once, “Oh, doctor, I believe you would tell a story if I were dying.” The reply was, “My dear madam, you are not dying,” and then he would laugh and tell another story. “I was sent for,” he said, “the other night to go in great haste to see a man who, his friends said, was very sick. I went, and found that he had been overeating, and told him that the best medicine for him was fasting and prayer. Then he would double up with laughter. He was a man withal of tender sympathies, eager to help his patients, but knowing all the time that their minds needed to be turned away from themselves. The story was not told for the sake of telling it so much as for the sake of the remedial effect which he had observed from that special kind of medication. He appreciated, too, the fact that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” and so tried to light up the faces of those who watched beside the sick. Our country doctor was the foe of gloom and pessimism, and his coming into the sickroom was like the turning of the ocean’s tide, and the bringing with its turning a strong salt breeze, full of the ozone of the wind-swept and water-kissed waves. He knew that medicines needed cooperating influences, and just so far as he could he set all these in motion by his presence and his words of hope and cheer.
This doctor was, of course, his own apothecary and carried his drug store with him. Coming from the sickroom, he would open that wonderful medicine chest, joke with the children who crowded around, and begin the task of picking out the remedies which were wanted. As memory recalls, few of the bottles were labelled, or the packages containing herbs or drugs. He would take out the cork, tip the bottle to his tongue, taste, shake his head and try again. Of the powders he would make trial in the same way until he found one which pleased him. Then he would mix up his doses, bitter concoctions oftentimes, every dose of which made one desire to get well as soon as possible; large, generous pills, which would go down only after several brave attempts, all mixed and made right before your eyes. These powders, pills and potions somehow were efficacious, although so disagreeable. I have always thought that the doctor’s presence, his jolly good cheer, his hearty assurance, “Oh, I will fix you up something that will do you good!" did more than the medicines themselves. Here again it was “the man behind the gun” that was the needful thing. People had wonderful confidence in him, believed in him implicitly, took his medicines faithfully, and usually did get better.
Our doctor did not always practise what he preached, for he was accustomed to inveigh against green tea and warn his patients not to drink it. It was bad, he told them, for the stomach, for the nerves and for the liver. At a neighbor’s he was asked if he would have some dandelion coffee, which he was always prescribing for other people, but he declined in favor of the green tea, which she had in the steaming teapot by her side. You could not expect, however, that doctors would take all of the medicine which they prescribed for other people!
This country doctor made no distinction between the rich and the poor, those who would pay him and those who would not. He visited all alike, and in all probability never collected half the bills due him. He took what came to him in money or in produce—wood, hay or oats—and went his way. He died not so very long ago, mourned by all the countryside. They had lost not only their beloved family doctor, but a friend as well. He was the ideal Good. Samaritan. He never passed by on the other side. His own ease, convenience or pleasure did not enter into the question, and it is doubtful whether he ever consulted them. The man who needed him was the one whom he wished to see. He went to him cheerfully, and poured into his wounds the oil and the wine which represented the best he had to give. He bore him on heart and mind back into the land of health. If need be, he spent his own money in caring for him. Winter’s snows, Spring mud and freshets, Summer heat, were all the same to him. Out of his warm bed in the dead of Winter he would get and travel across country through unbroken snowdrifts. to quiet some sick child or minister to the poor mother, and do it uncomplainingly—yea, cheerfully.
It was a hard life, harder than that of most men, not to say doctors. But there must have been much satisfaction in it. To be the instrument of relieving suffering men and women of pain, to see them creeping slowly back to the land of health again, to make a hearty, strong child out of a sickly baby—these were the things that were worth while. Our country doctor had his reward in more ways than one. He was an instrument in the hands of the Heavenly Father as much as was the minister who looked after the souls of the people. All his practice was the cooperation with those vital forces back of which was the Lord of life and of infinite love. Prayer had its place, and one country doctor bore witness that he never gave medicine without a prayer for guidance, and that it might be efficacious. Medicines, these good old family physicians believed, had their place in the Divine economy with food and drink and air, God having made them all to be used for the physical wellbeing of mankind. Hence the doctor had a right to think of himself as one of the Lord’s servants.
Then, too, he had his reward in the out of doors life which he lived. The sunrises and sunsets were his; his the moonlit nights and the stormy, dark ones. His the thunderstorms by which he was often overtaken along lonely, roads. At such times he had those marvellous flashlight pictures such as the lightning alone can give, in which mountain, lake and stream were for a moment seen in all their beauty, to be followed in a heartbeat by black darkness. All the changes of the seasons, the melting of the ‘Winter’s snow and the coming of the first Spring flowers and song birds had been welcomed by him. The flaming hillsides, the golden tints of Autumn, the mellow days of Indian Summer had all passed before his eyes year by year as he went on his long drives to the bedside of the sick. The feathered folk along the highways, the squirrels following the rail fences, the little children whom lie came to know so well, were all his friends, and he loved them all. The business man, methodical to a moment in his going and coming from store or factory, sees very little of the day as a whole, or the year as a whole. He is safely housed from storms, and rarely sees the sun rise on a Summer morning. Nature does not give to him her heart as she does to the man who is familiar with all her changing moods and seasons. The country doctor becomes acquainted with her through the days and the nights spent in her open courts, and she tells him all her secrets.
The history of one life is the history of many in our county. These unselfish, heroic men who went about doing good deserve to be remembered. And they are appreciated when they are gone, and kindly words are spoken concerning them. Would it not be well to remember them with words of appreciation and thankfulness while they are vet among the living whom they have helped? The words of Jamie Soutar, in “A Doctor of the Old School,” by Ian Maclaren, come back to us forcefully: “‘But wae’s me’—and Jamie broke down utterly behind a fir tree, so tender a thing is a cynic’s heart—’that fouk ‘ill tak a man’s best wark a’ his days withoot a word an’ no do him honour till he dees. Oh, if they had only githered like this juist aince when he was livin’, an’ lat him see he hedna laboured in vain! His reward lies come ower late, ower late.’
These unselfish physicians who remain among us, who ride over these hills and up and down these valle S in all sorts of weather on their errands of mercy, are worthy of our loving praise, for they exemplify that ideal set forth so beautifully by the Great Physician when He said that He came not to be ministered unto but to minister.
“Greater love hath rio man than this, that a man lay clown his life for his friends.”
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