For the past couple of months I’ve been recovering from pneumonia. During my convalescence, I remembered a young doctor from Germany I’d met when walking in the Sierra. He worked for the government and made house calls as part of his practice, including making the rounds of the elderly. He did not see the sense of the hassle falling on ailing older people.
“Why should an older patient who’s been ill have to make the effort to see the doctor?” he said. A doctor, he added, learns a lot about a patient when he sees him in his own home.
I remember doctors making house calls in the mid-1930s when I was a boy of eight. I was feverish with a streptococcus infection. When Dr. Harris, a cheerless man, came up the steps to my house in a suburb of Boston, smelling of formaldehyde, I recoiled. He must have thought I was asleep for I remember his telling my father, “I don’t give this boy a plug nickel’s chance.”
Under my breath, I swore to myself, I’d show him. I’d make him eat his words.” Of course, it was the doctor and the new sulfa drugs that saved me.
In those days when doctors made house calls you heard less about hospitals. The Lady Friend recalls that when she was a child in North Dakota, Dr. Gaebe came to the house and helped her mother put her in a bath tub. “I must have been really sick,” she said. “Today I’d be in the hospital.” The nearest hospital then and now is 30 miles away in Bismarck.
During my hospital stay, my room was divided by a curtain. A fellow whom I could not see because of the partition was in terrible pain, pleading for morphine. I don’t know if he was ever helped but his cries kept me awake. I begged to be moved. However, the nurses said all the beds were occupied. I slept poorly.
After a hospital stay of five days, and a week at home I got ready to see my doctor. The most ordinary preparations were a climb — shaving, showering, getting into fresh clothes, then making my way with the aid of a walker to the car and getting in, with the Lady Friend at the wheel. We were fifteen minutes early for the appointment. Not unexpectedly we sat in the doctor’s waiting room, crowded with sick people, for two hours before we were called.
My doctor is a fine physician, and much admired, but like so many in his profession he is caught up in the madness that characterizes much of health care in the America of today. I worry about him.
As for the German doctor who made house calls, I’ve not seen him since but he’s given me a lot to think about.
This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.