Thursday, November, 17, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Uncle Howard, country doctor: Part 2

My grandmother was a sabbatarian of the strictest order, and it gave her great pain that my uncle opened his clinic on Sunday mornings. I have an idea it was his busiest day. Certainly after those Saturday nights, he must have been tired — but after a busy morning he would come home for Sunday lunch with my visiting family — my cousin and I having attended Sunday school at the little Methodist Church in the center of town. (Children in those days walked or rode their bicycles everywhere.)

It was not until I was grown and living in Holly Springs that I realized it was not “sin” that caused my uncle to open his office on Sundays. Rather it was that those farm laborers would have been docked for their time off, had they come in for medical attention during the regular work week. Because the planters kept the Sabbath, they had an opportunity to seek help — and so what my uncle did was a mission of mercy. If the rich and powerful had provided better working conditions for their employees, my uncle could have kept the Sabbath also.

Of course there were quaint aspects as well. Uncle Howard was sometimes paid in turnip greens and with strings of fresh-caught bass, bream and crappie. As I recall, he rather liked this kind of remuneration!

The clinic itself was both a forbidding and fascinating place. It had that distinctive “doctor’s office” aroma — reminiscent of rubbing alcohol — always applied with a piece of cotton before those shots that children feared. (I was given these as the last act of our family visits, and so always said a prayer as we got ready to leave that the adults would forget about any “boosters” that might be called for. The one compensation was that when the school nurse would come to our classroom, I would always be “exempt” owing to the thoughtfulness of my uncle in providing my shots down in Louise.)

Polio was real and dreaded in those days. Uncle Howard was not convinced that the vaccine that one took with a sugar cube was effective. He insisted on the shots. Along with his adherence to the more painful astringents for cuts and other minor abrasions, I was imbued rather young with a belief — still present now — that medical treatments are not effective unless painful.

The clinic had two waiting rooms — one entered through the front door for whites, and another, entered by way of a gravel alley, for blacks. There was a set of swinging “saloon” style doors in the hallway that ran through the center of the building to make sure members of the two races did not encounter one another.

Louise had a third race, the Chinese, who ran several stores on the main street. After some indecision, the white rulers of the Delta decided the Chinese would be treated as white, and I suppose they sat in the front waiting room.

This waiting room had big red leather covered chairs in chromium-tubular style along with — amazingly now — big platform type ash trays that stood on pillars going down to the floor.

Everybody smoked. My uncle was one of the first to ban tobacco. The sign he posted on the front door announcing this must have caused quite a stir.

After my uncle’s nurse, Ora Dee, left for California, my aunt Eleanor went to work as his assistant. The two of them ran the office for years. My uncle delivered babies by the light of coal oil lamps, sat by the bedside of patients too ill with pneumonia to be moved to the hospitals that were many miles away, and if there were ambulances (I remember none), their equipment was but a pallet in the back of the funeral director’s hearse.

All of this changed when Medicaid was enacted in the 1960s. My uncle chose to move on and spent the rest of his career as a college physician, with colleagues, well-equipped infirmaries, and regular hours, and best of all a regular salary and benefits. He deserved the respite.

For years the old clinic in Louise stood empty and fell into disrepair. But on a recent pass through town, I was delighted to see that once again it houses a medical clinic. Let us not forget the sacrifices that those early physicians made to bring health care to the small towns and rural places of Mississippi.

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