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29 April, 2009


A week or so ago I asked a friend about the health of his elderly father who lives in a small town on the northern shores of Lake Erie. He said his father was holding his own, still living in the family home with his wife, but requiring regular visits from community health care workers and a doctor "who still makes house calls".

That reference to "house calls" got me thinking about small town doctors and how much the practice has changed over the years. I was reminded of a story told by Damon Runyon about a Doc Brackett who served the community of his youth.

You didn't have to make an appointment two months in advance to see Doc Brackett. He would get up in the middle of the night and ride 20 miles to doctor a sick woman, or child, or a farmer with an injury. His office was located over a clothing store and was always filled with people. A sign at the foot of the narrow stairs read: "Dr. Brackett, office, upstairs."

The good doctor was a bachelor. Apparently he was once supposed to marry a young maiden, but on the day of the wedding he was called into the country to attend to a gravely ill Mexican child. Many hours later when he got back to the church, his bride-to-be was not to be. For more than 40 years the sick of the town climbed up and down those creaking stairs to Doc Brackett's office. He never turned away anyone and that included the down-and-out of the community. He was rarely paid for his services.

He liked to have the odd drink of whisky and he was a regular at the poker table in the back room of a local saloon when he was not seeing patients in his office or making house calls. He lived into his seventies and one day just keeled over on the sofa in his office and died. Runyon said that Doc Brackett had one of the biggest funerals ever seen in the town. There was even talk about raising money to put a proper tombstone on his grave as a memorial but the matter dragged on and nothing was done about it.

The town's undertaker noticed some time later that a memorial had suddenly appeared over the grave, complete with an epitaph. Further investigation revealed that the Mexican parents of the child Doc Brackett saved years before had been concerned about him not having a tombstone. They had no money themselves, so they took the sign from the front of the stairs at Doc's old office and stuck it in the ground over his grave. It still read: "DR. BRACKETT, OFFICE, UPSTAIRS."
We had three doctors in my small hometown of Dresden back in the 1930s and 40s. Practices were not closed in those days and I remember seeing Drs. Payne, Ruttle and McAlpine for various reasons when I was growing up. It was always my mother's call as to which doctor I would see. Dr. Ruttle and Dr. McAlpine had offices in their homes while Dr. Payne had a separate downtown office and was the only one of the three to have a nurse/receptionist working with him.
Dr. Payne treated my father after a stroke but just happened to be on a well-deserved vacation when my dad took a turn for the worst and fell into a coma. My mother called Dr. (Jack) Ruttle and he was in our home within 10 minutes, giving my father an injection of some kind.
Almost miraculously, my father rallied ever so briefly and if he said it once, he said it a hundred times during the balance of that day, "Good old Doc Ruttle -- he saved my life!" Sadly, he passed away 48 hours later. Out of respect, I recently told old friend Jim Ruttle about the day his dad "saved" my dad's life, for a while.
Drs. Ruttle, Payne and McAlpine long ago joined Runyon's Doc Brackett in a clinic with "OFFICES UPSTAIRS". God bless them!

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