COLUMN: A country doctor can also be young and restless

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William O'Flaherty remembers having to compete with soap operas during house calls

On the north shore of Conception Bay North, back in the years when I grew up there, and, later when I came back to set up a country medical practice, a doctor was regarded as next to useless if he didn’t do house calls.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

The area was, then as now, populated to a large degree by the elderly, some of whom, in the time I was there, never saw the inside of my office waiting room, many of them being too frail, especially during the winter, to travel to Western Bay. On top of that, at that time, very few people had motor vehicles, and transportation to the clinic was often provided by a kind-hearted neighbour lucky enough to have a car.

So I provided a house call service. Indeed, half of my day was dedicated to doing that. If truth be known, I enjoyed my afternoons, when I did the calls, moreso than the mornings, when I looked after the patients in the clinic.

Mind you, there were difficulties involved. Early on, the highway was a gravel road, often festooned with potholes, and a menace to the car tires used at that time. Travel in winter was often quite difficult, especially during the blizzards that frequent the area, during which, without fail, somebody became ill and I was called out, sometimes several times.

All in all, though, I look back on that time with nostalgia. Many of the patients lived alone, and, sometimes, my visit was the only one to them that day. Since men (husbands) leave this vale of tears often before their wives do, many of the “house call patients” were widowed elderly females, often suffering from multiple afflictions.

If they lived alone, I visited them frequently — once-per-month and, usually, more often. There were times, on a particular visit, when I found the patient stable, and needing no change in medication, or otherwise; in that situation, I would suggest that the time period between visits could be widened. Invariably, that statement would cause significant objections; the patient obviously valued the calls and wanted no change.

I have mentioned some of the problems associated with delivery of medical care in the home setting: the bad roads, the winter storms, etc.; another of the problems encountered, albeit minor, was the “Soaps.”

The Soaps? Yes, the Soaps.

Bear with me a minute, please.

Many of the elderly patients had television sets and spent a great deal of their afternoon watching soap operas. Unfortunately, the very time that a particularly exciting part of the “story’’ (as it was often referred to) was occurring, who should appear on the scene but the doctor. Now, without a doubt, I was welcome, but my ministrations, blood pressure checking, advice about medications, was "disturbing" her story. Mind you, I could have taken temporary leave, but in the next call down the road-a-ways the same scenario would have taken place.

This happened so many times that even though I tried to avoid watching the TV screen, I couldn’t help but get to recognize, albeit superficially, some of the characters in the dramas. For instance, there was one personality named Victor (pronounced “Victaaarrr” by everybody) who would put Humphrey Bogart to shame. He was one suave dude, debonair, sophisticated, and always in control.

Ah, but by about as much as Victor was admired, another character, in another soap, was despised: a woman by the name of Iris, a flirt whom you wouldn’t want to live next door, if you had your druthers; certainly if you were a young woman with a passing handsome husband you wouldn’t have this Iris type in for supper unless your man was gone to the seal fishery, or in to the lumber woods, in the Badger area, perhaps.

These characters appeared to enthrall many of my elderly patients, and some young ones, too, as we shall see.

One incident will illustrate how interesting house calls can be.

I arrive at a house on The Ridge, a part of Gull Island, to visit an elderly widow. She lives alone, but has grandchildren all around, and so she is rarely “alone.” On the TV she has one of the soaps booming away (she has a hearing problem), and she frowns a little when I enter the door.

I want to check her blood pressure and her medication, and get out of there, since she doesn’t have anything acute. It is 3:45 in the afternoon, and, just as I am about to leave — to the lady’s satisfaction — a school bus stops outside the door and discharges a bunch of children. At that moment, out of the corner of my eye, I notice on the TV screen a female on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance. I hesitate, gathering my equipment, when in through the door, in a great rush, barges a 10-year-old girl, backpack still attached, completely ignores her grandmother and me, rushes forward, eyes glued to the TV screen and shouts out, to nobody in particular, “My Jesus, that's no Iris, is it?"

I learned, then, that the soaps had an audience well beyond the elderly sitting at home, alone.

I have a relative who, when asked what he would like to be, in another life, replied that he wanted to come back as my sister’s pampered cat. On hearing that I was asked the same question. “Another Wilder Penfield,” I replied. “But if I can’t have that, then I wouldn’t turn down suave, debonair and always in control: VICTOR."

— William O'Flaherty worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Geographic location: Western Bay, Badger, Gull Island Newfoundland New Brunswick Conception Bay Long Beach Northern Bay Moncton

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  • Sharon
    June 02, 2014 - 18:30

    I so remember Dr O'Flaherty making many, many house calls to my parents house. During the last three weeks of my Fathers life, he visited my Dad three times every day , administering morphine shots to help make him more comfortable during his last days. Dr. O'Flaherty was my parents' God, for sure. They worshipped him.

  • Jamie O'Flaherty
    June 02, 2014 - 14:56

    Wonderful story. I remember in high school, ALL the girls, and some of my buddies as well, would spend the minutes we had in the morning before classes started discussing what they were up to on the stories.