I hope this note finds you well.
Sometimes along the way we take a detour; unexpected, unplanned but necessary nonetheless. Recently, Annette and I were headed to Blacksburg, Virginia to visit our son and daughter-in-law. As we drove across eastern Tennessee we decided to take a diversion up into the Cumberland Mountains to a little place called Jellico, Tennessee.
Forty-five years ago I had finished my freshman year of medical school and was working for the Appalachian Health Project in the small town of Jellico. My time was divided almost equally between working with Dr. Charles Prater, the only physician for miles around, and a group of federally sponsored Public Health Nurses.
The time with the public health nurses was spent going from one remote hollow (pronounced holler or holla) to another. A hollow is a small valley between two mountain ridges, often with a single road that dead ends at a small cabin or series of cabins. With me in tow, the nurses negotiated with the patriarch of the family to examine and immunize the children, check the privy (if they had one) and the water supply. Trust was an invaluable commodity that had to be earned usually with the multiple visits.
The rest of my time was spent with Dr. Charles Prater in Jellico. The doctor and his wife were wonderful people with a strong missionary spirit. They had adopted seven mixed race children and both of them worked around the clock.
On our recent visit to Jellico very little had changed about the town including Dr. Prater’s office. He retired in the mid-eighties and his office/hospital was now the site of a small firm that made surgical hose for burn patients. After obtaining permission from the owners, we toured the building. Much of the building were pretty well as I remembered.
The old surgical table and the large overhead light were still arranged much as they were on a particular hot day in July of 1970. I was downstairs preparing a patient for him to see when the nurse told me that Dr. Prater needed my help upstairs in the surgical suite. When I stuck my head in the surgery room, he asked, “Do you know how to do a surgical scrub?” That was one of the few things I did know how to do. “Yes, Sir,” I replied. “Well, I need your help. Suit up,” he said as he began draping the patient.
It seems that an old woman in her eighties from way back in the hills around White Oak Mountain had been hiding the fact that she had breast cancer from family for several years but the pain and the bleeding had served to uncover the ruse from her daughter. The daughter had forced her to come to the doctor. Dr. Prater told them that the only option was to send her to Knoxville for surgery and treatment.
The old woman would have nothing of it and told him that she trusted him and whatever he could do would be enough. He explained that he could remove the tumor and give her some pain relief but that was about all.
Out of necessity, the good doctor had become a deft surgeon and the procedure didn’t take more than thirty minutes. My job was to stand there and hold the retractor or clamp when he needed a third hand.
When we were through, we went downstairs to talk to the daughter. “She will get some pain relief for a few months. Do you think you can get her to stay for a couple of days to make sure she doesn’t start bleeding?” The daughter nodded. “I’ll try,” she said.
I don’t know what the impact of that surgery was on the lady’s life but I suspect that it was positive; it probably made her last
days more pleasant. I do know what the impact of that summer was on me. I learned important lessons in trust and caring. I learned that there would be times in the practice of medicine when you might not end following the textbook and that was okay.
Have a good journey.
Dr. Sam Taggart is a retired doctor/ writer/ marathon runner in practice in Benton for the last 35 years. He recently published The Public’s Health: A narrative history of health and disease in Arkansas, published by the Arkansas Times. His two other books, With a Heavy Heart and We All Hear Voices are available at your local booksellers or online at Amazon.com.