The Lost Art of House Calls


House Call Tools

House Call Tools

I was born into the 3rd generation of Dr. Moore’s in South Arkansas, and from my earliest recollection, the subject of many of the conversations in our home, related in some way to the practice of medicine. My grandfather, Dr. J.A.; my dad, Dr. Berry, Sr.; and my brother, Dr. Berry, Jr. were known at that time as GP’s, which meant they were general practitioners. This was prior to the coming era of medical specialization, and GP’s treated all types of medical problems, literally from birth to the grave. They delivered babies, did pediatrics, treated heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, among many other conditions; and when there was need for an operation, they frequently performed surgery. Later in his lengthy career, my dad was asked if he were a specialist, to which he responded, “Yes, I specialize in the skin and its contents!”

From an early age I was fascinated with most of the “doctor talk” I heard at home. My dad, whom I called “Pop,” made medical house calls, so our phone rang constantly. The calls were seldom for me, but I would occasionally answer, hoping that one of my buddies was calling to invite me to join a group to play basketball or baseball, depending on the season. Whenever I happened to answer one of his patient’s calls, they occasionally would voice their complaints to me, and I tried very hard to be a sympathetic listener. It didn’t take long to recognize the voice of some of the frequent callers, and I would usually know the nature of their complaints, even before they voiced them.

I answered the phone one evening during dinner, which was always at 6 pm, and the caller was Mrs. Tanner, which was not unexpected. She always called at 6 pm when she needed help. After about 2 minutes of conversation with Pop, while the rest of us continued eating; he had resolved her issues. I then said rather angrily, “Why does Mrs. Tanner always call and interrupt our dinner?” Pop stopped me before I finished the question and said, “There will be no more talk about Mrs. Tanner!  She is helping send you to school and put clothes on your back.” He seldom rebuked me, but whenever he did, I listened and obeyed!  In later years when a patient of mine would call and interrupt a meal or an important family occasion, and I remembered that particular call from Mrs. Tanner; I would silently rejoice for the interruption.

Pop was a dedicated servant to the people of our hometown, and when anyone called for him to come to their home; he would go, usually without complaint. I recall numerous phone calls after midnight when I would sleepily awaken and hear him tell the person on the line, “I’ll be right over.” An interesting characteristic of his was that he would frequently slip his trousers over his pajama bottoms, so that when he returned home, the time necessary to get back in bed was shortened!

As a young boy, I often accompanied Pop on his house calls. Because he was so busy during the post-World War II years, I seldom got to spend much time with him, other than during those house calls. Mom wouldn’t allow me to go if the hour was later than 8 pm, so I could be in bed at a respectable hour. I loved going because in spending time with Pop, I got to hear his exciting “doctor stories,” and in addition, I always got to carry his large, heavy, black medical bag that contained so many “mystery items.” Another benefit for me was that some of the patients would call me “Little Doc.” I loved having that title until I no longer thought I was little. I especially enjoyed going with him into the rural areas since many of the farm families would have a meal prepared for “the Doctor and his helper.” Those country meals were always delicious.

One of Pop’s favorite house call stories occurred in Miami, Florida where he was attending a medical convention early in the 1940’s. He had met a Miami surgeon who asked him if he ever made house calls in south Arkansas. Pop responded that house calls were an important part of his practice, to which his new surgeon friend stated, “why don’t you go with me on this call I’m about to make? I think you’ll enjoy it.” They arrived at a very exclusive home in Palm Island and knocked on the door. The man who opened the door was introduced by the Miami surgeon by saying, “Dr. Moore, I’d like you to meet my patient, Al Capone!” While the doctor attended Al’s sister, this well-known gangster from Chicago offered my dad some refreshment, and invited him to join him on a tour of his garden. Pop told me later that this man, who was responsible for so much crime and so many deaths, couldn’t have treated him any nicer during that house call.

None of Pop’s patients at home were celebrities or nationally-known gangsters, but were ordinary folks who had a loving and caring doctor that they trusted. They knew they could depend on him to come to their aid, regardless of the time of night; and if they were unable to pay for his services, Pop would always tell them, “I’ll just put it on the books.” I’m certain that the amount of money that was “on the books” was greater than the amount he ever collected.

With the advent of fully-staffed emergency rooms, the necessity for medical house calls vanished from the scene. Pop continued that part of his practice; however, until he departed this life, because he knew he was providing a needed service for his patients that couldn’t afford an expensive ER visit. He was definitely a beloved physician, not only to his grateful patients, but to an adoring “little Doc.”

“Little” Dr. John

2 thoughts on “The Lost Art of House Calls

  1. I credit my extensive knowledge of medicine to your many phone calls that I answered. Now, as a parent I admire you so much more that you were willing to take a call at home even during mealtime. Doctors don’t truely care like that anymore. Your phone call gets routed to some answering service where you are just a voice with a complaint. Thanks for teaching me how to care about people!!

  2. I am so blessed to enjoy the friendship of your daughters, who are continuing the legacy of selfless giving. Thank you for a beautiful example of love and serving others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s