The Lost Art of House Calls

House Call Tools

House Call Tools

I was born into the third generation of Dr. Moore’s in South Arkansas, and from my earliest recollection the subject of most 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 as GP’s or family doctors. This was prior to the era of medical specialization, and GP’s treated all types of medical problems from birth to the grave. They delivered babies, treated childhood diseases, treated heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, among many other conditions. When there was need for an operation they often did the procedure. In the latter part of his career my dad was asked if he were a specialist, to which he responded, “Yes, I specialize in the skin and its contents!”

Early on I was fascinated with most of the “doctor talk” I heard at home. My Dad (Pop)  made medical house calls, so our phone rang constantly. The calls were seldom for me, but I frequently answered hoping one of my buddies was calling to invite me to join in some type of game. When I happened to answer a patient’s call they occasionally would voice their complaints to me, and I tried to be a sympathetic listener. It didn’t take long to recognize the voice of some of the frequent callers, and I knew the nature of their complaints even before they voiced them.

Pop was a dedicated servant to the people of our hometown. When anyone called for him to come to their home for a medical problem he would go, usually without complaint. Emergency Room visits then were less frequent than now, probably because much fewer people had medical insurance then. 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 he would frequently slip his trousers over his pajama bottoms so when he returned home, the time necessary to get back in bed was shortened!

As a young boy I occasionally 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. Going with him on calls gave us great times together. Mom wouldn’t allow me to go if the hour was later than eight pm, so I could get to bed at a respectable hour. I loved spending time with Pop, because I got to hear his exciting “doctor stories.” In addition he allowed me to carry his large, black medical bag which was heavy and contained numerous “mystery items.” An added benefit was some of the patients called me “Little Doc.” I loved having the 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 plentiful and 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 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 asked, “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 Coral Gables 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 the brother of my patient. This is 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 the garden. Pop said this man, who was responsible for so much crime and so many deaths, couldn’t have treated him any nicer during that house call. Al had recently been in federal prison, and was out briefly on parole to visit his sister who had been quite ill.

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

With the advent of fully-staffed emergency rooms and greater availability of health insurance the necessity for medical house calls vanished from the scene. Pop continued this part of his practice until he departed this life, because he knew he was providing a needed service for his patients who couldn’t afford an expensive ER visit. He was 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.

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