An Expensive Gall Bladder

A Gall Bladder

My Dad (Pop) was one of the last of the generation of G.P.’s (General Practitioners), who treated almost every medical problem presented to them. In addition to treating medical conditions he also performed surgery on the patients who were in need of a particular procedure. Except in an emergency situation he didn’t do neurosurgery or cardiac surgery since both of these specialties were in their infancy. Someone once asked him if he was a specialist to which he remarked, “Why yes, I specialize in the skin and its’ contents!” Because he had additional training in surgery at Charity Hospital in New Orleans he enjoyed and became very proficient doing some very complicated operations. One of his colleagues in training was Dr. Michael DeBakey, who became world-famous as a pioneer in cardiac and cardiovascular surgery.

Most of Pop’s patients were ordinary, hard-working people with average incomes. The local area had experienced an economic boom thirty years previously when a large oil field was discovered, and overnight a few of the fortunate landowners became millionaires. My Dad had only three or four patients who were so financially blessed by the boom. One couple  who had become wealthy with oil royalties were faithful patients and also good friends with Pop. The husband had done so well financially he had founded an oil production company, which was managed by his family. Mr. HPS had farmed all of his adult life until this windfall, and he continued wearing bib overalls except when he went to church. To those in the area who didn’t know him he was generally not recognized as a wealthy man. There were a few things on which the couple splurged however; and according to one of Pop’s nurses Mr. HPS once bought his wife a red Cadillac and had a chauffeur drive her wherever she needed to go.

During one prolonged period for Mrs. HPS she experienced debilitating abdominal discomfort which fortunately was intermittent but continued for months. There was not the availability of sophisticated diagnostic tools in the 1950’s, so many illnesses were treated symptomatically. This method of treatment was generally effective, but in her case it didn’t work. She continued having pain and symptoms despite trying most of the available medications for abdominal disorders. Pop and Mr. HPS agreed a consultation at the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota was indicated. She was seen and treated with medications by a large team of well-qualified physicians, and she seemed to be improving initially but had a relapse several weeks later. She had not been advised to have an operation.

Pop told both of them he was confident her problem was not in her stomach, but was a diseased gall bladder. In his opinion an operation was the only solution to her puzzling situation. They assured Pop they trusted his wisdom and skill and saw no need to return to the Mayo Clinic for an operation. They had failed to correctly diagnose her problem and Pop was capable of doing the needed work. The operation was successful in removing the diseased organ and accompanying gall stones, and she healed her wound quickly with no complications. It took her about six weeks to gain back her strength, but gladly reported she was free from the terrible pain and “felt better than she had in a long time.” On her final post-operative visit, Mr. HPS sat in Pop’s office and as he took out his check book he said, “Dr. Berry, let’s get settled up on your bill.”

In this generation because so few people had medical insurance many struggled greatly to pay their medical bills. The surgical charges were very low then by today’s standards. In some instances wealthy people were charged a little more than the usual and customary fees, in order to balance the large number who were not able to pay anything. The usual and customary physician fee for gall bladder surgery in those days was two hundred and fifty dollars. Pop said to Mr. HPS, “I have thought and prayed for a long time what would be the proper fee for your wife’s operation. You and I both know they couldn’t diagnose her problem at the Mayo Clinic.” Mr. HPS said, “You saved us a whole lot of money by not sending us back up there, and we want to pay whatever you say.” Pop was still hesitating and perhaps feeling a little guilty when he slowly said, “Mr. HPS I’ve decided to charge you five hundred dollars!” As he began writing out the check for that doubled fee Mr. HP said, “Dr. Berry, you could have said five thousand dollars and we would have thought we got a good deal.” Years later Pop confided in me at the moment when he heard what Mr. HP said, he wished that he had said five thousand instead of five hundred! He quickly said, “Oh well, it’s just money.”

Dr. John

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