An Expensive Gall Bladder

My dad was one of the last of the generation of G.P.’s (General Practitioners), who treated almost every medical problem that was presented to them. In addition to treating with medications, 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 30 years previously, when a large oil field was discovered, and overnight a few of the fortunate landowners became millionaires. My dad had only 3 or perhaps 4 patients who were so financially blessed by this boom. One couple, Mr. and Mrs. HPS who had become wealthy with oil royalties, were faithful patients and also good friends with Pop. They had done so well financially, that he had founded an oil production company, which was managed by his family. Mr. HP 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 certain things on which the couple splurged however; and according to one of Pop’s nurses, Mr. HP once bought his wife a red Cadillac, and even had a chauffeur drive her wherever she needed to go.

During one painful period for Mrs. S, 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, and she continued having problems despite trying most of the available medications for gastric disorders. Pop and Mr. HP agreed that a consultation at the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota was indicated. She was seen and treated there by a large team of well-qualified physicians, and seemed to be improving initially, but then had a relapse several weeks later.

Pop told both of them that he was confident her problem was not in her stomach, but was a diseased gall bladder, and an operation was the only solution to her puzzling situation. They assured him that they trusted his wisdom and skill, and saw no need to return to the Mayo Clinic for an operation, since they couldn’t seem to discover her diagnosis. 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 6 weeks to gain back her strength, but gladly reported that she was free from the terrible pain, and “felt better than she had in a long time.” On her final post-operative visit, Mr. HP 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 that generation, because so very few people had medical insurance, most struggled greatly to pay their medical bills, even though the charges were very low 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 $250.00. Pop said to Mr. HP, “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 that they couldn’t diagnose her problem at the Mayo Clinic.” Mr. HP 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. HP, I’ve decided to charge you 500 dollars! As he began writing out the check for that doubled fee, Mr. HP said, “Dr. Berry, you could have said 5,000 dollars and we would have thought we got a good deal.” Years later, Pop confided in me that at the moment when he heard what Mr. HP said, he wished that he had said 5000 instead of 500! He then quickly said, “Oh well, it’s just money.”

Dr. John

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