The Value Of A Quarter

QuarterI am old enough to remember when a quarter was a lot of money. In the late 1940’s when I was a young boy, for a dime I could buy a ticket to a Roy Rogers’ movie at the Majestic Theater in El Dorado. When I reached age 12 I had to shell out the exorbitant price of a quarter for that same movie. A piece of Fleer’s Double-Bubble gum was a penny and one could get a Payday and a Dr. Pepper for a nickel each. Some mighty pleasurable things could be bought for a quarter. My friend and medical colleague Dr. George Burton taught me his evaluation of the worth of a quarter, but that lesson came in the 1970’s when I was a relatively young physician.

Dr. Burton was 25 years my senior and had been in practice in El Dorado as a radiologist for 24 years when I began my practice in 1971. He had the reputation of being eccentric and opinionated but ahead of the times in terms of x-ray technology. For years El Dorado had only one hospital, Warner Brown Hospital which was operated by the Sisters of Mercy, but there was growing discontent in the community with the services provided. Along with a handful of physicians, he helped establish the Union County Medical Center in the mid 1960’s. A bond issue had to be passed, and this small group of doctors were cutting across the grain of the vast majority of the medical community, and they were not popular with the other doctors. At least 90% of the doctors had placed an article in the El Dorado News-Times opposing the building of a second hospital, but the vote of the public was overwhelmingly in favor of building. By the time I began my practice, both hospitals were operating to capacity, and Dr. Burton was the head of the Radiology Department at the new facility. He wouldn’t even consider a staff position at Warner Brown.

Despite the fact that George’s professional life was strong and growing, his personal life was not ideal. After more than 25 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced over irreconcilable differences. George lived alone in the large house in which they raised their 3 children who were then grown, and to say that he didn’t maintain it well is like saying that the sun doesn’t rise in the evening. He seldom had guests and even when he did, he didn’t spend much time tidying up. One of his hobbies was building airplanes, and he told me he assembled his latest plane in the living room. When he finally had to attach the wings, he was forced to move the assembly line to his back yard! I once helped him assemble a grandfather clock at his home, and prior to beginning the project, he dumped all 1000 pieces out of the their boxes onto the floor of that living room. According to him he was more comfortable working there. We had a lot of fun working on that clock, and when it was finished, he gave it to me. Cathy and I had that clock in the entryway of our home on North Madison, and when we moved to Florida we gave it to our son John Aaron.

George’s economic lesson to me was taught early one morning in the cafeteria of the hospital. Dr. David Yocum and I were having breakfast prior to our scheduled operation later in the morning. Dr. Burton came through the line, placed the food items he desired on his tray and was standing at the cashier’s station to pay his bill. He seemed to be slower than usual trying to get the proper change from his front pocket, but I attributed that to the fact that he was not fully awake. From his overall demeanor, he appeared to have awakened within the previous 30 minutes. As he fumbled in his pocket, a coin fell to the floor and rolled around a number of times coming to rest within 3 or 4 feet of George. Everyone in the cafeteria, including George heard the rattling sound. He paid his bill and without looking down at the coin sat down at our table.

I stood, walked over to pick up the coin, which was a quarter and gave it to George. He thanked me and started eating his breakfast. I said, “I’m just thankful to have breakfast with a man who is so wealthy that when he drops a quarter on the floor he doesn’t even bother to pick it up!” Without looking up George responded, “I learned about a year ago that I don’t pick up anything less than a dollar. It’s too expensive.” “Help me understand that George”, I said. “Last year I dropped a nickel on the floor, and when I stooped to get it, I ripped the seat out of my britches. It cost me a dollar and a quarter to have them stitched up. I was out a dollar and twenty cents, so now I don’t bend over for less than a dollar; it cost me too much!” According to Burton economics, a quarter wasn’t worth so much as a stoop or even a squat. Now when I see a quarter on the floor I wonder if it is worth the risk of retrieving it. I suppose it is my Scottish heritage that compels me to pick up any coin and especially a quarter.

Dr. John

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My Ride in a Hearse

1967 hearseCathy and I were married shortly after I began my surgical residency at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in 1965. In addition to the stress of the many hours of training required to become a surgeon of excellence, Cathy and I were trying to adjust to the usual changes that occur in the lives of newly weds. Our premarital training with a mature married couple was non-existent, and there was very little resource material available then to assist young couples in dealing with common marital issues. There was certainly no training that could have prepared us for dealing with a major medical illness.

As an important part of my surgical training, the doctors in the LSU surgical program were “farmed out” from the main Charity Hospital in New Orleans to the smaller Charity Hospitals in Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana. I selected the hospital in Lake Charles because the residents that preceded me had said that I would do more surgical cases there. That was all the advice that I needed!

Following a year of experience at the main hospital, Cathy and I moved to Lake Charles for a 3 month stint beginning in June 1966. There were small apartments available on the hospital grounds, and that made it very nice and convenient for me to get back and forth to work and to take the usual emergency room call. Although our apartment had very few amenities; at that stage Cathy and I had not developed expensive tastes and were more than happy, and especially the fact that it was provided at no cost to us. We still had to pay for our New Orleans apartment to which we would return when our term in Lake Charles was over.

After I had been working about 3 weeks in this new location, I began experiencing flu-like symptoms. I had a low-grade temperature and generalized aches in my muscles particularly in the upper body. I took a day off from work, but because our operative schedule was full of procedures that needed to be done, I returned to work still feeling poorly. For the next week I noted the increasing symptom of extreme tiredness. At the end of each day I would be exhausted, and would go to the apartment in the early evening and go to bed. After sleeping 8-10 hours, which was very unusual for me, I would awaken rested; but after 10 to 15 minutes in the OR, I would be so tired I had to call for a chair to sit down! In a day or so I knew I needed to be seen by a physician, and Cathy and I went to a local internist in Lake Charles. He immediately asked me, ” How long have you been jaundiced?” When I carefully looked in the mirror at my eyes, I was deeply jaundiced! As a physician trained to look for such things, I didn’t even notice the color change in myself. He told me I had to be hospitalized, and because we only had hospital insurance with the Charity Hospital system, I had to be admitted there instead of a local private hospital. The internist at that hospital was not a favorite of mine since he had some issues with alcohol abuse several years earlier while in a private practice setting, and he had a rather eccentric personality. I had no choice; he was my only option.

As a surgeon in training, I was particularly susceptible to needle sticks from other personnel in the OR who were also in training, and not as careful with instrument exchange as more experienced professionals. Procedures done deep in body cavities with multiple hands in narrow spaces can be hazardous to the operating surgeon. I was diagnosed with serum hepatitis probably from a needle stick, and my laboratory tests related to liver function were getting worse each day. I became so sick and nauseated, that even the smell of food was repulsive. As a physician I knew that if my condition continued deteriorating complete liver failure was a certainty, and that would result in death. Cathy was very frightened, and I suppose I was too sick to be scared. Cathy called my Mom in El Dorado to come to Lake Charles to help her make some important decisions. My dad (Pop) had died earlier that year from heart failure so Mom was dealing with her own issues of adjustment.

On the evening that Mom arrived at the hospital, I distinctly remember the dietary department of the hospital in an effort to encourage me to eat, had just sent me a huge plate of red beans and rice. Cajuns believe that a meal like this will cure anyone of any illness! Normally I like that dish, but this time I gagged at the sight of it. Mom said, “That’s it, Cathy. We’re taking him to El Dorado.” The doctor happened to come into the room at the time and told her, “You can’t move him from this hospital,” to which she responded, “You just watch me!” If I hadn’t been so ill, I would have laughed out loud.

When Mom called the ambulance company in El Dorado that night, she was told they would send their best and most comfortable vehicle the next morning. When the driver arrived, he was in a brand new Cadillac hearse! It didn’t matter to me, because I was headed home and if I didn’t make it, at least Cathy and I would be with family and friends in familiar surroundings. The only vehicle we had taken to Lake Charles was my 1964 red Corvair Monza convertible with a stick shift, and Cathy didn’t know how to drive a car with standard transmission. She had gotten a crash course from one of the doctors the previous night in the hospital parking lot.

Cathy’s trip by herself in our convertible was not only frightening but also frustrating. It seems the windshield wipers quit working for some unknown reason, and she had to drive through a rain storm. Praise God that He protected her and she made the 5 hour drive with no accident. My driver was polite and gracious but inexperienced as a limo driver. Within minutes of beginning the trip, the air conditioner failed and this was late July in South Louisiana! In addition, after 2 hours of enduring the sweltering heat in the rear of the hearse, the driver allowed the vehicle to run out of gas!. This sounds like a horror movie in the making. We had to wait for about 45 minutes before help arrived with gasoline for us to continue, and thankfully the remainder of the journey was trouble-free!

There is a lot more to the story, but I did begin improving in the El Dorado hospital, and Cathy and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary the day after I was discharged. I forgot to get her flowers or even a card and blamed it on my weakened condition, which was a very weak and pitiful excuse. She loved me in spite of my forgetfulness and provided things I was not even aware during that scary time. For certain we grew a little more mature while learning to handle adversity, and I haven’t forgotten any more anniversaries! We were not believers at the time, and I don’t recall one prayer I offered for Cathy or for myself. But God was faithful and merciful, knowing that in a few years we would both turn our lives over to Him in repentance. As a result my next and final ride in a hearse will be a victorious one!

Dr. John