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 I could buy a ticket for a dime to a Roy Rogers’ movie at the Majestic Theater in El Dorado. When I reached the ripe age of twelve I had to shell out the exorbitant price of a quarter for that same movie. One piece of Fleer’s Double-Bubble gum was a penny, and one could get a Payday candy bar and a Dr. Pepper for a nickel each. Some mighty pleasurable things could be purchased 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 El Dorado.

Dr. Burton was twenty-five years my senior and had been in practice in El Dorado as a radiologist for twenty-four years when I began my practice in 1971. He had the reputation for being eccentric and opinionated but far 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 they provided. Along with a small handful of physicians he helped establish the Union County Medical Center in the mid 1960’s. The hospital is now known as The Medical Center of South Arkansas. 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 these men were not very popular with the other doctors. Approximately ninety per cent 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 George’s professional life was strong and growing, his personal life was less than ideal. After more than twenty-five years of marriage he and his wife divorced because of irreconcilable differences. George lived alone in the large house in which they raised their now grown three children, and to say he didn’t maintain it neatly is a gross understatement. He seldom had guests and 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 one thousand small and large pieces out of the their boxes onto the floor of this same 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 placed the 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 was taught to me 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 correct change from his front pocket, but I attributed it to the fact he was sleepy and not fully awake. From his overall appearance it looked as if he had only been out of bed for ten minutes or less. As he fumbled in his pocket a coin fell to the floor and rolled around a number of times coming to rest within three or four feet of George. Everyone in the cafeteria including George heard the rattling sound. He paid his bill and without looking down for the coin came to our table and sat down.

I stood and 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 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 I don’t pick up anything less than a dollar. It’s too expensive.” “Help me understand it 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 is too expensive!” According to Burton’s current 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 which compels me to take the risk and pick up any coin and especially a quarter.

Dr. John

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 which occur in the lives of newly-weds. Our premarital training with a mature married couple never happened, and there was very little resource material available then to assist young couples in dealing with common marital issues. There was certainly no training which 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 I would do more surgical cases there. That was all of the encouragement I needed.

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

After I had been working about three 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 which needed to be done I returned to work still feeling poorly. For the next week I had 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 for eight to ten hours, which was very unusual for me I would awaken rested. Within ten to fifteen minutes in the OR I would feel so tired I had to call for a chair to sit down. Within another day or so I knew I needed to be seen by a physician. Cathy and I went to a local internist in Lake Charles and he immediately asked me, ” How long have you been jaundiced?” When I looked into the mirror at his office at my eyes I was deeply jaundiced. As a physician trained to look for such things I had not even noticed 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 Charity Hospital was not a favorite of mine, because he had issues with alcohol abuse several years earlier while in a private practice setting. He had a rather eccentric personality, but I had no other choice but him.

As a surgeon in training I was particularly susceptible to needle sticks from other personnel in the OR who were also in training. Procedures done deep within body cavities with multiple hands in narrow spaces can be hazardous to the operating surgeon as well as the other personnel.

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 if my condition continued deteriorating complete liver failure was a certainty and would result in my 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 the same year from heart failure, so Mom was dealing with her own issues of life adjustment.

On the evening Mom arrived at the hospital I distinctly remember the dietary department had just sent me a huge plate of red beans and rice to encourage me to eat more nutritious food. Cajuns believe a meal like this will cure anyone of any illness. Normally I like this 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 not in an ambulance but 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 driven 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 in driving it 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 for her 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 He protected her, and she made the five 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 two 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 forty-five minutes before help arrived with gasoline for us to continue. Thankfully the remainder of the journey was trouble-free, and I arrived at Union Medical Center hot and exhausted but alive. There is a lot more to the story, but I did begin improving in the El Dorado hospital. I remained hospitalized for four days and worried more about my hospital bill than I did about my health and recovery.

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  weak and pitiful excuse. She loved me in spite of my forgetfulness and provided things I was not even aware during such a scary time. For certain we grew 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 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