Remembrance of “Slow Drag”

Acide "Slow Drag" Pavageau

Acide “Slow Drag” Pavageau

For over one hundred and seventy-five years Charity Hospital of New Orleans was one of the premier hospitals in the country. Free medical care was provided there for any resident in the New Orleans area who couldn’t afford care in a private hospital. In addition Charity Hospital was the primary teaching hospital for LSU  and Tulane Medical Schools. Pop took his post-graduate training there in the mid 1930’s, and because he told me so many stories of his experiences  I set my sights on also training at Charity Hospital.

I began my surgical residency in 1965 the month before Cathy and I were married, and we spent the next four years living in New Orleans. I was thrilled to have been accepted into the LSU Surgical program, and although we are both loyal Razorback fans, the LSU program was much better suited to me than Tulane. We had to tolerate a considerable amount of ribbing from loyal LSU fans, but I suppose we dispensed about as much competitive guff as we received!

In any residency training the younger surgeons are given progressively more authority and opportunities as their judgement and surgical experience increases. By the time one enters the third year of training he becomes the primary surgeon on a surgical ward which consisted of about twenty-five patients. As a senior resident (third and fourth year) he does the more complicated procedures such as gall bladder and cancer surgery and delegates the less complicated procedures such as hernia repairs and amputations to the junior residents (first and second year). Because Charity Hospital served both the LSU and Tulane Medical schools patients who were designated as emergency admissions were admitted to the LSU service every other night. This system of emergency admissions worked well most of the time, but there were a few instances when the system broke down. If a patient had an undesirable problem, or if he was a particularly undesirable person the emergency physician on the Tulane service might give that individual some medications to temporarily help and say to him, “Be sure to return tomorrow so we can see if you are making progress.” I always considered the LSU admitting doctors to be more compassionate and did not “slough patients” as this practice was called.

When I was in the middle of my third year a particular patient with a tumor in his stomach was admitted to my ward. His name caught my attention because he had a distinct Cajun name, Alcide Pavageau. Because  Mr. Pavageau had suffered a twenty-five pound weight loss over the previous several months the diagnosis was likely cancer of the stomach. Following appropriate pre-operative testing he needed an operation as soon as it was safe. He was a kindly looking Black American with gray hair and had a quiet and humble personality. His conversation was well-seasoned with “yas sir, naw sir, please and thank you” which attracted me greatly to his sweet spirit. He was scheduled for an operation within a week of admission, and as the operating surgeon I indeed found a large cancer in his stomach which I successfully removed and reconnected his alimentary tract.

On the afternoon of his operation I received a page from the hospital operator, and she had a physician from Minneapolis on the phone who wanted to speak with me. I knew no doctors in Minneapolis and was curious why he specifically asked for me so I took the call. After he identified himself he asked if I was the surgeon who operated on “Slow Drag” and just how was he doing. I told him I was not aware of any patient named Slow Drag. He said this was the nickname everyone called Alcide Pavageau. I said I was indeed the correct surgeon, and I gave him the information he desired thinking he was a friend of Slow Drag. He said he only knew him by reputation and had heard him play on just a few occasions. He told me Slow Drag was one of the most famous bass players of Dixieland music, and was so great he was in the Dixieland Music Hall of Fame. Alcide had never told me about his musical expertise, nor did he say his nickname was Slow Drag.

Slow Drag had played with some of the most famous Dixieland bands in the country and in his latter years played in the Preservation Hall in the French Quarters. I loved going there, and on several occasions Cathy and I would sit and listen because it was free and the atmosphere was like a large jam session. On one occasion I was challenged to join the band on a number and briefly played the banjo for my one and only Dixieland gig. I don’t believe Slow Drag was there that evening, at least I didn’t remember him.

When Slow Drag began recovering from his operation we had many opportunities to discuss his music and career which was fascinating. He had a family member bring some photos of his playing and several of the bands with which he had played through the years. I should have gotten his autograph but wasn’t thinking about that sort of thing then. I lost contact with Alcide but read he had lived about one more year before dying with advanced metastatic cancer. I regret I never inquired about his spiritual condition and where he believed he would spend eternity. I was not a believer and such things were not important to me then. As kind and sweet as he was I believe he must have known Jesus Christ as his Savior.

Fifteen years later after Cathy and I had moved to El Dorado the Preservation Hall Band from New Orleans was on tour and played a one night concert there which we attended at the Municipal auditorium. I didn’t recognize any of the names on the program but several faces looked familiar. When the concert was over I decided to go back stage and inquire if any of them remembered Slow Drag. The trombone player who was called “Frog” approached me and asked, “May I help you?” I said, “I want to thank you all for such a good concert. Do you remember Slow Drag because I was his doctor who operated on him fifteen years ago?” He hollered to all the band members, ” Come meet this man. He was Slow Drag’s doctor!” For at least ten minutes I reminisced with them what a wonderful man and musician ole’ Slow Drag had been. It was a sweet time, and I was thankful to the Lord I had known him. Since those days in New Orleans both Cathy and I have become Christians, and  I believe I will see Slow Drag again in heaven. Perhaps I’ll get to play in another Dixieland gig with him!

Dr. John

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