My Dad (Pop) was a family doctor in a generation of physicians far removed from the present doctors. He learned many of his doctoring skills from his Dad, Dr. J.A. Moore who was a family doctor in South Arkansas from 1898 until his death in 1943. Medical technology in the first half of the 20th century did not advance as rapidly as it did in the second half. The success of a medical practitioner was dependent on his interpersonal relational skills, and his ability to make an accurate diagnosis with only a few diagnostic tools for help. CAT scans and PET scans were unheard of, and even x-rays were not as widely used as now. Listening carefully to a patient’s complaints was paramount and required unusual patience. When I entered medical school I remember Pop telling me, “Listen to what your patient is saying without interrupting much, and more often than not, they will tell you their diagnosis.” He emphasized the critical importance of observation and the necessity of careful palpation while not overlooking the sense of smell. He said, “I can smell a person and diagnosis kidney failure without running one lab test!” I later discovered what he meant when I began treating people with renal failure.
Pop never had an unlisted telephone number. There are few if any current physicians who do not have unlisted numbers. He said he wanted his patients to be able to find him when they needed help, and that made an impression on me. I never had an unlisted number in the forty-six years I practiced medicine. It made an impression on Bubba also, because he practiced family medicine for 54 years and his home phone was always listed. He would get twice as many medical calls at home as me, and I asked him once if he ever thought about an unlisted number, and he said the same thing as Pop; “I don’t want a patient who needs me to be unable to call for help.”
Pop had certain patients who called on the telephone at least once per day. Some called more than once. This was long before the invention of cellular phones, so he was contacted either on his office phone or on our home phone. The frequent callers to our home recognized my voice when I answered and would call me by name. Likewise, I could recognize many of them them before they identified themselves and asked to speak to Dr. Moore. One of those regular callers was Mrs. Turner (not her real name), and her calls were regular and predictable.
Mrs. Turner knew our family always had our evening meal together at approximately 6 PM. Pop was so busy and would leave for work so early each morning the evening meal was the only time we were all together. It was not uncommon for him to go back to the hospital or make a house call following supper. When the phone rang in the evenings usually my sister, Marilyn or I would answer hoping it was one of our friends calling. Most of our friends knew not to call around 6 PM because that was meal time. When Mrs. Turner made her evening call Pop would usually be the one to answer.
On this particular evening at precisely 6 PM the phone rang and Pop answered. Mom, Marilyn and I were seated at the table along with Pop, and our meal had already begun. By the tone of his voice and the words spoken I could tell it was Mrs. Turner. He spoke to her in a kind and patient voice, and whatever he said seemed to resolve her particular problem that evening. When he hung up the receiver I just couldn’t resist saying what I had thought for a long time but had never spoken out loud for our family to hear. “I can’t believe Mrs. Turner continues to call us at 6 every night knowing we are eating, and she is disturbing our meal.” I continued with my indignant commentary by saying, “I doubt she has ever had anything really wrong other than being a needy, grouchy person!”
With my last words Pop held up his hand without speaking, and I knew this was his signal for me to be quiet and listen. He said, “I want you to know Mrs. Turner has put clothes on your back, food on our table and kept you in school. Whatever problems she may have, I don’t want you talking about her any more.” All I dared say was, “Yes sir.” There was dead silence at the table when Pop said, “Now let’s continue our meal.”
As a result of Mrs. Turner’s call that particular evening I learned several important lessons, some of which I applied when I began my own medical practice. First it was not my concern nor my right to comment on a person’s medical condition unless I had first hand knowledge of their problem. Those comments could then be discussed privately with the person or one of their immediate family members or another health care professional involved in their care. My personal opinions concerning the validity of a person’s complaints must be kept to myself. Probably the most important lesson Pop (and Mrs. Turner) taught me that night was I needed to listen more and speak less. (James 1:19) I later met Mrs. Turner when I accompanied Pop on a house call, and she was very polite to me and glad I had come with Pop to see her. I was never able to tell her how she helped me become a more compassionate doctor in the years ahead.