Friday, January 21, 2011

Stories from the Clippings

"Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire".

This was Dr. Malcom Heath quoting Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes as he addressed a local high school graduating class. And surely Dr. Heath's heart had been touched by fire. He was a daring and dedicated doctor who served the more than 3,000 residents of Washington's 170 San Juan Islands.

The residents of San Juan County raised $30,000 to build Dr. Heath a clinic in Friday Harbor that rivaled modern hospitals in the State's more populated mainland cities. But like the physicians of old, Dr. Heath was also a home-visit doctor. He piloted his own plane, landing on small strips built specifically for the purpose of accomodating his plane.

The county's people were through with settling for the idea that country living meant spotty and inadequate medical care. Groups, such as the Lions, Kiwanis Clubs, Chambers of Commerce and the American Legion Posts, were active in seeking competent physicians. It dawned on them that in order to draw qualified physicians, it was necessary to provide adequate facilities. And that they did.

Dr. Heath did not let the weather or geography prevent him from reaching patients and even flying them to the hospital in nearby Bellingham (only by plane is it near). The nature of the weather, which is often, cloudy, foggy and rainy, the geography of small hilly islands, the flora and fauna and the tides were not insurmountable obstacles to the good doctor.

"Sometimes when it's foggy and overcast, I miss all day long. The other day the weather came right down to the deck, and I could hardly see at all. In the morning I got a call from a nearby island. It's got a 2,000-foot cow pasture for the landing. If you come in from the north you have to come through fir trees on a cove, jump a fence, miss a knoll and then you are down. If you come in from the south you have to worry about wires.

I got down all right. I had to suture a laceration on the face of a man who had been kicked by a cow. Then I got a call from Eastsound on Orcas. The fog was thick, and I was going in one hole and out another, coming out around these hills for a second, trying to figure out the coastline. On landing I found that a boy had suffered a compound fracture of the fibula and evulsion of tissues when he fell off the back of a tractor and into the harrow. I stopped his bleeding and was going to fly him to Bellingham when I got a call from Friday Harbor that a guy building a dock had suffered a severe laceration when a cable snapped, and I had to get someone else to fly the boy to Bellingham."

At the time of this interview, the doctor was making about 250 flights a year with most of them taking 20-30 minutes.

And so it is that the rural communities need doctors and better facilites and in order for that to happen they need to help themselves. Perhaps doctors no longer arrive by horse and buggy or in an old Model-T with their offices in small black bags; but the fact remains that rural communities still need the home-visit doctor. It was said by
one country doctor that, "this help to a physician for the community he serves, is a familiar pattern in the whole Northwest".

And it takes a certain kind of doctor, who's heart has been touched by fire, to serve the rural communities of the Pacific Northwest.

1 comment:

Karen Peterson said...

FYI: The year of this article was 1953