Lessons from a Small Town: Healthcare
Birth: November 10, 1952
Location: Nathan Littauer Hospital, Gloversville, NY.
Weight: 6lbs. 13ozs.
Medical cost: $72.95.
My Mom said mine was an uneventful birth. When my impending arrival whispered to her, Dad drove Mom in their two-door sedan 29 miles from Ames to the hospital. He parked the car and escorted her to the maternity ward. Then he walked around the corner to a neighborhood bar and hung out with a drink to wait for the news of my birth—just like he did with my older sister and for his two subsequent daughters. Mom and Dad had a routine.
During my childhood years, my sisters and I relied upon Dr. Mom for our minor healthcare needs.
Home Healthcare Procedures
The long picnic-style kitchen table was our medical center. Dr. Mom lanced my blisters. She took a thin needle from her sewing box and sterilized it with the flame of a wooden match. Then she punctured the flesh bubble with the scorched metal. I was amused when clear puss squirted like a tiny geyser and sprayed all over the place mats.
Dr. Mom squeezed warm olive oil from a blue glass medicine dropper to soothe an occasional ear ache. Afterwards she stuffed my ear canal with cotton. I slept on the other side all night and let the trapped goo do its magic.
Once, when Dr. Mom’s mom was visiting from Connecticut, she pitched in with a home remedy of her own. Dr. Nana pressed a kerosene-saturated cotton ball to the top of my tiny hand. She secured it with a Band-Aid. After repeating the process daily for a week, the gnarly wart turned black and fell off. I guess it was good that I did not try smoking until later on in life. The fumes certainly would have ignited as I slept. Instead, my sheets smelled like an old campsite until the next laundry day.
There were two possible ways to miss school. Vomit or register a fever.
Once in desperation, when I could not produce the liquid prerequisite, I held the mercury thermometer too long on an incandescent light bulb on my nightstand for a higher reading. The trapped mercury shot up though the glass tube like a laser beam and exploded out the top. Silver droplets rained down on my pillow. I quickly offered an excuse of a misguided vigorous tap on the table’s edge. With the family thermometer out of commission, Dr. Mom caved and allowed me to stay home. I smugly slid back down under my covers. But I needed to pull my pillow over my head to drown out the cries of foul from my three siblings who had to go to school that day.
Ah, a sick day!
A sick day meant I was treated to a lunch of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, saltine crackers, Canada Dry ginger ale and Jell-O. Propped up by pillow mountains in my parent’s bed, I snuggled under Nana’s handmade quilt. Dr. Mom balanced a metal tray on my lap with my food. For a few hours I enjoyed daytime TV on their small black and white set while slurping salty noodles. I loved the sob stories on Queen for a Day and giggled at the games on Art Linkletter’s House Party. For days afterwards I practiced saying funny things like the television boys and girls on his show in case I was ever called upon to be in his segment Kids Say the Darndest Things.
I was required to nap in the afternoon. On the way to my bedroom, while Dr. Mom took the lunch tray back to the kitchen, I snagged one of our Golden Encyclopedia books from the hall bookshelf and hid it under my twin bed. When Dr. Mom retreated downstairs, I enjoyed some quiet time learning about spiders and cockroaches. I wasn’t tired.
Sick days were few and far between. I cherished each one. The individual attention made me feel special.
Dr. Joseph Herman Isenstead.
Otsego Street Canajoharie, NY
University of Berlin Graduate 1915.
The rare trip to the doctor’s office was reserved for my annual physical exam. My stomach did flips two days before that visit. Next to my sisters, my flimsy body bounced around like a rag doll in the back seat of our station wagon on the ride to his office. At least I didn’t wet my pants like I did before a dental visit. One time I left a round stain on a low wooden can goods shelf at the A&P while I nervously waited for Mom to check-out before my appointment for a silver filling. Our dentist, Dr. Gluck, had an office above the grocery store. I maintained the mark was from an open jar of pickles.
Dr. Isenstead’s office was located in the back of his home in Canajoharie. Once we arrived, Mom opened the thick wooden door to his office. A funny odor poured out. I don’t mean the good kind of funny. It smelled like the three-day-old dead mouse in our cellar whose head was snapped in a trap while nibbling cheese. The aroma stuck in my nostril and made me feel dizzy as I slowly walked across the checkered linoleum floor to the row of metal folding chairs awaiting patients.
Wide glass jars stuffed with cotton balls obediently lined up on the nearby counter. Tips of scary stainless steel instruments taunted me from their metal trays. Rolls of gauze looked like mini-toilet paper rolls that would be perfect for my Betsy Wetsy doll. Strange vials of liquids with long names were locked in a glass cabinet. The whole room whispered scenes from the Dr. Frankenstein movie that I saw on the Million Dollar Movie TV show.
Tufts of course black hair poked out from the inside of Dr. Isenstead’s ears mimicking misplaced cat whiskers. He spit when he talked. His bald head was shiny and bumpy like a ripe honey-dew melon.
Who allowed this guy to put out his shingle in our area?
As a distraction while I waited my turn on the cold metal chair, I silently practiced the familiar eye test. An oil cloth chart with a giant black letter E hung on the far wall. Pressing tightly on one eyelid with my index finger, I silently recited the letters with the vision of the other eye. I had to wait until the focus came back in my squished eye before I checked that one. I successfully read down to the next to last row on both eyes.
In the beginning, Dr. Isenstead asked us to take turns stepping up on the scale. I did not move a muscle once I got on the flat platform. He flipped the square hanging metal weights along the bar like the butcher did when a rump roast was on the tray at the A&P. It took many years before my physician was able to start with the thicker 50lb weight for me.
Then each one of us stood against the wall in front of a long wooden measuring stick. Dr. Isenstead leaned in to read the exact number through his thick wire rimmed glasses and then wrote down the results with a fountain pen on a cardboard chart. I held my breath and shut my eyes when his bow tie came too close to my face. I didn’t like how his warm sausage breath pushed back the bangs on my forehead.
Next was the hearing test. Individually my sisters and I stood at one side of the room while the doctor faced us at the opposite end. He whispered something that we were supposed to repeat. Between his tangled German accent and the distraction of my giggling sisters seated along the wall, I struggled to interpret his message. I am lucky I didn’t walk out with a hearing aid at age six!
“Now, who vants to be first?” The final, dreaded question came at the end of our exam.
My sisters and I looked down at our shoes in silence.
“Vell, I guess ve vill go in order,” he concluded.
He sat down on his stool and turned towards the medicine cabinet. The worn black leather seat looked like a giant insect with four curved legs. The thick casters on each prong allowed him to spin and roll towards his victims with ease. When he twirled around, the legs of his dark pin-striped dress pants spread apart like the wings of a vulture and he zoomed in towards his prey. With a fully loaded hypodermic needle held high in his right hand and an alcohol saturated cotton ball in the other, he scooted in for the strike.
Oh no! The shot!
He had already attacked my older sister and I was next in chronological order. My skinny exposed arm trembled. I was sure the giant needle would go right through my flesh and come out the other side as he hit the plunger. My only defense was to look away and blink back the tears.
“See that vas not soo-oo bad,” he said in a weak attempt of humor. I was not amused. I took the offered lollipop anyway. My mother prompted me to say thank you. But I never meant it.
On the six-mile ride home the four of us compared our punctures. I was sure mine was the deepest and poked at it to intensify its depth and redness.
I shoved the unpleasant memory of my obligatory annual visit to Dr. Isenstaed’s office deep into a drawer in my head. There it stayed locked until the next check-up.
I knew I would be a year older then. And maybe a little less scared.
Maybe he would go back to Germany by my next appointment. Where ever that was.
Dr. Isenstead made house calls too. Fortunately there were only a few.
I recall one visit. I am not sure what disease invaded our home, but each one of us was afflicted at the same time and as a result Mom was housebound in Ames. She set up a sick ward in the front living room so she would not have to keep running up and down the stairs between bedrooms.
Dr. Isenstead’s galoshes left tread marks on the shoveled flagstone walkway. A clank of the heavy brass knocker warned of his arrival. Family and friends never used the front door. Random snowflakes decorated his wool topcoat. A black fedora with a small feather in the ribbon band insulated his hairless head. His sausage breath turned white and hung in the air like the icicles above the front stoop. He clutched his black leather doctor’s bag in one hand and shook Mom’s hand with the other. He looked like a spy on a secret mission. My security was breached when he crossed over the threshold and the door shut behind him.
Trapped in my own house.
Inside his tote I observed a tangled stethoscope, a pack of wooden tongue sticks, a funny look-in-your- ear tool and other strange stuff. The bag also kidnapped the awful dead rodent odor from his office. It escaped when he unlatched the lock and now the terrible smell was roaming free in our home.
After examining each of us, small brown pills were the offered remedy for our illness. I licked mine. The taste was bitter and hung in the back of my throat like unripened fruit. Surely the tablet would make me throw-up so I hid the tiny piece under my tongue. I displayed an empty mouth when Mom checked after the doctor left. Moments later I scooped out the sticky tab when she wasn’t looking. I discovered that the slimy circle left a dark trail on the inside of my pillow case like a dirty piece of chalk. I slid the pill across the cotton. First I drew a flower and later a sunshine. Only a smidgen was left so I held my nose and swallowed it with the saliva in my mouth.
Perhaps I needed a little medicine.
Soon we all recovered and life was back to normal.
Home Healthcare resumed.
More blisters …more hot needles.
More skinned knees…more Bactine.
More sore throats…more salt water gargles.
More constipation…more stewed prunes.
Deep wooden slivers and burs in my hair were plucked out with worn tweezers.
Bee stings were soothed with Arm and Hammer baking soda paste.
Ice cubes from the aluminum ice tray wrapped in a washcloth and a plastic bread bag were applied to any aching, twisted or bruised body part.
Dr. Mom was pretty good after all.
Amazingly we all survived.
(Stay tuned for my next lesson)