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The Legacy Of A Small Town Doctor…

The comedian Louis CK has a hilarious routine about how we live in an amazing time with incredible technology and no one is happy. He talks about how we have phones that we carry in our pocket we can pull out and call China, but we complain when the reception is bad or a text message doesn’t show up for three hours after it was sent. It’s funny and thought provoking and for those of us, who grew up in a simpler time, makes you feel a little nostalgic for a rotary phone. For those of you who have no idea of what a rotary phone is…well Google it. 

But the great thing about technology is how it can connect us. Yes sometimes we can be too connected. But other times it gives you a sense of sheer wonder at how easy it is now to communicate with one another. And to find and reconnect with people from your past.

Many of you who have listened to me speak at your school, library or conference have heard me talk about growing up in the small town of Homer, Michigan. It was and is a rural, mostly agricultural village of about 1500 people. When I was living there most of those 1500 people were relatives of some sort. Cousins four times removed and that sort of thing. I’m sure time and age have given me some rose-colored glasses when I look back on my hometown, but growing up, it seemed like the best place in the world. We had lakes and rivers and woods. There was the greatest pizza place in the universe ‘downtown’ (which is two blocks with one stoplight in the middle. Traffic could be a problem on Friday nights). It’s changed a lot since I lived there. But growing up as a kid it seemed like it had everything you needed. Gehrig’s Dime Store. The Dew Drop Inn Restaurant. Cascarelli’s Pizza. Leedle’s Hardware. Two grocery stores, two drug stores, the barbershop and so on. In those days, you just ‘went to town’ for whatever you needed.

And one of the things we had of course was the town physician, Doctor Long. I recently reconnected with a couple of his sons through Facebook. We were friends in High School and in Boy Scouts together, and I remember them both as bright, funny guys, always cracking wise and having a good time. That’s probably more a reflection on their parents than anything, but that’s not really the story. And I also learned from them that their dad ‘Doc’ Long is ill. He’s retired and in his 80’s and fighting the good fight, but he’s very sick. To me, this just can’t be. He can’t be that old and he can’t be sick. He’s Doctor Long! But as we are constantly reminded, it’s called the ‘Circle Of Life’ for a reason.

I’m sure there are Chilean Miners or Commercial Fisherman who will take issue with me, but I have to believe that being a small town doctor has got to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. The hours are long, there’s no one to ‘cover for you’. The time away from family, and all the demands of patients must take an incredible toll. But in public you would never know Doctor Long as anyone but a man who thought he had the best job in the world. He made house calls! He took produce from farmers who couldn’t pay their bills and unless I’m wrong, (and I’m never wrong ;)) most of that produce probably made its way to a local needy family or two. He stitched me up more times than I can count. (I’m sure the salesman who supplied his office with sutures has a wing of his home named after me. Then again probably not, because Dr. Long would never violate Doctor/patient confidentiality and tell the guy whom it was going through all those sutures.)

I remember one of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was. “Next time, remember there is a big difference between real parachutes and bed sheets.” I had just seen a movie on TV about the Invasion of Normandy and I thought it was cool how the 101st Airborne had parachuted behind enemy lines. The next day, wanting to play ‘Invasion of Normandy’ (we actually played outdoors and used our imagination back then) I realized I didn’t have a parachute, but a bed sheet would ‘probably’ work when I ‘parachuted’ off the garage. Six stitches to the knee later, I found out how wrong I was.

One year our Boy Scout Troop had a “Polar Bear” winter campout in February. It happened to take place during a really bad cold spell. Sub zero temperatures. I would have probably welcomed being eaten by a real polar bear because at least I would be warmer. We were freezing, but determined to tough it out. As darkness descended Dr. Long and the man who owned the local funeral parlor, who both had sons in the troop, appeared at the campsite. Dr. Long saw signs of frostbite developing on some of us and said it was time for everyone to go home. Leave the tents and just get home. So we did. We had to come back the next day and take the equipment down. Everything was frozen together. Did I mention it was cold? Years later when I discovered the meaning of ‘irony’ I always laughed that it was the Doctor AND the Undertaker who came to get us.

A few years after I graduated college, my wife and I were renovating a townhouse. Tearing up some old carpet, I scratched my finger on a rusty nail. I knew tetanus shots were good for 8-10 years and I seemed to remember getting one at Dr. Long’s office before I left for college. So to double check, I called the office. They answered, put me on hold and came back about two minutes later, and told me the date. It was six years earlier during my freshman year of college. I was okay. Can you imagine such a thing today? I hadn’t been into the office in years, but they STILL had my records. Today it would take a written request and a $15 fee and maybe you’d get the info in six weeks. One. Phone call.

When my father was first diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Long immediately sent him to the best oncologist in the area. But every appointment, every physical and every single time I ever saw him around town, without fail his first question was “How is your Dad holding up?” He never stopped caring. When my dad’s cancer recurred several years later Dr. Long had finally, deservedly, retired and turned his practice over to another fine, caring doctor who helped us through my father’s final days with great compassion. I wonder whom he learned that from?

But that was who he was. A great doctor and an even better man. The embodiment of the Hippocratic oath. He
doctored a town, raised fine sons and also somehow managed to make it through the day with a wife who suffered from a debilitating illness. I don’t know how he did it. He put everyone else first. It’s sad to think of him sick now, but his son tells me he seems at peace. My guess is if he had the chance he’d tell all of us who are thinking about him to be at peace as well.

I think the point of me telling you all about someone most of you don’t even know or have never met is this: life is short. That’s nothing new. But so many of us wait until it’s too late to say thank you to the people who play either a large or small but important role in our lives. Don’t do that. Pick up the phone. Write a letter. Heck, send an email. Send a text message even it if it does get there three hours later. Tell the people who cared about you how much they meant to you. Somewhere on your life path, a person extended you a kindness. It’s never to late to thank them. This is my chance to say thanks.

So thank you Dr. Long. For the advice, the stitches the compassion and even for the booster shots which, I have to be honest, I wasn’t too crazy about. For figuring out it was the new carpet in our house that was making me swell up like the Elephant Man. For comforting everyone when they needed it most. You undoubtedly could have been a doctor wherever you wanted but you chose Homer, Michigan.

Or maybe, if you believe in things like, fate, destiny, karma, faith or whatever you prefer to call it—maybe Homer, Michigan chose you.

Because we needed you.

Peace be with you Dr. Long.


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