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Good Morning Doctor! - Chapter 51

Happy Birthday!

I was a member of the Iowa Clinical Surgical Society as long ago as the first decade after the turn of the century and at that time we used to meet with various members, the host each time giving a clinic. When it came my turn I gave my clinic and, after the discussion period, invited my friends of the society to the house for dinner.

Mrs. Rohlf had gotten up a tasty home-cooked meal, and after a hard day's work we were quite in the mood to relax and enjoy it. After we had finished eating we had some after-dinner speeches. In one of thee a friend, rising gallantly at his place, said that he had had such a good time that he, for one, would be back. "I'll see you on your birthday!" he added.

His jest was of course all in the spirit of fun, and merely his way of telling me he had had a good time. But it set me to thinking. Why wasn't his idea a good one? After all, I would be having a birthday soon and what better way would there be for me to celebrate it than to give a real clinic and devote that day to charity. There were so many sick people, worthy and in need, who would be benefitted.

So when January fifth came around, a couple of months later, my first birthday clinic was a reality. It was a success from many points of view. In the first place, I did charity work for many good people, people of my own and people who were sent by doctors who were in the habit of referring surgery to me. Then, in addition to the satisfaction of knowing that we had been of service to these unfortunates, in addition to feeling that happiness and humility which accompany such giving of self, we had the pleasure, after our work was done, of renewing friendships and recalling other happy times. And in a doctor's life, as in the life of most professional men, such contact with colleagues gives satisfaction and inspiration.

The next year and the next I cerebrated my birthday with a clinic. Mrs. Rohlf each time prepared a fine meal, and our home on January fifth rang with the hearty laughter of our guests. The clinics grew; even the dinners were better if that were possible. We had nine-course meals. We had wines and champagne. Once we had a whole roast pig.

The clinics kept on growing. Finally we outgrew our home and had to have the dinner at the hotel.

From the standpoint of renewing acquaintances and honoring our eminent colleagues I believe the 1921 clinic still is the memorable one. That was the time that I invited many of the pioneer doctors from around Waverly to be special guests; most of them came, others sent greetings.

"Most of all, I hope that progress will be made in recognizing medicine as a great social preserving and preventing force and that the day will come when the doctor will be regularly paid and chiefly engaged in keeping people well, not in curing them after they are impoverished and wasted by sickness."

There was Dr. D. F. Ford, of Plainfield, a man who was a seasoned practitioner when Queen Victoria died and who remembered the introduction of ether as an anaesthetic. The concluding thought in his speech was an inspiration to us all. He said, "I have seen great changes. When I began, Lister had just started to practice and teach antisepsis in surgery. In the next fifty years still greater progress will be made. Most of all, I hope that progress will be made in recognizing medicine as a great social preserving and preventing force and that the day will come when the doctor will be regularly paid and chiefly engaged in keeping people well, not in curing them after they are impoverished and wasted by sickness."

Dr. Amos Babcock, of New Hampton, confined to his home by illness, sent his greetings. Rather than bemoaning the fact that he had been suffering with eczema for a year, he sent us a chuckle as he wrote: "God will reward that man who discovers a specific for itching."

Another honored guest was Dr. D. S. Bradford, of Janesville, then over eighty years old, of whom it was truthfully said that there was never a road so bad, never a night so dark, never a storm so severe, but that when a call came--regardless of whether the patient had money or not--he answered it. In fact, there never was an occasion, except when he was sock with pneumonia and had a temperature of 104, that his wife was able to keep him from going night and day in the fifty-five years of his practice on any sick call he ever got. And Dr. Bradford, a twinkle in his eye, concluded his remarks with a very sober "Thank you, Doctor, and all the doctors for the courtesy they have sown me, even though a youth; they have treated me very nicely, as if I had had age and experience behind me."

Dr. H. T. Walker, who was to Riceville what Dr. Bradford was to Janesville, responded briefly to his welcome: "Gentlemen, I am better at practicing than preaching. I came to Riceville thirty-two years ago and raised ten children, giving them a fair education. (He put them all through college.) I am honored to be here tonight and I want to thank you one and all for this occasion.

Dr. C. S. Chase, another honored guest who then occupied the chair of pharmacology at the State University of Iowa and was known to many of his younger colleagues as Dad Chase, turned the tables on me and told about my life story instead of his own, ending with a touching tribute. In the course of his talk he gave us a quotation which I have carried with me since:

True worth is in being, not seeming,--
In doing each day that goes by
Some little good--not in dreaming
Of great things to do by and by.
For good lieth not in pursuing,
Nor gaining of great nor of small,
But just in the doing, and doing
As we would be done by, is all.

We had other special guests: Dr. Ely of Des Moines, Dr. Brinkman of Waterloo, Dr. Kennefick of Algona. It was Dr. Kennefick who recalled that he was in Iowa City when I arrived there to enter the University in 1889, and it was he who gave us a review of medical history in the years since. He said he could remember when Des Moines, a city of 50,000 had no hospital; that was in the day that the whole state of Iowa had only two hospitals, one at Davenport and one at Dubuque. At that same time Minnesota had no hospitals outside the Twin Cities and Winona.

"Fellows of the age of Dr. Rohlf and myself," he said, "have seen the evolution of this whole surgical game. It was really a joke, the surgical things we had at Iowa City when we entered. And to think of the handicap of Dr. Rohlf going up without any special training in surgery, without any opportunity to attend clinics anywhere, to evolve and bring about this work himself...A little hospital like this (Waverly's) is doing a remarkable thing. The work you do here is great."

Dr. Buchbinder of Chicago was present and so was Dr. Bierring of Des Moines, the man who preceded me a few years as president of the Iowa State Medical Society and who has since served as president of the American Medical Association. Dr. Bierring, who was a medical student with me, made me very happy when he complimented the idea of group medicine as we had it in Waverly, of "grouping together for the best possible work, and I think when the history of this town is written, it will be of that inspiration which Rohlf and these men about him have given in the way of a stimulus to real medical progress that will be his greatest moment."

Then Dr. Call of Greene spoke, and Dr. F. A. Osincup of Waverly paid tribute to the late Dr. Jungblut of Tripoli.

The end of the party was at hand when Dr. Chase asked if I would repeat Dr. Guthrie's eulogy to the medical profession, the eulogy which I had heard as a student at Iowa City. My pulse quickened as I gave again those thrilling words.

As the last guest departed I began looking forward to the next January fifth. And as it approached I realized anew each year what a beautiful task my mother had set for me, how pregnant with meaning were those words of hers that day long ago on the farm when she had taken my hands in hers and had patted them saying, "They are the hands of a helper, son. I hope they will be--always."

At the clinic in 1930, Dr. Leonard West, who had worked with me in Waverly and who was then practicing in Des Moines, by some strange coincidence gave another expression of my mother's words when he said in his after-dinner speech: "...And intimately connected with his life have been his hands. There is something distinctive, individualistic, characteristic in Dr. Rohlf's hands. I have looked at them and watched them many times. Mrs. West painted a portrait of the doctor, and the thing that pleased me more than anything else about the portrait was the doctor's hands. There is something about them that reflects the personality of a surgeon. Ida Norton Munson has written a little verse called 'The Surgeon's Hands' to which I have added a little for your birthday":

(with apologies to Ida North Munson)
Your face? I know not whether it be fair,
Or lined or grayed to mark the slipping years.
Your eyes? I do not glimpse the pity there,
Or try to probe their depths for hopes or fears.
Only upon your wondrous hands I gaze,
And search my memory through so fittingly
To voice their loveliness. In still amaze
I bow before their quite dignity.
They make the crooked straight and heal old sores;
The blind to see, the war-torn clean and whole.
Throughout the suffering world they touch the doors
That open wide to life. The bitter bowl
Of pain they sweeten till the weary rest,
As though the hands of Christ had served and blest. 'Your hands I clasp each birthday morning,
And then, all sorrows flee,
May your hands work on, each day at dawning,
I honor them at sixty-three!

  Version: World Wide Web Edition Copyright 1995 by Richard Rathe
  Created: October 1, 1995   Modified: July 5, 1999

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