Love Those Old People!

My friend Jill Furr Noll reminded me on Facebook this week about her wonderful grandfather, a Baptist preacher from years back whose funeral I held in the mid-1970s. Rev. A. C. Furr was in his mid-90s when I became his pastor. He was sharper than I was (I was 60 years his junior), still drove his car everywhere, and was extremely active. Sometimes when he was heading to the nursing home to call on patients, he would tease, “I’m going to see the old people.” They were almost all younger than he.

I thought of this today while reading through two newspaper articles that mysteriously appeared on my desk at home. They are dated in and around my birthday (March 28) of 2004. Where they have been until now, I couldn’t begin to say. But I certainly can tell you why I kept them. They are both such keepers.

The first came from USA Today for March 30, 2004. Robert Lipsyte, who is identified as a journalist and author of a young-adult novel, “Warrior Angel,” is writing about the way we only realize the value of the elderly in times of crisis.

The other article comes from the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal of Tupelo and is dated two days earlier. A medical doctor, Joe Bailey, is paying tribute to the M.D. who influenced his life. It’s an incredible story.

Robert Lipsyte writes, Whenever disaster strikes–from illness in the family to carnage on the evening news–I call my dad. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was murdered, I called Dad to make sure he was OK. After all, the old man was pushing 60. I called him after 9/11 to make sure I was OK. After all, I was in my 60s. Being a frequent subway rider in New York, I even called him after the recent train bombings in Madrid, which killed 190 people. I knew he would calm me down. After all, he’s pushing 100.

Pushing 100. Lipsyte’s article, now over 6 years old, says the Census Bureau tells us this country can point to more than 50,000 citizens of that age or better. “The so-called oldest old (over 85) are the fastest growing segment of the population. If we’re lucky, the rest of us will become them.”

And then Joe Bailey’s tribute to his mentor, Dr. H. O. Leonard.

The Bailey family were farmers, Dr. Joe says, but since his mother refused to live anywhere but in town, they lived in Coffeeville, population 600. That was precisely across the street from the town doctor, H. O. Leonard.

As far back as Joe Bailey remembers, he wanted to be a medical doctor. In fact, when he was 10, his father suggested that it was time for him to begin helping out on the farm. Young Joe took a deep breath and told him that if I was going to be a doctor, it would be better if I had a job that would teach me about people.

The truth is, I really enjoyed the farm, but at age 10 I went to work in the local grocery store for 25 cents an hour (in 1957). I kept the job until I finished high school in 1965. By then I was making $1 an hour and the experiences of dealing with people those eight years have proven invaluable to me.

In the middle of that vocational experience, however, little Joe Bailey began his medical training. Here’s how it happened.

When he was 11, he climbed the steps to Dr. Leonard’s office and knocked at the door. “Yes, Joe, what can I do for you?” said the elderly physician.

“Sir,” Joe said, “I want to be a doctor, and I wondered if I could help you in your office after school. I won’t get in your way. I just want to learn what to do.”

Dr. Leonard smiled, “I think that would be fine, Joe. Why don’t you come by after school tomorrow?”

As he walked down those stairs, young Joe Bailey had the feeling that life had just changed for him forever.

Dr. Henry O. Leonard was born in Coffeeville less than 13 years after the end of the Civil War. He finished medical school at the University of Tennessee in 1903 and he immediately began his practice. At the time he allowed me access to his life, he was 80 years old and I was 11.

The first thing the elderly physician taught his young protege was how to run blood glucose and urinalysis tests. Those were the only two tests available, Dr. Bailey remembers. They involved boiling the specimens and adding reagents. Soon he was running almost all of Dr. Leonard’s tests.

From time to time, the doctor asked and the patient would give permission for young Joe to observe tests being performed in the office. “Listen to this heart murmur,” he would say. “Look at this red ear.” “This is what appendicitis looks like.”

At the age of 13, Joe began driving for Dr. Leonard. Yep, you read that right. Dr. Bailey explains that country boys all learned to drive on tractors so this knowledge came earlier than otherwise. “He had a new Ford Falcon with an automatic transmission, paid for with the $2 he charged for each office visit.”

After they closed the office, Joe and Dr. Leonard would make house calls. Anyone remember house calls?

One night, the Bailey parents were in bed early. From the kitchen window, Joe could see that Dr. Leonard was making his way from the house to the car. By the time he arrived at the automobile, Joe was there.

It had been raining hard for two days, and the small house which was our destination was cut off by a creek. I waded that creek with Dr. Leonard on my back, and by the light of a kerosene lantern, in a house with no electricity, I delivered my first baby. When my mother woke me up for school the next day, she never knew I’d been gone.

One morning at school when Joe was 15, the principal called him out of class. Dr. Leonard had been killed in a car accident that mornig.

The next Saturday, a stream of patients filed into the grocery store where Joe Bailey worked. Someone asked for a remedy for a bad cough. Another said his daughter had the earache and wondered if Joe would look at her.

One woman became angry when Joe refused to write her a prescription for blood pressure medicine. “You always wrote my prescriptions before!” she said. Joe had to remind her though that Dr. Leonard signed it.

At the conclusion of his column, Tupelo physician Joe Bailey, M.D., gives the lessons he learned from Dr. Leonard:

–Treat every patient as you would your own parents.

–There is no difference in a black human being and a white human being.

–Never do anything for money. Always do the right thing, and you will never lack or want.

–Above all, listen carefully and be kind.

The Bible has a lot to say about honoring old folks. Mostly in Proverbs. I’ll let you look them up. It’ll be worth the trouble.

2 thoughts on “Love Those Old People!

  1. Joe,

    Dr. Joe Bailey has been our family’s doctor for years. He discovered colon cancer in my father in the 80’s and still makes sure that I get checked on a regular basis. Although I live in Alabama and Dr. Joe practices in Amory, Mississippi, I still go see him for my check-ups.

    I have played basketball with him and against him, and the dedication he brings to his practice and patients is the same dedication he brings to the basketball court.

    He not only is an outstanding physician, he is an outstanding Christian gentleman. I am glad to call him my doctor and my friend.

  2. I love the story. Dr. Leonard reminds me of Ole Doc Hill of Yorktown, Indiana. Doc Hill was one of the last MD – Dentist combinations. He never turned anyone away and never saw anyone on time. Back in the day, my wife-to-be, Emily, needed to have blood tests before we could get married. We went to Doc Hill and during the course of conversation, he asked Emily (a nursing student) if she had ever drawn blood, she said “no” and he said, “Get around here.” So, he supervised while Emily drew my blood. One of thousands of “Doc Hill Stories” from the residents of Yorktown. Thanks for the great articles.

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