Take time for a child: How the elderly doctor did it

This is the story of Dr. Joe Bailey of Tupelo, Mississippi.  He told it in 2004 as a tribute to his mentor.  I hope you love it as much as I do.

His family were farmers, says Dr. Joe Bailey, 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, young Joe 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.

Pause to think about this.  The kid of eleven is doing the physician’s lab work.  Meanwhile, he is working at the grocery store and going to school. He did not say how he balanced all this.

From time to time, the doctor would ask 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. In that part of the world and at that time, 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.

Who remembers 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 morning.

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.

I love these, but suggest there are more lessons than those four to be learned from the relationship between the elderly physician and his youthful protege.

–Take time for the child who is interested in what you do.  You never know.

–Time spent teaching a child may be the best investment you will ever make.

–If the child is bright, do not let other people’s rules stop you from encouraging and teaching them at a higher level than would ordinarily be expected.

–No one ever went wrong by encouraging a child.


1 thought on “Take time for a child: How the elderly doctor did it

  1. This reminds me again how to look at each child in my small neighborhood and how to encourage him or her.

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