Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chapter 3 - The Clinic

March 1943

Dr. Wall’s clinic was half a mile down the road from Ma Patsy’s office. It was where Rooster Cove Road met Knoxville Highway. The road going into the cove had been paved in 1940 by the Work Projects Administration, better known as the New Deal’s WPA. It was paved for six miles up into the cove, which made it easy now for the folks of Rooster Cove and the neighboring hollows to get in and out. Before that, the old dirt road was full of ruts and holes that turned into mud bogs when it rained. The old logging roads into the hollows weren’t paved, so they still turned into mud bogs when it rained.

Spring flowers were already popping up along the edge of the asphalt. Just looking at them made Solomon feel happy. He had a scientific kind of mind. He had to know why about everything. He had cogitated about the little spring flowers, and he figured that the asphalt trapped water underneath and held heat so the edge of the pavement was the first place to blanket itself in flowers at the end of winter.

Something about the asphalt looks strange today, Solomon thought. Distorted waves rose from it. They reminded him of pictures that he’d seen of heat waves rising from the desert floor. But this was March, and it was Tennessee. Solomon slowed his pace. He stopped beside a power pole and cautiously stepped closer to it. A hum came from inside the pole. He watched in fascination as it became translucent and then transparent. A frenzy of activity buzzed within the outline of what had been the power pole. He looked up at the power lines that ran the length of Rooster Cove Road. They looked like Fourth of July sparklers throwing white-hot sparks. Solomon turned round and round in the road. The asphalt itself glistened with twinkling, swirling red lights. Solomon’s feet stirred the sparkling red lights into a mini-tornado. What’s going on? He thought. Is this the world Ma sees when she goes into her transfiguration chamber?

The half-mile to the clinic didn’t take Solomon long. At sixteen he already had the long, lean musculature of a runner. That fact had won him many trophies. His dark brown, wavy hair was long enough that it fell down on his forehead. When he was working, he’d brush it away, but a stray curl would manage to hang down and tickle him. Some of the kids at school had cut out a picture of the sculpture of David by Michelangelo. They’d called it “Solomon” which caused him some embarrassment because David in that picture was naked. Some kid even made up a little ditty that had taunted Solomon’s teenaged years.

Sepaugh, Say Paw
Mike a land gello
Carved hisself a statue
Of the Sepaugh we all know.

His resemblance to the statue was indeed remarkable. Even Solomon saw the similarity, but he firmly declared that he was much better endowed as far as the family jewels were concerned. That was just guy talk, but the rumor had spread nevertheless.

Solomon’s Mediterranean heritage through his Melungeon ancestors was apparent in his face and hair. The only departure from this heritage was the color of his eyes, which were a vivid blue like the color of the sky when you look straight up on a summer day.

Dimples dotted his cheeks when he smiled, and Solomon smiled all the time. He smiled when he was happy, and he smiled when he was mad. He even smiled when he was worried. It was as if the corners of his mouth didn’t know how to turn down. And behind his smile straight white teeth sparkled. Ma had taught him to make a paste of baking soda and peroxide for brushing.

Today, Solomon was happy that he had an excuse to go to Doc Wall’s. This would be a chance to ask him about a part time job. He liked the old doctor, and he felt like he could be useful around his office. He already could do anything that Ma Patsy could do with her patients. Doc Wall could teach him a whole lot more. And considering the doctor’s failing health, Solomon felt like he could take some stress off the only physician within a thirty-mile radius of Rooster Cove. He just hoped he could convince the doctor of this.

Dr. Hezekiah Wall, whose father was a Bible scholar, had opened his clinic out on the highway between Black Fort and Knoxville in 1908. It was right after he’d graduated from medical school over in Chapel Hill. Since then, the medical office had been his home too. Its gingerbread front porch was a landmark out on the highway.

The doctor had lived there alone for the past fifteen years. Since his wife died from breast cancer, his health had been slowly going down hill. It was hard on him to be available for late night or weekend emergencies. His daughter, Alice Moriah, had been trying to get him to move into her home a few miles west of the clinic, but he’d told her that he wasn’t ready to give in yet. He was seventy-two years young this year, and he figured that he had a few more good years left in him. The old doctor’s nurse had retired last year, and since then, he’d had to do literally everything by himself.

Solomon knew that Doc Wall and Ma Patsy had an arrangement of sorts. They respected each other’s territory. Ma Patsy knew when her patients needed modern medicine, and she didn’t hesitate to send them to Dr. Wall. In return Dr. Wall considered Ma Patsy an extension of his health care system. He supplied her with prescription medicine that required a doctor’s signature, like the quinine.

As Solomon approached the clinic, he saw Dr. Wall struggling to get heavy boxes off the back of a truck. Doc Wall saw him running towards him, and he stopped what he was doing. “Hey, Solomon, Patsy must have sent you for her quinine.”

“Yes,” Solomon said, “can I help you get these boxes into the clinic?”

“Thank you,” Dr. Wall said, “that would be mighty kind of you.”

Solomon already had two of them in his arms, and he was walking towards the back door. “Just show me where you want them, and I’ll bring them all in for you.”

“This really is my lucky day,” Dr. Wall smiled as he held open the back door for Solomon. “Down the hall and to the room on the left,” he pointed for Solomon then followed him. “Put them on the floor over there,” he said.

As soon as the boxes were out of his arms, Solomon was on his way back for more. Dr. Wall knew that Patsy’s quinine would be in one of the smaller boxes, so he followed Solomon out to the truck. Solomon picked up two more large boxes, and Dr. Wall scooped up three small ones. As Solomon put his boxes on the floor, he said, “There’s only one left,” and he was on his way back out to the truck.

Dr. Wall put his three small boxes on a low chest, took out a box cutter, and opened one of them. Patsy’s quinine was on top. Ah hah! he thought, am I psychic, or what? As Solomon brought in the last box, Dr. Wall put the little amber bottle into his coat pocket. He patted Solomon on the shoulder and said, “How about a glass of iced tea, young man?”

“Okay, thanks,” Solomon replied as he followed the aging doctor down the hallway to the kitchen.

Dr. Wall was a few inches over six feet, and his back was straight as an arrow. His white hair he kept short, and he was balding on the very top of his head. His eyes were surprisingly good for his age. He only needed reading glasses, which he’d let slide to the end of his nose. He tilted his head backwards when he needed to read a label. The rest of the time he looked over the top of his little half spectacles. He motioned for Solomon to sit down at the kitchen table. He took the amber bottle out of his pocket and sat it in front of Solomon.

Solomon turned the little bottle round and round in his fingers, trying to decide the best way to start this conversation about his working part time at the clinic. Dr. Wall set a glass of sweet tea in front of Solomon and said, “Solomon, what would you think about coming to work for me here at the clinic?”

Solomon looked startled, “Really?” He smiled and said to the doctor, “I was planning to ask you if you might be able to use me around here.”

“Great minds think alike.” Dr. Wall raised one white eyebrow. “By the way, how old are you, son?”

“Sixteen,” he answered.

“That’s good,” Dr. Wall said. “I don’t want to get in trouble with that new labor law for children. I couldn’t remember whether you were fifteen or sixteen. When can you start?”

“Anytime,” Solomon said, “now if you want.”

“Well, I know you work some for Patsy. Is that going to mess up anything for her?”

“No, I’ve already talked to Ma about it… I mean about asking you for a job. She’s fine on it. I can still help Ma,” he said. “I can be here for your afternoon patients, and I can help Ma at night and on the weekends.”

“That’s a lot on you, son. Do you graduate from high school this year?” Dr. Wall asked.

“No sir, I’m in the tenth grade. I’ve got one more year in school. I go to school in the mornings, but I get out at noon. School’s real easy for me,” he said. “I won’t have a problem. I promise.”

“What kind of grades do you make?” Dr. Wall asked.

“I make all A’s, sir,” Solomon answered.

“That’s good,” Dr. Wall said. “You’ll let me know if this creates a problem for you, won’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Solomon said, “I promise.”

Someone rang the bell in the waiting room. Dr. Wall put his arm on Solomon’s shoulder and guided him towards the waiting room. The doctor stuck his head through the door. An older gentleman was there. Solomon recognized him. It was Toby something. He lived in a hollow across the highway. Dr. Wall said to the man, “Hello there, Toby. I’ll be with you in a minute. I need to get this young man started on a project in the dispensary.”

Dr. Wall shut the door to the waiting room and said to Solomon. “Unpack the boxes we just brought in. It will be a good way for you to get familiar with the dispensary.”

“Okay,” Solomon said following the doctor into the room.

“Over here I keep all the medicine.” Dr. Wall pointed to rows of glass encased shelves. “They’re all alphabetical.” He opened one of the glass cases to show Solomon. “The ones over there,” he pointed to the glass cases near the window, “These are the ones I use everyday. They’re not in any order. The ones most used are closest to the table.” He gestured towards the table in front of the window. On the table sat a mortar and pestle for grinding tablets into a powder. Beside that were funnels in various sizes. “You’ll get the gist of it. Here I keep the distilled water, tincture of iodine, alcohol, glycerin,” the doctor said touching his assorted bottles. Some were in clear glass bottles. Others were in amber, cobalt blue, or dark green glass bottles. Some were pint-sized and some were ounce-sized bottles, and lots were in between. A few were gallon-sized and sat on the floor beneath the table.

“This is where I compound the elixirs and capsules and whatever else I need,” he said as he pulled out a drawer beneath the table, “and here’s the rest of it.” The drawer contained empty capsule shells and little bottles with cork stoppers that would be filled with medicine that the doctor could send home with his patients.

Dr. Wall walked to the other side of the room to a tall cabinet with forty narrow, shallow drawers. “Over here is where I keep equipment for injections, sutures, gauze, cotton balls, and so forth.” He pulled out a drawer with assorted stainless steel needles. “Different situations call for different sized needles. You’ll learn all this as we go,” Dr. Wall said.

Beside the large cabinet was a small table with a stainless steel box that had a round door like a porthole. “What’s this?” Solomon asked touching the top of it.

“That’s an autoclave,” Dr. Wall said. “I use it to sterilize my instruments. I’ll show you how to use it later. How does Patsy sterilize equipment?”

“In the oven,” Solomon replied.

Dr. Wall said, “This works basically the same way.” The doctor turned to leave, “I need to find out what Toby wants. You start unpacking and put things where you think they belong. You’ll find that I already have at least one of all the things that are in the boxes. So put the new one behind the old one on the shelf.

“Alright,” Solomon said feeling a combination of excitement and awe as he looked around the room. This was so much more than he’d expected for today. There was a telephone on the compounding table so he called Ma to tell her his good news. “Ma, I’m still at Doc Wall’s. He’s put me to work already.”

“That’s great, Solomon!” Ma Patsy could hear the excitement in Solomon’s voice. He had a squeaky sound when he was excited about something.

“I just wanted to tell you not to wait supper for me,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll get home with this being my first day and all. Dr. Wall’s got so many things to tell me.”

“That’s fine, son. I’ll see ye when I see ye,” Ma giggled.

One wall of the dispensary had Dr. Wall’s medical textbooks and journals. I could spend the next ten years just reading, Solomon thought as he thumbed through some of the books. It was hard to put them down. Reading and looking at the graphic pictures of body parts made him want to look through another and another and another. I don’t want Dr. Wall to think I’m malingering. Solomon grabbed the box cutter and opened another box.

Except for the medicine, which was easy to put away because it was alphabetical, Solomon was taking much longer than he would have liked. Finding the right place for everything was tedious. Dr. Wall came back into the dispensary. “I forgot to tell you to mark things off the packing list as you unpack the boxes.”

“I was doing that. I figured you’d want to know that everything on the list was in the box,” Solomon said.

“Good, and as for the books on those shelves,” Dr. Wall pointed to the wall of books, “you’re welcome to spend all the time you want reading. I figure the more you know about medicine, the more help you’ll be.”

Solomon was in heaven. He explored the room, the equipment, and the medications. If he found something that he wasn’t familiar with, he’d look it up in the medical texts. He looked up all the drugs in alphabetical order. He started memorizing the drugs and each drug’s indications and contraindications. He wanted to be sure that he understood why a patient would need a specific drug, and he wanted to be even clearer on why they shouldn’t take the drug. He memorized side effects and dosages.

After several hours, Dr. Wall came back to the dispensary. The old doctor stood in the doorway for a few seconds. He looked pleased. He said, “Solomon, you’ve outdone yourself. This room hasn’t been this organized since my nurse retired last year. Thank you for your industriousness.”

“You’re welcome, Dr. Wall.” Solomon blushed.

Dr. Wall walked around the room tenderly touching a cabinet here, a bookshelf there. Memories of his lifetime of caring for patients flooded his mind. Solomon watched him carefully. When a person experienced high levels of emotional energy, like Dr. Wall was feeling now, Solomon could feel what they felt. He was empathic; Ma had told him. The feeling that he was getting from Dr. Wall right now was one of joy and profound satisfaction. The doctor took Solomon’s hand. His voice trembled as he said, “Your enthusiasm is contagious, son. Thank you for coming to work for me.”

“Thank you for hiring me,” Solomon said. His smile was so wide that it hurt. His heart felt so big inside his chest that he thought it might burst open with happiness.

“Can you be back here at one o’clock tomorrow afternoon?” Dr. Wall asked.

“Oh gosh, I can’t wait to get back to this room,” Solomon beamed at him. On the way home his feet barely touched the ground.

This turned out to be the perfect arrangement. Dr. Wall taught Solomon how to take a good medical history, and then he’d let Solomon figure out what kinds of tests or treatments the patient needed. Solomon dog-eared the Grey’s Anatomy. He’d put a piece of paper over the illustrations, and then he’d trace them. Later he’d sit down and label all the parts without looking at the book. “He’s a smart boy, that Solomon,” Dr. Wall would say.

Solomon sterilized the equipment in the autoclave. He kept inventory of all the supplies, and he ordered more when anything was needed. Doc Wall laughed and told people that his job was to sit in a rocker on the front porch of his clinic and to answer Solomon’s questions. Both mentor and mentee were happier than two hogs in a mud puddle on a summer’s day.

Copyright © 2008 by Robbin Renee Bridges
Coping with Grief through Afterlife Communication

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