Health Care with Caring
Institutionalized medicine in today's world, with its seeming indifference to the
individual and its focus on economics, is far removed from the health care we enjoyed in the
Ballyshannon of my youth, care provided mainly by the Sisters of Mercy who staffed the two
hospitals in town, the Sheil and The Rock. Two railways stations, two newspapers, two
dioceses, two parishes, two undertakers, in Ballyshannon we had two of everything. Two
chemists, two bakeries, and, in the 1930s and 1940s, two doctors, Dr. Gordon and Dr.
Of the two, James Gordon, M.Ch. (Master Chirurgeon) was the one with whom I was most
familiar, although familiar in this context does not signify friendship. In that sense no
one presumed familiarity with the outwardly autocratic appearing Dr. Gordon, at six foot
six inches a compelling presence as he entered sick room or hospital ward. His tall frame
carried a lean body, and his long legs were normally encased in stockings and
knickerbockers, now the garb of one of the leading American golf professionals.
His house stood on The Rock, almost directly across from St. Anne's Church of Ireland on
the crest of Mullinashee, and was kept by his sister in an immaculate state of cleanliness.
In pre-telephone days, patients turned up at his doorstep without appointments, and were
examined in his study, to the left as one entered his hallway. Such patients were, of
course, in a minority. In actual practice, if someone was at all ambulatory, consulting a
doctor was a rarity in those times. The vast bulk of people waited until they were
bed-ridden before seeking medical assistance, and the good Dr. Gordon, for all his
forbidding appearance, was regularly routed from his sleep at all hours of the night to
make house calls on an emergency basis.
He was a medical man from a generation already passing away, for whom service to his
community was an all-abiding way of life. By the time I became aware of him, he must have
been in his sixties.
During "the Emergency", as the Second World War was known in Ireland, he was one of the
very few who had a petrol allowance that enabled him to continue to drive his motor car in
order to answer the innumerable emergency calls that were part and parcel of his daily and
nightly practice. His car could be found all over town, all throughout the countryside, up
mountainy lanes, parked outside the homes of sick people. Rich homes, poor homes, it didn't
matter to Dr. Gordon. Some one was sick and needed his care. That was all that mattered.
To repeat an over-used phrase, "in those times" blood tests and electrocardiograms were not
everyday diagnostic tools in small-town medical practice. Observation was still the most
valuable skill of a doctor, that and experience. Dr. Gordon had both in quantity and
quality. Finger nails, tongue, eye colouring, temperature, inflammation, cough, pulse and
heartbeat, were the eight cardinal checkpoints upon which subsequent diagnosis and
treatment were based. Sometimes knowing the history of a family was an invaluable aid, and
Dr. Gordon knew the medical histories of many families dating back to their grandparents
whom he himself had attended as a young man.
He was, for years, the only surgeon attached to the Sheil Hospital which lay at the end of
College Street on the opposite side of town. There he plied his trade with scalpel and
suture, and there he left his trademark on many whose appendices were removed by him.
Readers may remember one U.S. President, Lyndon B. Johnson, laying bare his stomach before
television cameras, to show the scar left by his doctors following an operation. Some
people thought it infra dig. Hell, in Ballyshannon people vied with each other to show
their appendectomy scars, competing to see which was the largest, thanks to Dr. Gordon's
ministering surgery. This is no snide comment on the good doctor's work. In the absence of
x-rays he believed in seeing with his own eyes any other potential danger spots. One of my
brothers, Brian, carried a Gordon scar proudly to the end of his days. When he was examined
by other doctors for other ailments in later life, its size was always a source of wonder
and amazement to them.
What is today amazing in retrospect is Dr. Gordon's billing practices. Pre-state medicine,
pre-hospitalization insurance plans, pre-regional health boards and bureaucracies, Dr.
Gordon practised medicine the old-fashioned way. If you could pay, he billed you. If you
couldn't pay, you never saw a bill from him. He had been so long in practice, in the town
and surrounding country, that he knew who could, and who could not.
If an illness was beyond his scope, he arranged for a patient's transfer to a better
equipped Dublin hospital, and followed up with daily inquiries on that patient's progress.
And, when a patient died, he attended the funeral. That was something way beyond the
obligations imposed by his Hippocratic oath, but that was Dr. James Gordon whose practice
of medicine extended from cradle to grave. It showed he truly cared. I know. He attended my
father's funeral, accompanying the procession on the last stage of its journey from Dublin
to St. Joseph's Church on The Rock.
Dr. Gordon had a great helper in one lay person, Nurse Harte, who also lived on The Rock,
opposite the De La Salle Brothers' School and beside Mr. O'Donoghue, the music and Irish
step dance teacher. She it was who followed up with bedside visits on a regular basis.
She wore a huge pendant watch by which she took pulse measurements, and soothed many an
anxious parent throughout a child's sickness.
Dr. Gordon and Nurse Harte were of the same age in an era when the emphasis in health care
was on caring. They have their successors. If you have found one, count yourself blessed.
Postscript: Not too long ago I found one of them in Beaverlodge, a Dubliner, Dr. David
Miller, who emigrated from Ireland in 1970. Beaverlodge? About half an hour out of Grande
Prairie. Grande Prairie? Up in the Peace River country. Peace River country? In Alberta.
Alberta? You can't be that big an omadhaun! His compassion and care for a passing traveller
threatened with pneumonia were in the best traditions of medicine. Of him, even Dr. Gordon,
stern taskmaster before whom nurses and nuns quailed, would have approved.
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