A Country Doctor Can’t Forget His 40 Years of House Calls
‘The relief in their eyes,” said Dr. Charles Kemper. “That’s what I saw when they opened the front door. There was often deep worry in their eyes, too, but the main thing I saw was relief: relief that I had come to their home, that I had arrived. That’s a look that a man never forgets.”
Dr. Kemper, now retired, is 98 years old. He lives in northern Wisconsin, in the town of Chippewa Falls, population 14,000, where he was a single-practice family physician for more than 40 years, from the 1940s into the 1980s.
We were talking about house calls. I wanted to speak with him because, with all the current controversy about health care—the fate of the Affordable Care Act; the recent proposal by business-and-financial titans Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon to upend the economics of medicine; the machinations of the big insurance companies—we sometimes forget that the so-called health-care industry was not always, to America’s families, a confusing and intimidating behemoth. Health care was life-size: a doctor you knew, a doctor who would drive his car to your house if you said you needed him.
“It was never a nuisance,” Dr. Kemper said. The number of doctors who remember when house calls were common is shrinking fast; Dr. Kemper told me that, for him, it was not a once-in-a-while thing, but a basic part of his medical practice. When his patients were very sick, he went to them instead of asking them to get out of bed and come to him. “You could tell in a glance, when you arrived at a home, how serious the situation was,” he said. “And then my attitude was: time to get to work. Let’s get you the help you need.”
He is dismissive of the term “health-care provider”: “I saw myself as a country doctor,” he said. He is mightily impressed by the technology available to physicians today, the myriad medical specialties and advances. He knows that the days of routine house calls are never coming back.
But when the phone by his bed would ring in the middle of a cold Wisconsin night, there was no feeling like it: “If someone was calling at 3 a.m., I didn’t have to ask them if it was an emergency. They wouldn’t be calling me if it wasn’t. I was out of bed and out of the house within 10 minutes. I didn’t waste time asking if they thought it could wait until morning. Of course it couldn’t. They needed me there, and they needed me now.”
The reward? “Every day, still, when I’m walking around town, people come up to me,” he said. “They thank me. They say, ‘You delivered all of our children, and now I’m a great-grandparent.’ There were so many patients over the years that, I have to admit, sometimes I don’t recognize them. But they will thank me, and I’ll say, ‘You’re looking good,’ and I don’t know if they realize that they are making my day.”
He still has his doctor’s bag, black and bulky, that he carried into the homes of Chippewa Falls and the surrounding countryside. He believes that just the sight of it calmed his patients. It meant that help had arrived. He keeps the bag in a closet at home: “There’s a stethoscope in it, a blood pressure cuff, an otoscope to look in the ears, a light to look in the throat, some things to measure blood sugar . . . I had to replace all of those over the years, but the bag itself was sturdy. It made it through my whole career.”
As medical care has become increasingly corporate, he said, “the private practitioners have been swallowed up, and the groups they become a part of have strict guidelines about how much time to spend with a patient, and how much to charge.” A doctor getting into his or her car to drive 20 or 30 minutes to an anxious patient’s home? Much too inefficient.
Yet Dr. Kemper said he would not trade those years of house calls for anything. His wife has died; his three children have long since left home. He moved out of the house on Maple Street where they were a family, and now lives in his modest old medical office next door, which he has converted into a residence.
Which may explain the recurring dream he has. “I’ll dream that I have forgotten to see a patient,” he said. “That I’m supposed to be somewhere to help someone, and that they’re waiting for me, and I’ve forgotten. I’ll wake up, and it will take me a few minutes to realize it was just a dream. I suppose that sounds ridiculous.”
I told Dr. Kemper it didn’t sound ridiculous at all. I asked him why he thought it was that he spent all those days and nights—all those years—driving to the homes of the ailing people who were waiting for him.
“That’s why God puts a country doctor on Earth,” he said.
Mr. Greene’s books include “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.”
Appeared in the February 9, 2018, print edition.