Although I was only seven years old at the time, I still remember Christmas 1945 quite well. When I woke up on December 25, I raced to the living room, hoping that Santa had found room for one more bicycle in his sleigh. For those too young to know or too old to remember, electric trains and bicycles were at the top of the list of desirable Christmas gifts for young boys seventy years ago. Apparently I had behaved well enough because in front of the tree was a red Schwinn two-wheeler.
Since the weather was unseasonably mild that day, I left the rest of my presents unopened for a time, while Dad helped me take my new gift down the front steps to the street. From there, I took off on my bike and rode around the block, not once, but dozens of times that morning, until Mom came out on the porch and waved me down. “It’s time to leave for Galesburg…” When we returned from Christmas dinner with relatives, it was too dark to ride so I jumped on my bike the next day. I loved that Schwinn and rode it after school for several weeks; so much that I had to strap a little pillow on the seat for the obvious reason.
During the course of the next week, with the temperature becoming more seasonable, I developed a cough which became progressively worse. Mom gave me some Smith Brothers cough drops and discouraged me from riding for a while. On the following Sunday, however, I made just one trip around the block. I was out of breath, which was not unusual, but I continued to gasp for air, which was unusual. As I climbed the front stairs, I used the hand rail to pull myself up as best I could, finally opening the door and yelling for help. I was scared.
Both Mom and Dad came running. Someone tried verifying where our family doctor was that Sunday afternoon – at his home or office. Silly question. “Yes,” his nurse answered, “he has office hours this afternoon.” It took Dad less than five minutes to reach the physician’s waiting room which, as I recall, was so busy every seat was taken with people waiting to see the doctor even on a Sunday afternoon. He had no appointments: patients waited in his office until he could see them; he left, not at 5 or 6 pm, but when there was no one to see.
Since the nurse was aware that we were coming, the doctor cleared his examining room of a couple of patients so he could see me. He listened to my lungs, took my temperature and my blood pressure, and kept looking at me for clues. Dr. David Morton was a man of few words: “I’m not sure, but I think we have a case of pneumonia.” Whistling softly through his teeth, the bald-headed man reached over to his black leather bag containing 50 or so drugs then available to deal with most illnesses of the human body. He chose one of the glass vials and brought the label with small print closer to his eyes to insure that he had chosen the correct medicine. After he had pulled out the cork, he dropped eight or ten pills into a little envelope, sealing one end with a lick to the adhesive. “Edna, these capsules will help with the temperature. Take him home and put him to bed. As soon as I finish at the office, I’ll be over again tonight to check on him.”
Almost all afternoon, I lay in bed, my temperature rising slowly but steadily from just a little over 100 to 101 degrees. “Mom, I’m roasting. I need a glass of cold water.” Later, she put a thermometer under my tongue, but waited a moment before checking whether the red line had gone up or down. 103 degrees. “I’m still hot.” After she opened some windows, the room cooled down rather quickly because the temperature outside was well below zero.
I dozed off.
When I felt someone putting a thermometer under my tongue, I began to wake up. Dr. Morton was sitting beside me in my bedroom, looking at the thermometer. He glanced first at Mom and then at Dad. “It’s 105. I’m going to try a couple of drugs developed during the war for our soldiers. Sulfa comes only in pill form, but penicillin can be administered by a shot in your arm or a spray in your throat.” As a seven-year-old, I was capable of taking pills, but I was scared to death of shots. I chose the spray.
“I think that these new drugs and bed rest will do the trick.” He closed his case. “I’ll have my nurse call you tomorrow morning and see how you’re getting along. Edna, check his temperature at midnight. If it doesn’t go below 105, call me at home.” Picking up his case, he headed out the door.
On Monday night, after making early morning hospital calls thirty minutes away in Peoria and seeing office patients in the afternoon, Dr. Morton returned to my home. Without saying much, he looked down my throat and checked my temperature, hoping that it had dropped two or three degrees. He looked at me, “It’s better but not what I was expecting.” On the way out of the house, he stepped into the kitchen where Mom was washing dishes. “Edna, call my office tomorrow morning first thing and let me know his temperature.” That night, I woke up in a cold sweat. The next morning, Mom reported the results, “slightly over 100.” Less concerned, Dr. Morton did not call that night, but he was pleased to hear the good news the next morning from his nurse, “Edna said his temp broke 99.”
Four weeks later, after catching chicken pox and pink eye, I returned to fourth grade where I was glad to see my teacher, Mrs. Hubble, and my friends. I felt as if I had been gone a year.
Contrary to what the reader may think, I’m not the hero of this story. It’s Dr. David H. Morton. This is the story about a country physician and his sacrifices to bring a young boy back to health in the middle of the twentieth century. Dr. Morton’s work was his life. He began almost every day of the week making calls in the early morning on his surgical patients in one of the three Peoria hospitals. After “making rounds,” he headed back home to his office in Elmwood where he generally saw patients for the remainder of the day. You see, Dr. Morton’s life was only complete when the seats were empty.
Karl K. Taylor