We take it for granted today that whenever a medical emergency occurs, we can simply dial 911 on our cell phones and help will arrive within a matter of minutes. Today’s emergency vehicles are amazing, filled with all the latest lifesaving equipment, including communications with the emergency department of a nearby hospital where a doctor can monitor a patient’s condition while en route and emergency room personnel prepare for the patient’s arrival. The ambulance is staffed with highly trained medical technicians who are prepared to administer a doctor’s instructions that often result in a patient surviving a life-threatening condition.
We have not always been this fortunate. Back in the 1950s, emergency care was very different. There were no ambulances, no emergency technicians, no cell phones, and only a handful of doctors to go around. They carried a black bag with them wherever they went in case they were called out for an emergency, stocked with basic medical equipment such a stethoscope, a fever thermometer, wound bandages, needles and sutures, and basic emergency medications. They were on call twenty-four hours a day, often being summoned to the home of a sick patient during the night or to deliver a baby. Yes, doctors routinely made house calls to take care of their patients and often were paid for their services in unconventional ways. In the rural areas of South Georgia where money was often scarce, they were paid with chickens, or eggs, country cured hams or they would barter their labor in return for medical care. With no emergency vehicles in existence, funeral home hearses were used to transport patients to the hospital in emergency situations or in the family vehicle. Hearses were preferred since the patient could be laid flat on a gurney where they would be more comfortable. However, there were no trained technicians to accompany them.
A well-known physician in Adel received a call late one night after he had been seeing patients all the night before and was not able to get any rest the following day. He was exhausted. The husband of one of his female patients, who was known to be a hypochondriac, called saying his wife was ill and requested he come to their home to check on her. The caller was a local plumber and he too was accustomed to receiving emergency late night calls for service. The plumber was highly offended when the doctor summarily instructed him to give his wife two aspirin and bring her by the office the next day. Months later, the plumber had his revenge when the doctor had a plumbing emergency at his home when the toilet started running over and flooded his house. The doctor immediately called his friend the plumber who replied, “Doc, flush two aspirin tablets and call me in the morning.”
The same doctor had a black patient in the local hospital whose medical condition started to deteriorate. The doctor called the local black funeral home director and requested their hearse come to the hospital, pick up the patient and transport him as swiftly as possible to the hospital in Albany where he could get more specialized care.
The hearse arrived shortly thereafter, and the patient was loaded on board. The doctor sternly lectured the driver that he must make the trip as fast as the hearse would travel. He said the patient’s life was in his hands. The driver took his instructions seriously, replying to the doctor, “Boss, the road is mine”!
He began the trip with the accelerator pushed to the floor. As he traveled north on U. S. highway 41 at breakneck speed, they climbed the railroad overpass between Adel and Sparks. Unknown to the driver, the hearse rear door was not closed securely, and the patient rolled out the back of the hearse and landed on the highway, rolling to a stop at the bottom of the hill. Unaware of what had happened, the hearse continued on its way north to Tifton for the final leg of the trip into Albany when the driver noticed he had no patient in back. He immediately made the trip back and found his patient still on the gurney at the bottom of the overpass, surrounded by police who were directing traffic around him. The patient was again loaded into the hearse and finally made it safely to Albany where he was successfully treated and survived the experience.