On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Good Doctor: Niels Marius Hansen

            Everyone my age, give or take a few years, can recall experiences of bygone days unlike anything in our current culture.  I’ve written about some of these differences in my blog, but with the advent of ObamaCare, I was reminded of how things were in the mid-twentieth century regarding doctors and doctoring.
            Although “Doc” Hansen delivered me, and he no doubt saw me occasionally for checkups during my infancy, my first memory of him was when I was three or four.  I had come down with strep throat, so painful an experience that it has remained with me indelibly through the years.  I remember, miserable with fever, being held by my mother while she read to me, notably Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with its appealing cover and illustrations.
            I vividly remember visits from Doctor Hansen every evening on his way home from the office when he would sit beside me on the sofa.  It was there that my mother had placed me to await his ministrations and ultimately to paint my throat.  That was the best and only treatment during those pre-antibiotic days.  His matter-of-fact demeanor, coupled with a whiff of something slightly antiseptic, seemed reassuring to me, though I dreaded the gagging treatment.  He told me, without saying so, that I would soon be all right.  And this attitude remained his stock in trade.
            Doctor Hansen’s home and office were in a section of Des Moines called Snusville, an area settled primarily by Scandinavians and named for the term they gave snuff or tobacco.  (See my novel, Snusville, on Kindle or Nook.) Niels Marius Hansen was Danish-born, immigrating to America when he was nineteen years old.  After making a tough living as a farmhand while learning English, he entered Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, where he met his wife and became a committed Christian.  He went on to get his M.D. at Nebraska Medical School in Lincoln, and eventually ended up in Des Moines, where he practiced medicine until his retirement in 1962. 
            A few years after that when I was married and living in Tennessee, I had my last house call from a doctor, a never-again-to-be-repeated occasion.  Prior to that time, and certainly while I was growing up in Iowa, visits from a doctor were expected though rare.  More often, we visited Doc Hansen's office, which was a small brick structure, only a block from our first house and little more than that from our next one.  Because of this proximity it was natural my parents chose him for our family doctor.  Preventive medicine hadn’t been invented then, so it usually took quite dire circumstances to warrant a trip to the doctor or a house call.  I had chronic bronchitis as a child, which meant I got a cold stethoscope on my chest and cough medicine from him periodically.  As a teenager I remember sunbathing on a cloudy day in April and burned my face so badly my eyes nearly swelled shut.  When I saw Doc Hansen, he uttered a tsk, tsk, and shook his head, but he didn’t scold me.  Instead he said I had second-degree burns and gave me a soothing ointment.
            His style was always understated and to the point.  My brother Ken tells me that when he was in junior high, he was in a fight and cracked a bone in his thumb.  Doc Hansen taped it up with a splint and then showed Ken how to hold his fist the next time he fought so he wouldn’t hurt his thumb again.  He didn’t charge him a thing for the taping and the advice.
            I suppose the good doctor had a more leisurely schedule and less paperwork than the doctors of today, for Doctor Hansen had a number of interests, especially the Salvation Army where he regularly volunteered at the Rehabilitation Center.   He also had an eye for real estate investments.  The former interest was an expression of his devout interest in helping “the least of these,” while the latter was a practical need to supplement a modest income from doctoring.  As a matter of fact, my parents bought their second home from Doc Hansen.
            It was early one Sunday morning in that house when I was twelve years old that I was awakened by a terrible commotion.  Something had happened to my mother, late in her pregnancy, and both my father and brother were trying to help her.  I heard shouts to call the doctor, and that’s when I went under the covers.  I thought my mother had died.  But when the ambulance had taken her off, followed by my father in his car, my brother came in to tell me he’d been cleaning up the blood from a hemorrhage, and now we could only hope and pray our mother would be all right.
            An hour or so later, the phone rang, and my father said Doc had performed a caesarian section and it appeared Mother would survive as would a baby brother.  Occasionally, my mother’s sister would compare unfavorably our neighborhood doctor to those with more prestigious addresses—strangely, since she was married to a Dane—but we would all come to Doc's defense, remembering his swift and skillful work that terrible Sunday morning.
            I heard that after he retired and a widower, he moved to be nearer one of his two daughters in the Northwest, settling on Mercer Island for the remainder of his life.  He died at the age of one hundred, remembered fondly by those he served so well.

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