Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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One of the features of aging past ninety is accumulating many stories to tell. Perhaps fewer are left alive to challenge insignificant details.

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George Ross Fisher III M.D. : Memoirs
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New topic 2019-05-24 23:10:33 description

My Years at Stockley

For forty-six years, I drove three hundred round- trip miles from Philadelphia to Stockley, Delaware -- once a month on Saturdays. That takes a whole day, so it kind of means I spent a year at sixty miles an hour, going and coming. In Delaware, they speak of going “South of the Canal”, to indicate the little state of Delaware is actually two states or at least two cultures. North of the Delaware-Chesapeake ship canal is the posh little city of Wilmington, where most of the major New York banks are moving to enjoy the special banking laws, and where the Dupont family held majestic court over its Ivy League Camelot. Wilmington has more lawyers than anywhere or at least more white shoe patrician lawyers than anywhere. Little Delaware generated special laws for the benefit of corporations, so a whole hive of corporation lawyers generated an industry of pretending that General Motors and IBM are headquartered there. Those lawyers were once so remote from the graduates of second-rate (i.e. state rather than national) law schools making a living as plaintiff lawyers, that even the doctors in Wilmington were on cordial terms with the Wilmington lawyers.

South of the Canal was something else. I saw burning crosses on several occasions, and my trip took me past two race tracks for horses and two for beat-up jalopies that smash into each other for the fun of it. To be fair about it, I was shot at twice, once below the canal, and once in Wilmington, that's another story. The incident below the canal was not terribly spectacular; I just heard a loud noise as I drove past Elks lodge, or maybe a Moose lodge, and there was a nice round hole in my fender when I got out of the car. I suppose someone in the lodge was just careless with his gun, but it is not impossible that I had crowded a pick-up truck which retaliated with fair warning.

I met a nice lady from Rehoboth who tells me she remembers when the highway was built; before 1930 or so, there was no road connecting lower Delaware with the outside world. The native people speak with an accent which isn't quite Southern and which is said to be very close to true Elizabethan English. The area was settled by Swedes before the English came, so the people are quite handsome in a sort of Daisy Mae, L’il Abner way. The highway has an interesting history. Coleman DuPont purchased the land and built the highway at his own expense. If you know anything about rural legislatures, you can guess what happened next. He offered the highway to the State and the legislature refused to accept the maintenance costs. When he then hired his own police force to patrol the highway, the legislature reconsidered and accepted his offer to give them the highway.

My trips to this area have their destination at the Hospital for the Mentally Retarded in Stockley, Delaware. In spite of the way it is spelled, it is pronounced "Stokely". A state cop once forgave my speeding violation when I told him I had been at "Stokely". He said that in spite of my out-of-state license plates, I must be telling the truth if I knew how to pronounce it. The hospital has always kept a sign-in log in the administration building, and it is fun to see my signatures going back to 1958, month after month. I've had a couple of close calls or near-accidents on the highway which I haven't told my wife about, and on two occasions the ice or fog was so bad I had to turn around and come home without completing the trip. The trip ordinarily isn't so bad. The car is on cruise control, there are medical education tapes to play (Audio Digest, courtesy of the California Medical Association), and a sort of hypnosis makes you forget where you are going until you get there.

The medical director is a nice young fellow who has a practice in a nearby (25 miles) town and stops by for a few hours a day. Except for him, just about every resident doctor in thirty years has been foreign-born, and I would judge, very poorly paid. So, several years before I came to Stockley, someone had the idea of bringing in consultants from Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In the early days that was reasonably easy to do, because the hospital was filled with six hundred perfectly fascinating cases. I've seen several albinos and one thirty-year-old who was no bigger than an infant in arms. They used to have a number of cases of grotesque hydrocephalus, where the poor child grew a head larger than you could put your arms around and which would develop huge bedsores because the child couldn't move his head, let alone lift it. Because the Delmarva Peninsula has been a closed society for over three hundred years, there are lots of cases of rare inherited diseases. I have seen many cases of disorders that other doctors have only maybe read about, and I must admit I loved the experience.

But you know after you spend as much time with them as I have, they stop being interesting cases and become individuals, with names and personalities. Since the aging process is accelerated in several common diseases like Mongolism, I have known some of the patients' as little children, then as adults, and finally as dying withered victims of senility. Many times, I have watched the central agony of mental retardation; the children inevitably outlive their parents and ultimately have no one to love them except the institution.

In that role, Stockley does pretty well, although perhaps not as well as it used to do. The switch seems to have happened with the John Kennedy administration when money for the retarded became abundant. That landmark was especially memorable on a Saturday when the Russians menaced us over Cuba. I never knew we had so many eight-engined bombers as circled over the Dover Air Force Base that day. Years later, a pilot brought his son to see me, and I asked him. "Yup," he said. "we were carrying eggs, all right." "Picked them up in Alaska."Originally published: Wednesday, August 22, 2018; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019

 

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