One of my early readers for “Finding Grace” asked me about the inspiration for the fictitious character Dr. Walt Riley, the family doc in Two Harbors, Minnesota, who, as a solo general practitioner provided all of the medical care in that small town, from births to deaths. Of course she thought Walt was unrealistic, “How could one doctor be everything they needed?”
But, I explained that Walt Riley came from a bit of a romanticized version of my own reality. In my small town, there was only one doctor, and he did it all. When I was born, my parents lived on a farm a few miles out of town, but my expected birth in the middle of a Minnesota winter led to a plan dictated by the doctor for my mother to stay in town at my grandparents’ home. His rationale was sound— in the event of a blizzard he could pick her up and drive her to the nearest hospital without having a delay caused by impassable country roads. Sure enough, the February snowstorm came just as my mother went into labor, but Dr. Hubert drove the twenty miles to the nearest hospital before the roads were closed. After a successful delivery In the hospital, I shared the nursery with two babies who later became classmates and friends in my elementary school.
One of those classmates shared an improbable experience by today’s standards when, eighteen years later, we were given parental permission to get our ears pierced, but only if Dr. Hubert was willing to do the honors. After getting our courage up we made a joint appointment for the procedure, without any assurance he would do the deed. He tested us by delivering a five minute lecture about vanity. We held fast and he did agree to pierce our ears. But only after commenting that he didn’t expect this from us when he delivered us eighteen years ago…
By now, embarrassed but resolved, we were in it to the end. I agreed to go first. It was only afterward that my friend told me that when the doctor moved in to inject the numbing agent into my second earlobe she saw the needle go right through the lobe and spray across the room. Fortunately, I didn’t feel any more pain with that second ear than the first!
Dr. Hubert provided all of my medical care until I left home for college shortly after the ear piercing. Everything from well-baby appointments, strep throat, shots, camp physicals—if it was medical—he did it. This man even made house calls. I was prone to ear aches long before ear tubes were fashionable and I remember the relief when he came to my house to administer warm ear drops to ease my pain.
As a kid, I was aware of illnesses among the townspeople, merely because it was a small town. News travels fast, and families were vast in their social expanse. Dr. Hubert ministered to all of them, and sent those who needed it off to specialty care. He also served as coroner and assisted the dying with palliative care.
He was an excellent keeper of secrets—for everyone, which is why he was so trusted. While he was a man of his word, he was also a man of few words, often repeated. I recall many times hearing about someone’s illness and also what “the doc” said about it. He was quoted often as the final authority. In a small town, when the doctor made a house call, his car was recognized and neighbors and families rallied round to ask what they could do. The small nursing home and nearby hospital together were the largest employer in town and news of babies born and a cancer diagnosis were celebrated and grieved together.
I remember him as a widower, and he died years after I left town. He seemed ageless to me.
And priceless to the town.