Heartache and House Calls

Sometimes it takes getting sick to put things in perspective

Eric Utne Portrait

2009 © Chris Lyons / lindgrensmith.com

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When was the last time you got sick, called a doctor for help, and he or she dropped everything to come to your home to have a look? That’s exactly what my neighbor Dr. Ed Funk did for me last summer. It was a real Norman Rockwell moment, a scene straight from the country-doctor tales of William Carlos Williams. I only learned days later that Ed was in the middle of entertaining guests for dinner when I called. He never mentioned it. He came by to see me nearly every day for the next 10 days.

Ed’s house calls came last July, two months after my sister died of breast cancer.  My life got very busy in the wake of Mary’s death, and I hardly found a moment to mourn. After several weeks of intense travel and public speaking, I came down with mysterious high fevers interspersed with bouts of convulsive chills.

Following a couple of extremely uncomfortable days, I called Ed, a medical doctor who works in a local urgent-care clinic. Ed and I have lived within a block of each other for more than 10 years. His children attend the same elementary school my boys did.

Ed came right over to my place, took one look at me, and urged me to visit his clinic the next morning to get a chest X-ray and blood tests. It turned out that I had a nasty case of pneumonia. The clinic’s docs sent me home with a prescription for a 10-day course of antibiotics.

I never missed a day of school growing up, and have experienced only the occasional flu or cold since. How? Mostly denial. Plus I faithfully followed my grandmother’s advice: Avoid doctors at all costs.

Yet here I was at the mercy of pneumonia. Frightened to be so ill, I did not hesitate to use the recommended antibiotics. It took two courses to knock it out. I cannot recall ever being so sick.

Rosie, a shaggy, apricot-colored poodle, usually accompanied Ed on his visits. One day Ed showed up with armloads of exotic tropical fruit, including mangosteen and tamarind. Ambrosia! When he thought I was ready to hear it, he gently asked me why I’d gotten pneumonia and what I thought it meant. I told him I hadn’t a clue, but it set me to thinking.

A cold or flu can cause a blip in the flow of your life, but three weeks is long enough to take a real time-out. During those hot July days I took stock of my life. Family and friends showed up with buckets of chicken soup and bundles of fragrant flowers. People called or came by to check on me every day. One acquaintance pointed out that lung problems are sometimes associated with unexpressed, unresolved grief.

It took getting sick for me to slow down, feel the sadness of losing my sister, look at what’s truly important to me, and discover my core community—the friends and family I can count on. And I discovered that my core community includes conventional medicine, because my unconventional neighbor Dr. Ed recommended it.

So, who do you turn to in a health crisis? Where you seek help is too often defined by the resources available, of course, but it can also shed light on the quality of your community and embody your values and worldview. Do you consult the herbalist­-midwife who knows the “old ways” of your people and place? Your family doc or local clinic? Do you seek out a specialist at a university teaching hospital, or someplace like the Mayo Clinic? Or do you cobble together some combination of these options?

Even today, many people in this country and around the world die if they contract pneumonia. I’m one of the lucky ones. I had the best of modern medical care and family and friends to look after me. Is there some way we can design our health care system to ensure similar support for all? I wish everyone could have a Dr. Ed to make house calls. We deserve nothing less.

Eric Utne, the founder of Utne Reader, is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.