Every small community has a unique but similar cast of characters. Our small Southern Utah town was no different. From a young boy’s perspective, the cops and docs were feared but cautiously idolized, the mayor was respected, the athletic coaches were immortalized, and of course, we had the homeless man in town, whom we feared. We will call ours Stu.
Stu had greasy disheveled hair and a gray beard. He wore a patch over one eye which sparked all kinds of rumors that added to the mystery. The rancid smell of old sweat and alcohol permeated the air whenever he walked by. He wore baggy overalls and walked with a hunched over shuffle. I remember watching Stu shuffle to the local bar on Main Street, head down, and moving slowly. It was said that Stu would get drunk and create enough ruckus to get arrested just so he could spend the night in the city jail to get a shower and free meal.
It was hard not to ridicule Stu. In fact, to a young boy, his differences begged to be laughed at. On some of his walks to the bar, my friends and I would walk behind him, not daring to get too close but just close enough to make fun of his appearance and laugh at his strangeness. We made fun of what we feared. With all the rumors about Stu and his home, there was plenty to fear.
Another important part of the community’s cast was the town doc. Because Dad was the only physician in our town he was busy. Every church meeting, party, or social started out with, “Hey Doc, how are you?” and ended with, “I’ve got this pain,” or “while you’re here can you take a look at this?” Because he was so busy, whenever he had to make evening rounds at the hospital or see patients on weekends, dad would invite us to tag along. I remember one Saturday my father asked if I would like to go with him to the office.
Dad’s doctor’s office was a refurbished nursing home next to the old city hospital. It was complete with a tub in the bathroom and small exam rooms. As we drove past the front of his office on our way to the parking lot in the back I noticed Stu, sitting on the front steps of the office. I felt the familiar surge of adrenaline that accompanied. He was just sitting there looking at the ground. As we drove passed I warned dad that he might want to be careful because Stu was sitting on his front steps. Dad just smiled but didn’t respond and continued driving around to the back. I kept my eye on Stu as long as I could.
We parked and went in the back door. My plan was to go to a room where I could look out the window and keep an eye on crazy Stu who, I assumed, was there to kill us while my dad saw the patient he was supposed to meet. I remember my anxiety building as I watched in shock as Dad approached the front door of the office. Before I could stop him, he did the unthinkable. Time stopped for a moment then proceeded in slow motion. I watched in horror as Dad reached out, turned the knob, and opened the front door. My father had just destroyed the only barrier that existed between us and one-eyed Stu.
Stu, still sitting on the front steps, turned at the sound of the door opening and awkwardly stood up. With awkward effort, he stepped the last step and started to approach Dad. My anxiety and raw terror at this point caused me ashamedly to freeze. I could not move. I was somewhat reassured because Stu hadn’t noticed me and if he took out Dad maybe I could make a break through the back door. As Stu approached Dad he then did something that was the least likely thing I would ever have thought possible. He reached up with both hands and gave my father a hug. My father returned this gesture without any hesitation. I stood there in awe as I watched the man I respected more than any other hug the man I feared more than any other.
The shock continued as my father led Stu past me and into the bathroom of the old office. In the old nursing home bathroom with the tub, Dad turned on the water, stepped out, and closed the door so Stu could take a bath. As my father came out of the bathroom he looked at me, shrugged, and just smiled. I am sure I stood there in shock, mouth open, and eyes wide at the events that just unfolded. I knew at that moment that Dad was probably aware of my involvement in ridiculing the idiosyncrasies of Stu. I instantly and ashamedly relived all the times we made fun of Stu.
Knowing that my father did not care about where Stu lived, how he walked, or what he wore, made a lasting impression on me. The jokes and comments made about Stu, that I had previously been a part of, were never repeated again. I couldn’t do it because Stu was a friend of my fathers. Dad never said a word about that experience or about how I had treated Stu, nor did he have to. He taught me through action, that no matter what the patient’s situation was, all patients had dignity, and we as physicians need to recognize and honor their humanity. That lesson has formed who I am as a physician, and I could not be more grateful than I am for my physician father, who loved his patients, because it was the right thing to do.
Peter V. Sundwall, Jr. is a family physician. This article originally appeared in Family Medicine Vital Signs.
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