Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » They Die in Harness

They Die in Harness

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 09, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, February 1949 –

They Die in the Harness

By Myrtle M. Dean

This same thing had been happening several times the last few months, Doctor John waking in the middle of the night from fragmentary dreams, starting from his bed.

“It’s the telephone, Mary,” he said, waking his wife. “Hurry, Mary, see who it is while I get my bag. Someone needs me; someone is sick.” He had risen to sitting position on the side of the bed, his feet resting on the rug beside it.

“Sh – shh –, John, you are dreaming again. Lies down and go to sleep. The phone isn’t ringing.” There was deep concern in Mary’s voice.

“Oh, I thought – I thought the phone was ringing; someone wanting me.” Dr. John rubbed his eyes and shook his head confusedly as he spoke.

“You’ve got to stop this waking with a start and climbing out of bed; you know it is bad for you, John.” Mary took him by the shoulders and gently pushed him back on his pillow. “Now, go to sleep,” she said, as though she were speaking to a child.

He lay quietly, but he did not sleep for a long time, and he knew Mary was awake, too, but she lay quite still, saying nothing. There was that same empty feeling sweeping through him, leaving him trembling and weak.

Doctor John Boyd, retired; retired at sixty, he thought. no telephones ringing for you tonight, nor tomorrow, nor any time at all. Just lie back and take it easy. Let the phones ring for Matthews and Brown and Carson and all the others. You let them tell you you were too tired, too sick, he said derisively to himself.

He had known it would be difficult, but he wondered now why he had thought he could make his retirement a resigned sort of thing instead of this nagging discontent which followed him day and night; this sense of falling to pieces like rotten timber and being discarded.

It was Dr. Matthews whom his nurse had called when he had collapsed suddenly down at the office last June, and they had sent for Mary.

“You’ve got to stop this,” Matthews had said firmly. “This going day and night all during the war has been too much for you. The doctor shortage is over now, John; plenty of them back, now let them take over.”

Dr. John still remembered how bone-weary he had felt, and with Mary there looking so frightened and Matthews shaking the finger of death grimly in his face, he had given in to them.

Matthews had said,”Let your son Philip take over; carry on the Boyd tradition. He has made quite a name for himself, I hear, and has done some fine work in army hospitals.”

The Boyds had been doctors for four generations. Dr. John remembered when he was just a little boy, how his grandfather, Alex Boyd’s little black satchel had held such a fascination for him.

“Would you like to be a doctor, Johnnie?’ his grandfather had asked.

“I’m going to be one, just like you, grandpa,” he had answered seriously.

Dr. Alex’s little satchel had contained not much more than a bottle of chloroform, a pair of umbilical scissors and a bit of cord, and some pink pills in little bottles. Instead of a stethoscope, he tapped with his fingers and listened for sounds with his ear over the chest.

Dr. John’s own father, Dr. David, was considered a great surgeon in his day. Then Dr. John had come along through horse and buggy days, riding over dusty, winding country roads, then up through the period of rapid advancement in medicine and surgery, and the use of the new miracle drugs. Day or night, Dr. John had always been on the job.

He had been very happy when Philip, his only son, had chosen to be a doctor, too.

“Guess it’s in the blood, Dad,” Philip had said. “That little black bag holds a magnetism we can’t get away from.”

“It is hard work, son,” Dr. John had warned.

“I still want it,” Philip had answered seriously.

Philip had seemed so young when he had graduated from medical school, and John and Mary had been so proud of him. He had just finished his internship when he went with the army, working in army hospitals in London and Paris.

The ultimate climax of Dr. John’s life was to have been reached on Philip’s homecoming, when they were to enter the new Boyd Hospital at Alton, with father and son working together in this impeccably equipped place. The hospital was the result of a shining dream, of ambitions and work winging to heights of splendor. Philip had written from over seas, giving minute details of the latest in instruments, the finest in equipment and structure that should go into it.

“It will be wonderful, Dad, the two of us working together,” Philip had written enthusiastically.

Dr. John had hovered about like a mother hen over her brood of chicks, meticulously attending to its building.

He had explained to Dr. Matthews when he had told him to stop work, “The new hospital, Matthews, that is for us, Philip and me, working together.” There had been a note of pleading in his voice.

Matthews’s next words had been a near command. “You can’t go into that hospital, Boyd. If you do, it will be as a patient.”

Dr. John had forbidden Mary to tell Philip why he was retiring. “I won’t have my son probing me, examining me, putting me to bed,” he had said vehemently.

“Just tell him you are retiring, like anyone has a right to do at your age if one has the means to live adequately. Dozens of men here, no older than you, are retired and enjoying life.” Mary had spoken so calmly casual that John had burst forth almost fiercely, “Doctors don’t retire if they have any guts. They die in the harness.”

Mary had checked him before he could continue. “Yes, they keep on until they die like your father. He died at sixty-three. He died in the harness. Your mother was a widow for twelve years. I don’t want that, John.” Mary’s eyes had grown dark with fear, and she looked delicate and defenseless as she stood there.

Dr. John thought, she has stood by me through all my struggles, but she cannot quite understand that being a doctor is more than a job. It makes one part of life itself, living with people in their happiness and their sorrows, in life and in death. A baby born into the world, a life going out, this had all become a part of him.

Philip had come home and gone into the new hospital with young doctors Martin and Alder, to assist him. He had seemed puzzled and a little hurt at his father’s sudden unexplained decision to retire.

Dr. John and Mary had gone away for two months for a rest, but he had grown restless and had returned, thinking perhaps it would seem better at home with people he knew and loved.

Now as he lay sleepless, deep in the night, memories rushing upon him, he thought, it gets harder as time goes on, not easier. Matthews has my office and equipment, while I stay twiddling my thumbs.

John had been firm on one point. He wouldn’t give up his little black bag and its contents. “Just as well cut off my right arm,” he had said. He had placed it on his closet shelf and sometimes when Mary wasn’t around he would take it out and finger its contents lovingly.

After a restless night, Dr. John always looked tired and pale. Mary eyed him anxiously, but in silence.

“Guess I’ll walk down town for a bit of exercise,” he said as he finished his breakfast. He tried to sound cheerful.

“Better wear your overcoat. It’s cold out this morning,” Mary said.

“Yes, pretty nippy for the first of November,” he answered, while he thought, June and now November. One marks off the days on the calendar, but nothing makes the days go faster. Only work and living can do that.

He met old friends on the street, heard bits of news. He stopped at a newsstand and bought a morning paper, then went into the hotel lobby that was nearby, to rest a while and read. He chose a big chair off in one end of the long room. There were well-dressed men who sat near his chair. Strangers, Dr. John said to himself. Getting so I don’t know folks so well anymore. Lots of new people coming in since the big steel mill was built during the war.

Then a warm glow of satisfaction filled his heart as his eyes fell on a news note in the paper. “Miracle of Surgery Saves Life of Son of Wealthy Banker,” was the caption. Then he read on:

Car accident causes serious brain concussion and critical internal injuries to young Tony Barton, son of Thomas Barton, prominent citizen and President of the First National Bank of Alton. Credit for the saving of the young man’s life is given to the marvelous skill and swift precision of the operation performed by Dr. Philip Boyd at the Boyd Hospital. Young Barton is reported as being in good condition at Boyd Hospital today.

My happiness must come, now, through my son’s success, Dr. John said to himself. Then he heard the two men near him talking.

“A town the size of Alton is lucky getting such a skilled doctor as young Boyd, and having such a fine hospital,” one of them remarked. “Yes, his father, Dr. John, had the hospital built at Alton.”

“They say the son isn’t a bit like his father. Philip is a big doctor all right. He has a big hospital, wealthy patients, pretty nurses, everything he needs, but he hasn’t the big heart like Dr. John.”

“He’s an only child, they tell me. Maybe that’s it,” the first speaker said, with a sarcastic chuckle.

Dr. John’s hands clenched tightly. His first impulse was to confront these strangers. Such talk would be damaging to Philip. Then, with perturbed thoughtfulness, he sank back heavily into his chair. I must face facts squarely. Philip is our only son. Have we done too much for him?

Dr. John slipped, unobserved, through a side door and moved slowly toward home. As he went in he moved near the fire that burned on the grate, and rubbed his hands together to warm them. He tried to put a cheerful note in his voice as he told Mary little bits of news he had heard in the town, but he did not tell her what he had heard about Philip at the hotel. He did not want her to be hurt.

He handed her the paper, pointing to the article about Philip. “You’ll be proud of your son,” he said, smiling tenderly.

“I knew he would be a great doctor,” she said, maternal pride shining in her eyes.

“I think I’ll drive over to Alton, offer my congratulations to Philip and take a look at the hospital,” he said then, quite unexpectedly. “I may not be back until late. See that Martha takes good care of you.” Martha was their housekeeper who had been with them for fifteen years.

John knew that Mary would like to go along and see Philip. They usually went together, but he wanted to see Philip alone today.

“Tell Philip how proud I am of him, too,” Mary said, “and give Janie my love. I had hoped Philip would marry before now. He needs a good wife.”

“Every man needs a good wife. What would I have done without my good wife? It is you who have given me courage to do everything I have done, Mary.”

“Every woman loves to hear her husband say such things, John, even if they are a bit farfetched.”

They had both secretly hoped Janie and Philip would marry, and had suspected that Janie had been in love with Philip ever since she was a girl sixteen. Her parents had both been killed in an accident when she was twelve, and Mary and John had been like a mother and father to her since then. She had become a nurse, and now worked with Philip in the Boyd Hospital.

Alton seemed wrapped in a quiescent hush. The great smokestacks of the smelter and mills looked cold and foreboding in the absence of the gray smoke that usually belched from their tops. Picket lines marched in front of the mill gates.

The Boyd Hospital stood like a clean white monument on the far side of the town, etched against a background of burnished autumnal hills; a monument to the name of Boyd.

Philip would be busy most of the afternoon in the examining office. Dr. John decided to look about the hospital before he tried to see him.

The sun was shining, trying to temper the cold wind that swept up fallen leaves from the lawn and piled them in little heaps against the wide marble steps.

Inside the front hall, Dr. John took off his topcoat and hung it on the rack. He stood for a moment, almost breathless from the force of the cold wind. He saw that the outer waiting room was already full of people waiting their turn to be taken in. They were mostly well-dressed, the sort of folk one would expect to see in such a setting as this hospital made.

Incongruously, among the others, he noted a woman who looked to be a foreigner. She was poorly dressed. Her coat was shapeless and frayed. A boy of about ten leaned wearily against her gaunt side. His face was pale, but a vivid spot burned on either cheek. His breath came in uneven panting jerks. The mother’s face was filled with anxiety.

That child needs immediate attention, Dr. John said to himself, and instinctively he thought of his black bag he had surreptitiously taken from his closet shelf and placed in his car while Mary had gone to bring his muffler.

Then he saw Elise Boulton emerging from the examining room. She was wrapped snugly in her sable furs. Her voice was lilting as she spoke to the nurse. “It will be wonderful to have a nice rest in such a nice room. Dr. Philip says I may have room 16 – my same darling, sunny room”

“Yes, you are lucky. The hospital is crowded full,” Jane said, and then, “Your turn next please,” she said to another patient.

Still the sick child waited.

Dr. John felt in no mood to meet Elise. As she went out he went through a side door and took an elevator to the top floor, thinking to himself, I guess Elise has had another disagreement with Jim Boulton, so is running away, pretending sick, to get his sympathy, and Philip is humoring her whims. Sure, she can pay for the best room in the hospital.

He went about the hospital reveling in its perfection. Finally, he glanced at his watch, and knew he must go down if he wanted to see Philip. Time had passed so quickly in this Utopian world in which Philip worked.

There were only a few persons left in the waiting room. The woman and her child had gone in. Dr. John moved to a front window in an alcove of the room. Then, he stood in shocked silence, for he saw the woman and her boy coming out again from the examining room, and he heard Jane’s voice saying, “I’m sorry, but Dr. Boyd says every room is taken, and your son will require hospitalization for some time.” Then, making her own observation, she continued, “Your child is very ill. You should call your family doctor at once or go to some other hospital. Goodbye,” she said kindly.

A woman who was still waiting her turn to go in, sensing the child’s urgent need, asked, “Didn’t you have an appointment here? Your child needs attention immediately.”

“No, I have none. I just come. My boy, he so very seck. I come here. Doctor Boyd so good a doctor. Everyone say that. The paper this morning, it say so too. So I just come. I be here in Alton not so long. I don’t know doctors. The strikes, my husband, he have no work now. I come to this good hospital. My boy so seck, so seck.” She went out murmuring brokenly.

For a brief moment, Dr. John stood unbelieving and bewildered, his fist clenched tightly. His first impulse was to go in to Philip, but he heard Philip saying to Jane, “I have an engagement now, so must leave. Call Morton down to finish here,” and he left by a side door to take his car.

The woman and child were moving slowly down the front walk. Their battered old car stood by the curb. Without a formulated plan, Dr. John hurried to the door.

“Come on back,” he called, his voice drifting out to them on the sharp, cold air.

The woman turned hesitantly, as though she would brook no further delay. The wind whipped her coat tantalizingly against her thin legs.

“Bring the child back. We will take care of him here,” he said as he moved out toward her.

Her eyes turned up to his, at first questioning doubtfully, but she saw the kindness in his face, and turned back murmuring gratefully, “Oh, thank you. My boy, he so seck.”

Dr. John called Jane and two other nurses to assist him. It was all over in a few hours. The child was resting in room sixteen, finest room in the hospital, the room Elise Boulton had expected to occupy at ten the next morning. Dr. John gave quick, concise orders to the head nurse on the floor.”Keep a special nurse on the case for a few days. Administer oxygen continually until further directed. Watch those drain tubes. There was a lot of pus in that right lung.”

He turned, then, to the boy’s mother. “You must go now. The child needs rest. You may come tomorrow and see him,” he said kindly.

Tears of gratitude welled in her eyes as she started to go, then hesitating a moment, she asked anxiously, “He will get well?”

He nodded affirmatively. “Yes, he will be all right now.”

“Oh, thank you, Doctor – Doctor – I don’t know your name.”

“I’m Dr. Boyd,” he answered, unrevealingly.

“Oh, I find wrong doctor then. That is it. I find wrong doctor first time.” She went out, nodding her head and smiling.

Then he turned to Jane. “Don’t forget to notify Elise Boulton that an emergency case came in, and has to occupy room sixteen. We’ll need it for at least ten days.” There was a cryptic satisfaction in his smile as he spoke. Then his face became somber as he studied Jane’s face. “How are things with you, Janie?” he asked. “With you and Philip, I mean?

For a moment her dark eyes grew serious, and wavered beneath his gaze as she answered a bit hesitantly. “Sometimes I think I am only a part of the impeccable equipment of this place, like the elevator, the X-ray machine, moving like an automaton through his days.” Then a slow smile lighted her face and there was an eager, shining look in her eyes. “Then other times –” she said, leaving the sentence unfinished.

“Philip needs you, Janie,” he said earnestly as he turned to leave.

“But, Dr. John, what about you, you here doing this?” she questioned, as she motioned toward the child’s bed.

“That child would have died. You know that, Janie, but I came here because I had a feeling Philip needed me today, and I needed him, too.”

Jane gave him an understanding smile, and pressed his hand gently as she said, “Philip needs you every day, Dr. John.”

He turned and drew himself up a little straighter and taller as though a sudden resolve had been born within him. And he said, “I’ll be back again tomorrow, Janie, and each day thereafter.”

A satisfied smile curved his lips, and a peaceful light stole over his face.



  1. Based on the description of the way that hospital was built, and the way old Dr. John just showed up and decided to hire on again, they might just as well have been describing health care in Oz. Also, I’m fond of the sweet endings in these stories. I can get my realism elsewhere. Thanks, Ardis!

    Comment by MDearest — January 9, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

  2. It is am interesting view of health care, although there were a lot of community hospitals, with 20-30 beds built after the war. Many of them were built as a joint ventute between several doctors and whatever the largest employer(s) in the town. We have seen them close in smaller communities all over Oregon, in favor of larger regional hospitals. It is interesting to get the perspective of how they operated when first started.

    Comment by Julia — January 14, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  3. I’ve been thinking about this for several days, and it just doesn’t sit right. The Dr. Dad is happy that he is needed because his Dr. Son doesn’t have his same caring heart for patients? I think Dr. Dad would be more disappointed in Dr. Son instead of happy for work.

    Comment by HokieKate — January 14, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

  4. I think that probably his “Phillip needs me” is less about getting back to work with patients and far more about working with Phillip to instill that compassion and sense of proportion, and caring heart, that the son somehow missed in hs early training.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 14, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

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