Just Us Chickens
Doctor Sam Turberville was famous for much longer than his allotted fifteen minutes, though it was across a relatively small hinterland.
I am sorry to say I never knew him or his two physician sons, John and Joe.
This trio provided the medical care for all the folk in Century, a small community about 40 miles north of Pensacola.
I remember not whether the post office was listed in Florida or Alabama, for the small settlement sat athwart the state line, but that's of no great importance -- their patients derived from a wide area in both jurisdictions.
I had never heard of any of the physicians 'til all were gone.
The father -- Dr. Sam -- had started the practice as a young man, and his sons had joined him as each successively finished their training.
What had started as a small office practice in Dr. Sam's home had grown into a thriving clinic, and his home had grown into a small rural hospital.
Though all were general practitioners, they took care of a wide spectrum of ills and injuries, entailing surgery as well as pharmacological intervention -- well beyond what most of us today would undertake without specialty training and preparation.
In their absence the folk of a considerable region would be deprived of healthcare lest they drove for many miles.
One summer during the early 1950's the elder doctor, after a career of toil, wore out and died -- his sons carried on.
Then that fall, on the way home from a football game in Knoxville, one of the sons was killed in an automobile accident.
The remaining son continued, but bearing the brunt of the large three-man practice on his own took its toll on him and he died suddenly of a massive heart attack the following winter.
So, what had seemed a solid community and family asset had now suddenly turned to sand.
The clinic had not only provided medical care for the community, but had also provided livelihood for a goodly part of the greater Turberville family.
A nephew managed the enterprise and doubled as the laboratory and radiology technician while various nieces and cousins worked as nurses, aides and clerks.
There was much pressure, from both within and without, to keep the doors open.
Two "newly-minted" physicians from Alabama had been temporarily recruited and, after getting their feet wet, had decided they wished to stay permanently.
In those days -- some 50 years ago -- it was difficult, if not impossible, to practice medicine casually in the "Sunshine State".
Florida, being a winter playground, had attracted many practitioners from colder places who come south mostly to relax in the sun while practicing for a few hours each day, and thus paying for their vacations.
Physicians living and working year round in Florida had taken umbrage at this "skimming off" of their cream during this the most rewarding time of the year.
Regulations had been imposed to prohibit medical licensure through reciprocity. Having to personally take the state board examination discouraged most of the "snowbirds".
The two Alabamans now working in Century had been granted temporary dispensation until the examinations were next given.
At that time we were in Pensacola while I undertook refresher flight training after having graduated from the School of Aviation Medicine and having been designated a Flight Surgeon.
As a combat-experienced carrier pilot from World War II, I was now being groomed for a billet as a physician-pilot.
I had gone to medical school and was back interning in the Navy when the Korean conflict started and elected to stay in as the new war was already underway.
My flight training had temporarily removed me from clinical medicine at a time relatively early in my new career, and I felt the need to keep my hand in so I was covering the Emergency Room every other weekend at the local Baptist Hospital.
Another flight surgeon with similar background and similar training alternated weekends with me.
Dr. Tuberville's nephew, having found out from the hospital that I was scheduled to be "off" the following weekend, called and asked me if I could keep their hospital open Saturday and Sunday, staying until Monday morning.
He explained all their past troubles and that the two Alabama physicians needed to be in Tallahassee for the week to take their Florida examinations.
This meant, with my Pensacola commitments, working three straight weeks, but with my own growing family the extra money would be welcome.
He said that with the new practitioners not yet up to speed things had not been too busy and assured me the weekend should not be a burden.
I agreed to go.
A foggy dusk overtook me on the way there Friday, and being on strange roads I had to follow a bus to find my way into Century, an eerie beginning to a strange experience.
I had no sooner found the clinic, changed into "scrubs" and been shown around than things started with a bang.
An ambulance brought in a young woman who had sustained a compound leg fracture in an automobile accident.
Definitive treatment of this injury was beyond my competence and it took about an hour before I had her wound dressed, temporarily splinted, and had her on the way to an orthopedist I had contacted in Pensacola.
However, while working on her it became clear that I was going to probably have to change my practice paradigm, at least for the weekend.
When I looked up from the treatment table, I discovered a group of faces looking in through a window in the upper door, following what I was doing.
I figured they were staff members and went on with my task.
In short order we were back in the treatment room suturing a patient with a laceration of the leg.
I again noted faces at the window of the door, but realized this was a different crowd of people.
So I asked why all the kibitzing.
It turned out that this room was also their surgery center, and that Dr. Sam had rigged up the window so the families could look in and see how things were going during an operation.
It was hardly a common practice elsewhere, it made me a bit uneasy, and I started to ask for a drape over the window, but had second thoughts.
They could see little and didn't understand what they were seeing in the first place, so what was the harm.
Besides, if I had the window blocked they might think I was trying to hide something from them.
Maybe the old doctor had known more about getting along with his Panhandle folks than did I.
It still seemed strange, though.
We were busy through the night, but not swamped.
Early the next morning a man and his adult son came in and wanted me to go out to a farm and see a younger son who was sick.
I told them I had been brought in to keep the hospital open, not to make house calls out in the country.
I convinced them they should bring him to the hospital and in about an hour they were back with him.
He was truly ill -- had pneumonia, high fever and chills.
I got him into a room, started I.V. fluids and penicillin.
I was called away and when I got back to check on him there were about 20 people, all relatives, in the small room -- along with a lot of cigarette smoke.
It occurred to me they were of a motive with those who had been watching through the treatment room window.
They wanted to know what the outside doctor was up to -- fortunately the lad seemed to be improving already, and when I left the next morning he obviously was recovering.
I've often wondered what would have happened had this not been the case.
And so it went through the next night.
I was ready to turn in when a large fellow trudged in carrying another fence of his size in his arms.
He had what appeared to be a bullet wound just below the knee, and indeed, x-rays showed metallic fragments along the tibia and a pellet in the ankle that I could feel through his skin.
I nicked the skin and easily removed what appeared to be a .38 caliber slug.
I said to the two: "You know it's the law that I have to report gun-shot wounds to the Sheriff!"
The injured fellow said: "I don't know what happened, Doctor. We were pushing our car and something came along and hit me in the leg."
His friend added: "Well, you know we wuz pushing that car pretty close to somebody's hen house."
Some places are visited and promptly forgotten, even when one stays longer than a weekend.
The vividness of memory probably rests with how good a story an experience makes.
I hadn't thought of Century for years, however, I recently met a lady in Connecticut who had been raised there.
We swapped yarns and chuckles, and she told me the rest of the story.
She well remembered the Tubervilles and also recalled that a physician from Alabama had practiced there for a number of years after "Dr. Sam" and his sons died.
So I guess at least one of those fellows for whom I had filled indeed passed his Florida exam.
It seems he thrived there and she also remembers that he bought an airplane that he enjoyed flying very much.
Suddenly, some years back, he disappeared without notice, and until this day no one knows what happened to him.
As an old man once said: "The more you see of the world the curiouser and curiouser it gets."
April 12, 1996
Back to Naval Years index