If you ever have time to read my blog, you will recall that a few months ago I did a write up about one of my favorite places in Perry County, Homeplace. I had such a warm reception of this piece that I was thoroughly humbled and surprised at the amount of love and pride that Homeplace still, to this day, inspires in people, around here. The piece focused primarily on the history of the clinic and doctors who were involved there in it’s heyday. Dr. Donald L. Martin being my primary interest, mainly because I was able to get in touch with his daughters, Carol and Gail. He also delivered my aunts and uncles at the clinic during the 50’s. His daughters were gracious enough to supply me with pictures, and stories of their father, both of which I enjoyed so much. I still have people who email me and thank me for the article.
I had no idea that Dr. Martin had penned two books. Gail absolutely made my year by mailing me copies of both. They are among my treasures, and that says a lot, because I collect a lot of books. The amount of people who have offered to buy them or made inquiries of where to find them has been overwhelming. I believe it is safe to say that Dr. Martin made quiet an impact in his 20 years as a rural doctor in Eastern Kentucky. As a tribute to him, as well as his wonderful daughters who made this article possible, I just wanted to share the first of two of his fascinating books with you and hope that everyone who reads this can appreciate and admire the kind of intelligent, compassionate and wonderful man he obviously was.
Dr. Martin, a graduate from the University of Louisville Medical school, did his internship at the Philadelphia General Hospital. He was a medical officer aboard the U.S.S. Delta AR9 during the Korean Campaign, and for 20 years he served as staff physician at Homeplace Clinic, a Hospital near Hazard, Kentucky. He later spent years in solo practice in Salem, Indiana.
“It seems to me that referees, docs and God have something in common. Mistakes by any of these three entities simply are not tolerated.”
This wonderful little book is a collection of short stories by Martin, that span his career as a doctor, and chronicles what life was like in rural Eastern Kentucky during the 50s-60s. My favorites are clearly his recantations of life in Ary, Kentucky. As a physician at Homeplace in 50-60’s, life could not have been easy for him. Many people here in the mountains (at that time) had never been inside a clinic or hospital, let alone seen a doctor. Martin included several stories about child birth, which I am sure he delivered many in his years in Eastern Kentucky. “There was no birth control pill and to sterilize anybody took an act of congress in those days. Consequently, families often included ten to fifteen “head of youngun” along with Grandma, and Grandpa and maybe Aunt Mary.” So many folks around here come from large families and this is so true. My Grandmother alone had six children. It was just common back then to have so many. Kyle’s Grandmother had eleven. Honestly, I could never even imagine the level of humility one would need to have, in order to raise that many children. Dr. Martin recalls these days with a level of understanding and compassion. The selflessness that he must have shown during his time here must have been overwhelming. He was basically on call 24/7 and dealt with unimaginable obstacles. He manages to stay refreshingly positive and humble throughout his books, and I am quiet positive that many folks from this area owe him their lives.
One of my favorite stories in which Doc shared was one of “The Rattlesnake and the Pussycat.” A squirrel hunter from Breathitt County had drunkenly mistaken a rattlesnake for a cat and tried to pet it, resulting in a nasty snakebite. As he was bit first thing in the morning, before the snake’s venom supply had been sufficiently depleted, he was in pretty bad shape by the time he reached Homeplace clinic. After being in shock, the man was given numerous units of plasma and nearly 12 viles of IV anti-venom. In nearly his 20 years in Eastern Kentucky, Martin estimated he had treated over a 100 copperhead bites and only three rattlesnakes, citing that in the area (which still goes on today) that snake handling was a part of church service activity. “It was believed that if you had enough faith, the rattlesnake would not bite you. If you were bitten, and you had enough faith, then you didn’t need medical care. It didn’t always work that way. Some people were bitten, and some did die.”
Martin came to know and admire many local personalities of that era. The glimpses and first hand knowledge he offers us is also a unique look on a lot of local history. These included J.S. Bell, Denzil Barker M.D., George Drushal and Hazard’s own,Willie Dawahare.
J.S. Bell was the pastor at Hindman First Baptist Church, and was the power behind the formation of satellite Sunday schools and mission churches in Knott County. He was also one of the front line fighters in the dry-wet war that was going on during the time. “The dry-wet forces were lined up for battle in the little town and the politicking got hot and heavy. Matter of fact, to be too outspoken for the drys could be flat out dangerous. Brother Bell didn’t flinch. He thrust himself into the fight with the drys and they won hands down. His family worried about his safety, but no one took a shot at him. I think about everybody admired his youthful courage.”
Denzil Barker was the son of coal miner, from Knott County Kentucky. Through Alice Lloyd College, he receieved his education and then went on to Tulane University to receive his MD. Barker was also a leading member of Hindman First Baptist Church, and one of Dr. Martin’s closest and most trusted friends. “He gave his professional life to the people of Knott County by simply being a darn good doctor, being available and living the life of service. We have worked toward a common goal. We have reared our families and we have kept in touch. The relationship illustrated the point that one of life’s greatest joys comes through intimate friendship.”
Willie Dawahare was a former mayor of Hazard, and the owner of Dawahares Men’s Store. “Willie was a friend to about anyone that knew him. He was instant warmth, like getting close to a stove on a winter day. He liked to see people happy and was an instant success in making happiness.” Dr. Martin was the first to tell Mr. Dawahare about the new procedure of doing open heart surgery and coronary bypass, using leg veins for the bypassed vessels, performed in Cleveland. After six months of contemplating, Dawahare underwent the procedure and came out a new man, with a new lease on life. Progress was certainly something that Dr. Martin soldiered, and he was extremely good at it, thankfully.
While Dr. Martin also reflects on many of his cases throughout the years, some of which my brain has trouble understanding, because I am obviously not a doctor, he also offers us up some wisdom concerning many of life’s major subjects; marriage, illness, religion, beliefs, compassion and death. He states that “Discipline is like castor oil, it’s awfully hard to take but can be very good for you if you need it.” He notes that “courage comes easier for some people than others. What makes up the fertile soil in which courage grows? Positive thinking, encouragement from intimate friends, religious faith and conviction, a willingness to accept a possible failure and still go on. Perseverance and a refusal to quit.” I think we can all learn something from this extraordinary man who served so many in his lifetime, and from all accounts, loved doing so.
Of all of the stories that Donald Martin shared in this book, I think the story of “Polly” is the most appropriate, to show example of what kind of man and doctor he was. Dr. Martin had delivered Polly’s first child, and she ended up coming back to him with several hemorrhages. After four setbacks, two trips to Lexington and a hysterectomy later, she once again was experiencing life threatening bleeding. Dr. Martin rode with her in the ambulance to Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington Kentucky, for (what was then) four hours over extremely treacherous mountain roads. He wanted to ensure that they didn’t lose her in the ambulance and felt that it was his duty to see to her. On the way he fell ill to motion sickness and was desperately miserable. Polly sang him hymns, despite her deteriorating condition and continued to squeeze his hand until they made it to their destination. She survived the ordeal, and was able to raise her son and keep the family going due, in part, to Dr. Martin’s efforts. When he was leaving Homeplace in 1969, she came to see him to say goodbye. “Doc Martin, I didn’t have time to go to town to get you nothing, so here take this.” She put something in my hand. I hugged her and she was gone. I have never seen her since. After she left, I opened my hand and there was a crushed up dollar bill. That dollar is still precious to me. I wouldn’t sell it for $5,000. It is in my office and framed to remind me of the event. It reminds me of the successful effort to save a life. It reminds me of the appreciation expressed by a simple mountain woman in the only way she knew how. It reminds me of the joy that is produced by loving and helping a fellow traveler on this earth. That is the bottom line of what it’s all about.”
Surely we could use more Doc Martins in this world.