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Gone are the days of house calls

Picton's original hospital, on Hill Street, is now a nursing home.

In my childhood days, the family physician was a trusted friend who made house calls. The late Dr. J.H. Walmsley was to become the first person I would meet, following my delivery at the old Picton Hospital on Hill Street, on a fall day in the 1940’s. While I took away no memories from our initial encounter, in later years I came to know him as the respected family doctor to whom our family turned in times of illness.

Like many Picton physicians of his day, Dr. Walmsley had his office in his home. He had no nurse or receptionist. Appointments were on a first-come, first- serve basis. There were no official office hours. Dr. Walmsley was “in” from the time his first patient arrived, until the last one left. In addition to being in the office, each afternoon, our family doctor also saw patients, in the evening. Sometimes, he was even in his office on Saturdays.

A keen student of human nature, Dr. Walmsley took a great deal of interest in his patients. Office appointments were never rushed. Always, there was time for conversation.

Once, during an office visit, he related an anecdote to me involving an elderly woman he had seen earlier that day. He observed that, although she owned a car, this patient was in the habit of walking a considerable distance, from her home on Main Street East, to his office near Shire Hall. Concerned for her, he had suggested that, in future, it would be advisable for her to drive to her appointments.

Dr. Walmsley observed that when she arrived at his office that day, she told him she had taken his advice. She had driven her car instead of walking. Before he could applaud her wise decision, she emphasized that she had experienced great difficulty in finding a parking spot. Eventually, she was fortunate enough to spot an empty space near the Picton cenotaph. Dr. Walmsley chuckled, as he noted that, by following doctor’s orders, she had walked twice the usual distance to her appointment.

Our family was deeply saddened when Dr. Walmsley passed away suddenly, following a career in medicine that spanned more than 50 years. Faced with the necessity of finding a new family doctor, my parents were considering their choices when a stroke of fate solved their dilemma. I developed a severe case of mumps.

I fell ill shortly after Christmas and, by New Year’s Day it became apparent that my conditioning was worsening. It was a statutory holiday, but in those days, it was not necessary to pack up the patient for a trip to the emergency room. A quick call to the hospital provided the information that Dr. Kenneth McQueen was the physician on call. He would make a house call, as soon as possible.

He arrived promptly, examined me and prescribed medication which was retrieved from the black bag that he carried. There was no need to call in a prescription to the drug store. Like most doctors of his day, he carried with him many of the pills and potions required to treat his patients.

Dr. McQueen’s friendly manner, coupled with his efficient treatment of the patient made him my parents’ choice as our new doctor. Through the years, he, too, became a trusted family friend.

Like Dr. Walmsley, he enjoyed visiting with his patients. Once, when he made a house call to see my mother, he noticed me seated at the kitchen table, labouring over my math homework. When I mentioned that I was having difficulty with a geometry problem he  pulled up a chair, sat down and helped me to solve it.

Several years later, when Dr. McQueen learned that I was planning to visit a well-known dog breeder in Kingston to buy a purebred Collie puppy, he surprised me by telling me that she was his cousin. He then took out a prescription pad and wrote a note for me to deliver to her. In it he asked her to help me choose the pick of the litter.

Gone are the days of house calls and family doctors with black bags containing most of the drugs required to treat the patient. Today, pharmacies dispense the medications and injuries or sudden illness often mean a long wait in a hospital emergency room. Office visits are scheduled well ahead of time and there are set hours during which consultations take place.

Today, all physicians have office nurses and receptionists who take their incoming calls. In earlier times, it was frequently the doctor’s wife who answered his telephone. Patients often called on weekends and after hours, when health emergencies arose. Sometimes, they simply dropped by  In his memoirs, Dr. McQueen stated that he had more patients on Sundays than at any other time.

In those long ago days, many of us failed to recognize the great dedication of our family doctors. Payment for their services was not guaranteed by OHIP, then. There were times when patients neglected to pay their bills or needed considerable time to do so. Sometimes underpaid and frequently overworked, Prince Edward County’s beloved country doctors carried on without complaint, the unsung heroes of their community.

Filed Under: Margaret Haylock-Capon

About the Author: Maggie Haylock is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has co-authored several books with her husband, Alan Capon.

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  1. Terry says:

    What fond memories indeed, Maggie. At the age of 13, I went to another dentist, who shall remain nameless, whose assistant came out into the waiting room and announced to my mother and for all to hear that “Terry has FOUR-TEEN cavities!” We vowed never to return and went to Dr. Slack who found no more than two which he fixed on the spot. I had an unbelievable four doctors – Drs. Publow, Pearce, Richmond and Walmsley. No appointments. You just waited until the doctor opened the door and hollered, “NEXT!”

  2. Maggie Haylock says:

    I did not expect my blog regarding the beloved family doctor to become a springboard for comments relating to the challenges facing our current health care system. However,”then and now” comparisons do seem natural.

    Since we are on the subject, does anyone else but me wax nostalgic about the old family dentist? An appointment with Dr. Carman Slack began with a check-up and,if a cavity was found, it was filled on the spot. No need to come back for a second appointment. He had a dental assistant, but there was no hygenist. He was the sole care provider.

    It was Dr. Slack who came into his office on a Saturday, to extract a tooth for me. He also came off the golf course to treat my sister, when she had a dental emergency one Sunday.

    Recently, three of my friends, each of whom has a different Quinte area dentist, have reported that their doctors’ hygenists have asked them to come back a second time for the completion of their cleanings. Their “units”?? had expired during the initial visit.

    The cost of partial plates and dentures has skyrocketed,in recent years. A bridge that once cost a few hundred dollars now costs a few thousand. How can families without dental insurance cope with these prices? Many insurance plans will pay for a replacement bridge, but will not contribute towards the initial appliance. There is very little to smile about, for those without insurance, when reflecting on the high cost of dental care today.

  3. Rob says:

    “Health-care quotes ‘most problematic’”

    … cast doubt on Harper’s commitment to maintaining Canada’s universal, publicly funded health-care system. Other quotes, in which Harper extols the virtues of allowing private, for-profit health delivery and a parallel private health-care system, seem to have gone largely unnoticed – or his lament, also in 2002, that the Canada Health Act “rules out private, public-delivery options, It rules out co-payment, pre-payment and all kinds of options that are frankly going to have to be looked at if we’re going to deal with the challenges that the system faces.”

    Pretty scary stuff! – All admittedly prepared by Harper’s Former Chief of Staff, Tom Flanagan

    A place for all we sheeple to learn the slogans we need to counter pesky “facts” brought up by those less well indoctrinated … because we are all aware that – “facts have a well known liberal bias.”

  4. Linda Brown says:

    A quote from the movie “Sicko” by Michael Moore always comes to mind when I read about the topic of doctors or health care. “You can call a plumber to make an emergency house call 24/7, but why not a doctor?”

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