Remembering the day Dr. O'Flaherty's Volkswagen became a hennery

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Years before government-financed Medicare was a reality, there was a co-operative movement on the north shore of Conception Bay to deal with recruitment and payment of physician services.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

Years before government-financed Medicare was a reality, there was a co-operative movement on the north shore of Conception Bay to deal with recruitment and payment of physician services.

There was, in place, a locally arranged system whereby the people of the practice area, for a nominal yearly fee, received out-of-hospital care, with a monthly salary being paid to the physician. That fee, and the resultant salary, covered all outpatient services, except medications.

The north shore people — like many in rural Newfoundland — were often short of dollars, and sometimes paid “in kind." They lived, many of them, off the resources of the land and the sea, and often went from one year to the next with little use for all the financial services that we need today. As well, then, as now, they were (and are) a generous and a giving people, and even when a family had already paid the yearly fee to the “Doctor’s Committee," many still wanted to give to the doctor, for services rendered, products such as salt fish, homemade bread, garden vegetables and, surprisingly often, Christmas cakes.

A new red Volkswagen

I went into that practice, into a new way of life — a welcome relief from the awful existence that we had lived in St. John’s. I still remember my trip out there, leaving behind a part of my life that has no pleasant memories.

I arrived there, having just purchased a brand new red Volkswagen, my first car. It had a wonderful new car smell, and I fell in love with it, as did the four members of my family. It served immediately the needs of the practice, and transported me on hundreds of house calls, everywhere on the north shore for years down the road.

One of these house calls cries out for description.

It was a house call to Job’s Cove, at the very lower end of my district. I had been on the shore for about six months when I was called to see an old lady who was one of my favourite patients. She was quite religious, and repeated biblical psalms whenever I visited her. She had a clear, melodious voice, in spite of her old age and could recite the beautiful Psalm 23 — The Lord is my Shepherd, the memory of which still brings tears to my eyes.

Other people in Job’s Cove that day saw the red Volkswagen and, knowing it was the doctor, decided that they needed medical attention. When I left the elderly lady there were three more house calls waiting outside.

Hens in a lobster pot

Meanwhile, up in Burnt Point, up the shore a ways, they had also seen the red car going down to Job’s Cove, and knew that, sooner or later, I had to come back up. In the 1960s, very few people had telephones, so when they knew that the doctor was “in the area” they would occasionally hang out a white flag at the end of their driveway or lane (drung) to indicate that there was somebody there needing medical attention.

That day, when I finished the four house calls in Job’s cove, I had been given gifts. In the “cubby hole” (as my children called it) of the Volkswagen were three big salt fish, and, on a piece of cardboard spread over the back seat, there rested a lobster pot with five hens inside.

The second house call had been to an elderly man who was planning to “move away for the winter” to Carbonear, and had “five young hens” that he wanted to get rid of. He somehow knew that I was in the nascent stages of setting up a hobby farm in Western Bay, and told me that there was no problem with transportation since the hens could be stuffed inside an ancient lobster pot that he also wanted to get rid of.

When I arrived that day up in Burnt Point, with the salt fish in the cubby hole and the hens secured in the lobster pot, sure enough, there was a white flag at the end of the long drung at the base of "the mountain," as it is called there. Up that steep rocky lane somebody was wanting medical care. I dared not attempt to drive my new vehicle up there, what with the ruts and gulches resulting from recent heavy rains.

I walked up a couple of hundred yards, and found an elderly man in a severe asthmatic attack. He was quite ill and needed hospitalization, but refused to go to the local hospital. “You’re the man,” he stated, and made no bones about the fact that he was quite prepared to take his chances at home. To him, hospitals were places where you went to die.

My poor car

I spent about an hour-and-a-half with him, and administered the limited medications for asthma that were available in that time period. He improved somewhat and I departed, planning a visit the next day.

Well, sir, when I got down the hill and looked inside the unfortunate car, the scene inside reminded me of our stable in Long Beach. Somehow, the door to the lobster pot, the entry through which the bait is placed inside — and the lobster removed — had gotten unhinged and the five hens were all over the car interior, up on the dash, on the seats, and on top of the fish in the cubby hole.

By the look of things, the old fella who owned the hens had fed them all he had in the house prior to his departure to Carbonear — or else all the hens appeared to have defecated in a collective gastroenteritis frenzy; the whole of the car inside was coated with chicken doo.

My poor car. The new car smell was gone forever and, that night, by special appointment, I paid a good $100 to a garage in Carbonear to clean up the mess, getting a wry comment from the owner that he had “never seen the like o’ that in all me born days."

I couldn’t help but suspect, from his unspoken attitude, that “nothing surprises me about that bunch down on the shore … hauling around hens in a Volkswagen. God only knows what next will come up from down there."

Never mind, properly fumigated, properly cleaned, that vehicle served me long and well.

So did the hens. They became the beginning of a fine flock in Adam’s Cove (other than one of them, which creature flew out when I opened the car door, never to be seen again, its progeny may still be gracing the chicken coops in Burnt Point).

Modern medical graduates, coming out of our medical schools these days, isolated out in country practices, separated from colleagues and hospital staff, often complain of boredom and lack of variety and fulfillment in their lives. Strange about that. Somehow, sometimes, during my time I wished my life out there in the bay would slow down, and get a bit boring.

It never happened.

— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Organizations: Volkswagen, Tomcats and House Calls

Geographic location: Conception Bay, Newfoundland, Carbonear Western Bay Long Beach New Brunswick Northern Bay Moncton

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Recent comments

  • Michael Molloy
    December 31, 2013 - 07:53

    Have a read

  • Jamie O'Flaherty
    December 17, 2013 - 14:24

    Many of Dad's stories I've heard numerous times before, and still love hearing & reading them. This one, while I remember the car well, is new to me.