Having never been a big fan of medicine, (I guess I am in agreement with the Greek historian Plutarch about “the cure is not worth the pain,”) and I hold the general sentiment that some remedies are worse than the disease.
But I was not totally unfamiliar with the practice. My grandmother was a company RN for the coalmines in Kentucky and Tennessee. Coming from that experience (growing up in the company clinics), my mother had certain ideas on how medicine should go.
She didn’t like Doctor Edward G. Merritt, but she did show a healthy respect and admiration for his ability. Having said that, it may be necessary for readers to keep a jaundiced eye on the story I am about to tell.
I don’t recall when my first experience with Doc Merritt occurred. All I remember, is most folks in my hometown seemed to have some sort of “Doc” story that could have transpired anytime in their life’s journey — from the day they were born to curtain close. And they loved telling them.
“Doc was a good man. Short on bedside manner but there, when you needed him, as so many did over the years. He was mostly bluster and if you didn't let him get to you, he'd back right down,” wrote Mary Dempsy Littlefair in a recent Facebook post.
“June (Doc’s wife) was a saint for putting up with him all those years I think but they were both really good people, each in their own unique way. My kids and I used to clean his offices for him and I cleaned June’s new house for her for a while before I went to nursing school. My husband would take him a snickers bar to every appointment and he never turned it down, even while telling him he had to lose weight. He was a good old-fashioned doctor. Gruff, but well-loved. June was taken from us way too soon. She was quite the lady!”
First contact remembered for me, might have been during a Little League physical, when hundreds of eight-, to 12-year-old, junior Mickey Mantles and Babe Ruths piled into his office every spring to turn their head and cough.
There we were, jammed into waiting room, staring at the aquarium until somebody (maybe receptionist Myrtle Sesler, or perhaps nurse Dixie Sturman) opened the door to the hallway, called us in by name, and shuffled us off into one of the tiny rooms with the odd steel examination bed with white paper over it, and slid the pocket door closed behind on us.
Then it was, wait some more.
For awhile you, you could entertain yourself by messing with stirrups on the examination bed, or the jars of tongue depressors and Q-Tips on the cabinet, or unscrewing the pieces on the examination light, but even that got old before the Doc arrived.
Doc Merritt also had a bit of a “mining medicine” background by nature of location.
“I hadn’t imagined myself working for a mining company but I was 27, it was 1948, an I needed that additional income to survive,” Doc told Caroline Arlen for her 2002 book Colorado “Mining Stories: Hazards, Heroics, & Humor.”
“My wife and I would go up to Rico every Thursday afternoon to see the patients. That was my day off. They had some 225 miners up there when I started. I would take care of them for $1.50 for single men, $2.50 for a family. Some of the Navajo interpreted ‘family’ as anyone related to them. Aunts, uncles and grandchildren.”
Merritt told Arlen that a lot of the miners working in Rico at that time were Navajos.
“The Union came in and tried to unionize them. Got them all drunk one night. Well, most of them had been in the service as code talkers. The Germans couldn’t understand or decode Navajo, because it was such an unknown language. So the Navajos were a big asset during the war. When they got drunk that time, they wound up bringing out their sabers and swords and mementos like that, which they had brought back from the war. They had a real furor that night against the people that were trying to unionize and went on a rampage. But it eventually simmered down.”
When I was about 12 years old, Doc’s mother (she was always known as Grandma Merritt, in the circles I moved in) contracted me to mow her lawn. The woman was particular and precise, but I enjoyed the interaction and the challenge. It was easy for me to see how Doc developed the discipline and meticulous nature that is required to practice medicine. He came by it naturally.
“I enjoyed medicine,” Doc told Arlen. “When I was eight ears old, I had a ruptured appendix. I would up having three operations. I got into medicine for the benefit of making people well.”
Most of the stories went that way, but didn’t always have to do with medical practice, at least in the traditional sense.
“My older brother Philip drove like a maniac,” related longtime Dolores resident Ellis Miller. “One evening Doc Merritt pulled us over and read Phil the riot act for the way he was driving. Of course, we thought Doc was rude (which he was) and way out of line (which he wasn't). I later learned that Doc had just come back to town from being called to an accident were some young people were killed. Doc was a good friend to our family for many, many years.”
In high school, while working at Taylor Hardware, I had the opportunity to witness the interesting interaction between long-time friends Merton Taylor and Doc. Being in business together for years (Dolores State Bank) created an interesting dynamic between the two men. If you heard them talking, you would swear they were mortal enemies. Merton, when pressed into it, had a tendency of hurling insults that (initially) sounded like complements. Doc, on the other hand, pulled no punches. At times in their regular banter, I wondered if wouldn’t digress into a physical duel with cant hook handles out in the side street between their regular daytime businesses. Though it never had, and never would.
Both of them were uniform wearers. Merton, in his blue carpenter jeans and khaki work shirt, Doc in a suit and tie.
“I was the only doctor that made house calls in the area. I delivered babies in peoples homes. No matter what the situation was, I always made sure to wear my suit and tie,” Doc told Arlen.
“There was this old miner who liked to tease me because, one time, he called me at 2:00 in the morning, and I beat him to the hospital and still showed up wearing my suit and tie. I always thought if you were a doctor, you should look like one. I don’t go for the sloppy way a lot of young doctors dress now.”
Doc medical methods might have been described as old style on occasion as well, but they seemed to work.
On one of the few instances in my life in which I required medical assistance, Doc was the one who treated me.
While playing basketball in seventh grade gym class, I somehow managed to dislocate the end joint of my pinkie finger. It was twisted around enough so that end joint had slipped down and was parallel with the second joint. The two bones rode sort of side-by-side and it hurt like an All Star.
They took me down to Doc’s office, and without too much of a wait, because of the odd appearance, and the pained look on my face, he saw me right away. I figured he would examine it gingerly, maybe take some X-rays, give me a local for the pain and send me over to emergency room to have it reset.
Instead, Doc took a quick look at my hand, and the troubled finger, grabbed the end and yanked it with a snap — right back into place. No drugs, no fuss, no worries.
I have never felt so much pain (either before or since) in my life. But, to this day I have never had a bit trouble with that finger, not even the arthritis that inhabits many of my other joints.
In that case, Doc proved to me, that sometimes, intense pain is just a part of the cure.
Photo info: A group of doctors pose on a porch at Denver General Hospital at West Sixth Avenue and Cherokee Street in the Lincoln Park neighbohood of Denver in about 1930. The men wear white uniforms and black neckties. Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library.