Rod Dreher

Last night I was up with insomnia and started poking around Facebook, which I never do. And what did I find? A tribute page to Alfred R. Gould, M.D., now retired, but in his day the small-town physician of myth. Except Dr. Gould was a myth that’s true.
Dr. Gould was the town doctor when I was growing up in St. Francisville. That’s him on the right in the photo above, from the 1970s. The fine fellow on the left is his fellow wizard of the medical arts, Dr. Shock, the mad scientist who hosted a late-night horror movie show on the Baton Rouge UHF channel in those days. Man, I loved me some Dr. Shock as a kid. It’s a sign of Dr. Gould’s eccentric good humor that he consented to be photographed with Dr. Shock. The thing I remember most vividly about Doc, a tall, bony man, was the time First Baptist Church had a community talent show, and Doc, dressed in a three-piece suit, lay down flat on the altar area and recited Poe’s “The Raven.” He was Monty Python before anybody in our town knew what Monty Python was.
It is no exaggeration to say that there was no one in town who had more authority than Dr. Gould. What I mean by that is that he was almost certainly the most trusted man in town, in terms of his judgment. He earned it. I can remember many times as a child, listening to my parents and other adults talking about someone’s illness, and how so-and-so had received a diagnosis from some other doctor, but it wasn’t to be trusted until and unless “Alfred” had agreed. Along those lines, I remember once my father explaining to me why Dr. Gould was so authoritative: because he both took the time to really listen to his patients, and because he had an uncannily intuitive medical mind. If someone had come up with a sticker that said, Dr. Gould said it, I believe it, and that settles it, most of the cars in town would have had it pasted on their bumpers.
I’m making him sound like he was some sort of hero, but, well, he was. It’s interesting to think of how far he could have gone in the medical world had he not chosen to remain in our town and be the best small town doctor you could imagine. From a bio one of his adult children put on his website, I learned of something amazing he did for us all. Excerpt:

Being such a small town, St. Francisville had a difficult time in the 1960s, attracting doctors that wanted to set up practice there. For over six years, Doc was the only physician in the entire parish (county, for you Texans). This meant that he was on call 24/7, for six straight years. He discovered over time that a hospital was needed in the small community, in order to attract another doctor. He explained this once to a Mr. Underwood from Houston (a bigwig with Exxon back then), who promised to match what funds Doc raised towards building a hospital. Having that support, Doc set out and literally went door to door in his community raising the necessary money.
In 1968, Doc got to see the opening of West Feliciana Parish Hospital and for the first six months, was the only doctor there! However, he was right and it did attract a second doctor, giving Doc a much needed break.

Having taken care of the town for nearly half a century, Doc retired, and is quite old now — he’ll be 82 this year — and living in an assisted living facility with his wife, Miss Barbara. I found on the FB site this video of him saying grace recently. Listening to his voice, I was instantly a croupy child back on his examining room table, his fingers thumping my chest, listening for echoes from my lungs; that voice was the voice so many sick children and adults in our town heard when they were down and out, and it was a comfort in hard times because you knew that this man was going to heal you. And you knew for him, it wasn’t business; it was a vocation. It was his life’s work. There was the time when I was three or four years old, and stepped into a fire ant mound in my grandmother’s yard. I was paralyzed with fear, and stood there as they swarmed over me, biting me and poisoning me. By the time the grown-ups found me, I was covered by the ants. They hosed the ants off, and laid me out on the couch in the living room. The ants had even bitten my eyeballs. I remember nothing other than being scared to death … and then there was Dr. Gould, paying an emergency house call, kneeling down over me, examining me and comforting me. I knew even then that everything was going to be okay.
He never got rich being a small-town doctor. At least not rich in the ways the world counts. But if a man were paid in the esteem and love of the people he spent his life serving, and helping through their hardest moments, Alfred Gould would be one of the wealthiest men on the planet. His reward will be rich indeed.

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