A patient of mine asked me how I became interested in becoming a doctor. This was always the most difficult question for me to answer. I decided to tell her the real reason. I was close to retirement and no longer feared that the truth could damage my image.
It happened when I was in the eighth grade. I went to a small parochial school run by an ornery flock of Franciscan sisters. It was easy to get in trouble for breaking even the smallest rule. I was always in trouble. The standard punishment was an hour in detention after school each Thursday. By Christmas break, I was usually booked solid for the rest of the year.
Detention was in the library that the grade school and high school shared. I would present my “ticket” to the librarian, take a seat and wait out my hour.
I liked to look through the magazines but never found anything particularly interesting. One Thursday afternoon, the librarian hollered, “Mr. McCord, you should be doing your homework.”
I walked over and told her quietly that I had stopped doing homework in the fifth grade. I told her that I figured the teachers should get their job done while I was in school. She gave me a mean frown and told me to go find a book to read.
I dug through the card files to see if an author named McCord had ever written any of the books. I found one called My Patients Were Zulus, which was written by James B. McCord, MD.
I started reading the book about a young physician who decided to do medical mission work in Africa. His writing style was modest and he talked more about his patients than himself.
By the time my hour was up, I was totally engrossed in the book. The librarian snapped at me that it was time to leave. I asked if I could check the book out and she said, “No. It’s from the high school section and you should not have been over there.” I replaced the book and marked my place, knowing I would be back the following Thursday.
Every Thursday, I read another two or three chapters. The chapters were stories about patient care under very difficult circumstances. I was totally taken by the dedication of this doctor who shared my last name.
I finally finished the book and showed it to the librarian. I told her I could see myself doing this kind of work. She smirked and said, “With your grades?”
I did not modify my policy about homework but pushed things a little to bring my grades up. Since I was booked solid with detention every Thursday for the rest of the year, I looked for other books about doctors doing mission work. I found a series of books written by Thomas Dooley, MD. He wrote about his medical mission work in Vietnam during the 1950s. I was motivated to go into medicine but was not too crazy about doing homework, getting good grades and spending eight years in college.
Fifteen years later, I opened my podiatry clinic. I saw a news story in our local paper about the old librarian coming out of retirement to work in a small school library. She had changed her name as all sisters did in those years but I certainly recognized her stern face in the newspaper photo.
I drove out to the school one afternoon and saw a stooped little woman walking across the parking lot with a box of books. I approached her and asked if she was Sister Grace. She scowled at me and asked, “Who wants to know?”
I introduced myself and she growled, “Yes, I remember you, Mr. McCord.”
I never like to correct anyone who calls me “Mr.” but this time I had to.
I said, “Well, actually, Sister, it is Dr. McCord but please call me John.”
She stared at me for a moment and then said, “Well, my my. One never knows, does one?” She handed me the heavy box of books to carry to her car.
I obtained a copy of My Patients Were Zulus. It is a constant reminder of a crucial turning point in my life and it was a compass to my philosophy of patient care. I learned to be humble and focus on my patient’s needs rather than my own.
I think frequently about Sister Grace and had the honor of helping her through her last years of severe diabetic foot problems.
One never knows.
Dr. McCord retired in December 2008 from practice at the Centralia Medical Center in Centralia, Wash.