It is 2:30 a.m. on a wintry night in 1964 and the telephone rings a half dozen times, jarring me awake.
“How long have you had chest pain?” my father asks his patient, who had called the emergency number. “Any trouble breathing?” Pause.
“Call the Rescue Squad right away,” my father orders. “I’ll see you in the Emergency Room in 30 minutes.”
Conversations like these, which terrified me, punctuated my childhood. My bedroom was separated from my parents’ only by a small den, so I heard every word. And I heard what followed: my father frantically opening and closing his bureau drawers as he got dressed, and despite the late hour, dashing out of our Northeast Philadelphia house, headed to Osteopathic Hospital’s ER at 48th and Spruce, 13 miles away. It was Dad’s job to oversee his patient’s care and offer a much-needed nonmedical service — comfort and compassion, something doctors of a bygone era provided as a matter of course, even in the middle of the night.
From the 1940s through the 1980s, Dr. Sidney Kochman (pronounced Coke-man, which sometimes meant he answered the phone “This is Dr. Coca-Cola”) was a beloved sole practitioner of a family practice in Kensington. Middle-of-the-night house calls were only one of the kindnesses he extended. The fee for a house call — the same as for an office visit — was low and flexible. “I don’t want my patients to stop coming to see me just because they can’t afford it,” he said, decades before socialized medicine, universal health care, or a one-payer system were fully formed concepts.
Our home was filled with gifts that patients offered in lieu of cash: crocheted, multicolored afghans, lace doilies, and five-pound boxes of chocolate-covered coconut Easter eggs.
My father, born in 1919 in Philadelphia, attended Temple University and was determined to become a physician. He was denied admission to several medical schools, because of quotas on Jews, but eventually was accepted to Philadelphia’s Osteopathic School of Medicine. He became known for his ability to diagnose hard-to-identify ailments that confounded others.
There’s the story he told of a young woman he saw who suffered from dozens of seizures a day. Epilepsy had been ruled out, but nobody could determine the cause. My father, who claimed he read every medical journal he could get his hands on, recalled a rare type of benign brain tumor that caused symptoms matching hers. He referred her to a brain surgeon, who performed an operation that cured her. She remained my father’s patient for the rest of her life.
Dad’s office overflowed with such patients, who poured in daily to get their ailments assessed, and sometimes, just to talk. No appointments were needed — there was nobody to even arrange them: no scheduling department, no high-tech answering system, no online patient portals. In those days, family medicine had one major mission: Cater to community health-care needs in a face-to-face, humane, and caring way, any time of day or night. Dad even answered his own phone.
“Patients can’t predict when they’re going to get sick,” he said. “They need to have someone to turn to.”
So, when they turned to my father, he drove to the patient’s house, his black doctor’s bag in tow, holding the staples of the day: a blood-pressure cuff — the kind with a manual pump; mercury-filled thermometers; syringes; and of course, bottles of penicillin, whose widespread use coincided with the beginning of my father’s career. “It’s a miracle drug, it saves lives!” he enthused often.
I always longed for more of my father’s time and attention, but there was little to spare. Even on Wednesday evenings, the one day of the week he was home for dinner, he choked down mouthfuls of food so he could answer the ever-ringing telephone.
Weekend plans were often disrupted. One Sunday morning, Mr. H. rang our doorbell, clutching his chest. Dad grabbed his coat and keys, carefully walked him down our front steps, and drove to the nearest ER, where our neighbor’s heart attack was treated. My father didn’t return home until late afternoon.
I was relieved, of course, that Mr. H. was OK. But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling left out. Which made me all the happier when he invited me into his world.
“Marilyn Milkshake,” he sometimes said on a weekend morning. “Want to make a house call with me?” I threw on a jacket, skipped down the front stairs of our house, and jumped into his lavender Oldsmobile. When we arrived at the patient’s home, I waited in the car.
Sometimes, I visited his office, at the corner of A and Allegheny Avenues, near a trolley line. The waiting room was always filled with dozens of patients sitting on folding chairs. Medical records, then in paper and yellowing with age, were stored in gray filing cabinets that were so stuffed, they could never fully close.
The neighborhood folks looked out for him. “How ya doin’, Doc?” they asked when he walked past their rowhouses en route to his car at the end of the day. “Can I help you dig out?” they offered when it snowed.
At my father’s funeral in 2007, just after his 88th birthday, an elderly couple approached me and said: “We will never forget your father; he was our physician for 25 years. He was a wonderful doctor, a wonderful man. He was always there for us.”
Whenever I miss my dad, or he appears in a dream, I look at his faded, black doctor’s bag tucked neatly in the corner of my closet. Yes, I wish he could have been there for me more, but I can’t help but feel love and pride, and be inspired by his life of humanity and accomplishment.
Marilyn Kochman is a freelance writer in West Windsor. firstname.lastname@example.org