The Working Waterfront

The island approach to medicine

Timing and distraction were key to care

Phil Crossman
Posted 2021-12-08
Last Modified 2021-12-08

In 1954, crying and clinging to my Dad’s hand with my good arm, I was brought to Dr. Ralph Earle’s office. He walked quickly toward me but then turned and whispered to Dot, his receptionist. She got up, grabbed her hat and left.

Then he walked me, still sobbing and frightened by the site of my broken radius sticking up under the skin, back to his desk, sat me down, took my arm in his two hands and began to stroke gently and speak soothingly. I settled down.

The door opened. I turned my head. Dot came in. Dr. Earle suddenly jerked the broken halves in opposite directions and the bone into alignment. I turned to scream but didn’t have time because Dot put a ice cream cone in my hand.

Around 5 p.m., still having contractions, she called again asking about Ann.

Twenty years later, after attending Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth Medical School, and completing his internal medicine residency, Dr. Gregory O’Keefe settled in to fill the loved and legendary shoes Dr. Earle left behind.

Home births were the norm. As Nancy’s time drew nearer and after some attentive pre-natal attention at the Island Community Medical Center, she and Mark brought a hospital bed to their house up on Calderwood Neck, a few miles from town, set it up in the living room and waited. Not many year-rounders lived on the Neck but one of the nearby few was Dr. O’Keefe, his wife, and three-year-old Matt.

Nancy woke on Saturday seemingly in labor and called Greg who assured her that nurse Ann McFee, who worked part time for the electric company, would stop by after she’d finished reading meters.

Around noon, increasingly uncomfortable and concerned because Ann still hadn’t shown up, she called again. Greg assured her that this was still early labor and asked if she’d like to join him and his family for a row. Incredulous at the suggestion of such un-related activity, Nancy was nonetheless so comfortable with and confident in Greg and so eager to think about something other than contractions that she agreed.

After a pleasant few hours on the water, he brought her home and assured her that Ann would be along shortly.

Around 5 p.m., still having contractions, she called again asking about Ann. Greg ventured that she had a lot of meters to read and suggested another distraction—that Nancy and Mark come up to the house and join them for dinner. Thinking she was maybe not communicating effectively, she nonetheless agreed.

Not long after she arrived, Nancy allowed as how she was really uncomfortable. Greg offered her a comfortable couch to stretch out on. As soon as she settled in, young Matt began coming, repeatedly, from his own room with stuffed animals, covering Nancy with them until, completely covered, he sat on a stool and told her she would have a girl named Flower Garden or Sunshine.

After supper Greg reported that he’d heard from Ann, who’d finished her readings and would be along shortly. Nancy went back to the house, got into a hospital gown, lay down to watch TV and waited.

Around 9 p.m. Greg and Ann arrived. A minute later, the sheriff called, Greg having arranged for calls to be forwarded, to ask if he could come back to town and stitch up some Waldoboro clammers— a historically rambunctious and invasive indigenous population—who’d struck a ledge and cut themselves up pretty bad.

Greg told them he was tending to a woman in labor and couldn’t come into town whereupon he was asked if the injured clammers could be brought to him.

Characteristically hard pressed to say no, Greg agreed and, during respites between contractions, he stitched up four inebriated but appreciative clammers, earning intoxicated assurances of earthy rewards should he ever find himself in Waldoboro.

Ultimately, a healthy Megan was born at sunrise and without incident. Dr. Greg saw that she and Mom were OK, started a load of laundry, and left the new family to begin a day’s work at the clinic.

Dr. O’Keefe recently died, prompting these memories. Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven.