Dr. Byrne’s Office by
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(149 Stories)

Prompted By Family Medicine

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My doctor’s exam room wasn’t exactly like this, but I do remember colors.

Sixty years ago, the autoimmune condition I have didn’t have a name; it wasn’t even recognized as a disease. Sixty years ago, my common low thyroid condition, if not first attributed to female hysteria, would have been treated with hormones from pigs. Sixty years ago, my partner would surely have died from his heart attack rather than receiving a triple bypass and first-rate care in a high-tech hospital. I would choose today’s amazing medical equipment, procedures, diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals over what was available sixty years ago.

Dr. Byrne's office was in his home in East Orange, New Jersey ... What first struck me whenever I entered was olfactory ...

However, I do miss the hominess and consistency of my old pediatrician’s office and having a doctor who knew me and my family. That’s what we have given up for the medical advances we have now. If you are very wealthy, or very lucky, you might have access to a doctor who offers continuity and can afford to spend time with you. My terrific endocrinologist spends an hour (a whole hour!) with me twice a year, but I must pay out of pocket, and she is in her mid-70s, so I’m unsure of how much longer I will have this privilege.

More than 60 years ago, my brother and I started seeing our pediatrician, Dr. Byrne, from infancy to well into our teens. Like many doctors at the time, Dr. Byrne’s office was in his home in East Orange, New Jersey. There was a separate entrance on the first story of the house. What first struck me whenever I entered was olfactory–a strong aroma that must have been disinfectant of some kind, a distinctive odor that I’ve never encountered elsewhere.

The waiting room was usually crowded with mothers (no fathers back then) and their kids. The upper parts of the walls were painted a bright yellow, and below was wainscoting in green stripes decorated with red and orange elements. I can’t remember what the elements were supposed to represent, but I can’t forget the bright colors.

Behind a pass-through was a receptionist/nurse, and in the area to her left was a Dutch door with the upper half open. There must have been children’s books on little tables to keep us busy, because waits could be long, certainly from a child’s perspective. At some point, my mother and I (and later my younger brother) opened the lower half of the Dutch door, with its brass knob, to be ushered into the exam room.

Dr. Byrne had fair, freckled skin and red, curly hair. He looked huge to me but probably was of average height. While I didn’t relish going to the doctor, I wasn’t afraid of him, with his reassuring manner, although I didn’t like the large, wooden tongue depressor he put in my mouth. My brother Allan, on the other hand, was hostile and terrified, greeting poor Dr. Byrne with a swift kick at the beginning of every exam.

Dr. Byrne was considered progressive for the time, because he discouraged the tonsillectomies that were so much in vogue (I still have my tonsils). Most important, he was able to provide reassurance to my mom, as the parent of a finicky and persnickety child. Later, I learned he told my mom, “her nervous system is very developed for her age, but that means she’s extremely bright, and she’ll settle down as she gets older.”

Like many doctors of the time, Dr. Byrne did make house calls, and he must have done so when I had a very serious case of the measles. I was delirious, so I don’t remember him being there. When my brother came down with a much milder case, I remember Dr. Byrne coming up the stairs to the bedroom with his black bag and taking out his stethoscope.

The last time I saw Dr. Byrne, I was 18 and had been sent home from college with a terrible case of mono complicated by strep and hepatitis. Naturally there were prescriptions to be written and advice given, but most important, reassurance, and someone to call whom you knew.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. This was a classic “memoir piece,” evoking a different time very effectively. I especially liked the details you recalled about the waiting area in the doctor’s house.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Believe it or not, house calls still sometimes do happen–but mostly for people who aren’t able to get to an office due to disabilities. There is only so much you can diagnose or treat from a black bag, while there are many available tests and treatments in an office or ER, and the financial side of spending the time to travel and visit vs staying in the office is a deterrent too. And of course things have changed with COVID, so more is done virtually. You are right that there are now diagnostic tests and treatments we could only dream of years ago (good!), but the personal touch has suffered, and that is needed too.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your description of Dr. Byrne’s office is compelling, Mare. What a memory! He sounds like a great doctor – he put up with that swift kick from your brother and was there for you when you were so desperately ill.

    I agree, the technological advances made in the medical field have been amazing. But getting good care is getting comprised.

  4. Marian,
    Thanx for your amazing recall of your brother and your visits to Dr Byrne as children, even the smell of his office.

    And also your point that the advancements in medicine today saved Dick’s life , but what we’ve lost is that personal connection that you had with Dr Byrne.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    You make a good point that all of the advances of modern medicine have saved many .lives that were lost long ago. I remember when men in their fifties, like my father-in-law, all died from heart attacks. Still, I long for the relationship aspect of medicine when we were children.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    Wonderful story, Marian. It shouldn’t be necessarily so, but it seems as though the enormous adaances we have made in medical knowledge have been offset by declines in terms of personsal care. As you note, why can’t we have both. Canada does. And it also has Tim Horton doughnuts. In any event, thank you for presenting this all so nicely. As you conclude, reassurance would sure be swell.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, John. Unfortunately all the technology and pharmaceuticals are useless if the doctor doesn’t have the time or caring to arrive at the right diagnosis. That’s where harm comes in. I’ve heard about Tim Horton doughnuts but by avoiding wheat, haven’t had the opportunity to try them. They must be great.

  7. Risa Nye says:

    Loved this memory piece about your Dr. Byrne. When I started writing about my pediatrician, I was surprised at how clearly I remembered her when I hadn’t given her a thought in many decades! Truly amazing recall and fun to read.

    • Marian says:

      Isn’t it interesting how so many of us can recall details about our pediatricians, Risa? Must be the enormity of the events and person from a child’s point of view. Our collective stories present quite a picture of pediatrics in the 1950s.

  8. Yes, interesting that so many Retrospecters remember their pediatricians…but not me! Not one memory!! I wonder why when I remember so much else about my childhood.

    I love all your sensory memories, Mare, and am curious what that unusual aroma was. Dr. Byrne reminds me of Fleiss, the physician I wrote about, particularly in terms of his caring, reassuring attitude.

    I had measles and mono, too…and I still have my tonsils, despite having many bouts of tonsillitis!

    • Marian says:

      Barb, even though you don’t remember your pediatrician, they obviously were relatively progressive for the time. Once I stopped drinking milk (at about age 11, to general consternation), my tonsillitis stopped. That unusual aroma in Dr. Byrne’s office must have been some sort of disinfectant, but nothing like I’ve smelled in today’s hospitals, offices, or labs.

  9. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Mare. Your first paragraph is very powerful, and a good reminder that not everything was better in the old days. And I also love your detailed description of your pediatrician’s office and the doctor himself. Really terrific writing!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy, this story came to me almost full-blown from my mind. For acute problems, today’s technology is really great. It’s those mysterious chronic issues that often do better with personal TLC from a trusted doctor.

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