When children fell ill, Mama was the doctor.
That all changed when, in the early 1900s, she and her new husband journeyed to western Wyoming to homestead. They ended up on a cattle ranch nine miles east of the little town of Pinedale. Seldom did the tiny town have a resident doctor, and the nearest hospital was in Rock Springs, 100 miles away.
Besides Mama and Papa, our household grew to include eight children and usually a couple of hired hands who slept in the bunk house, ate meals with us and were treated as members of the family. At times, such as haying, round-ups or brandings, it was not uncommon to set a table for 22 people.
All matters concerning our health were strictly Mama's responsibility. If a cow or horse was sick, Papa would see to it. But caring for humans was Mama's job, and she always rose to the occasion. She overcame any inhibitions and steeled her nerves to learn to cleanse bleeding wounds and to bandage them, judiciously using iodine or peroxide and ignoring screams or moans. Sometimes the patient fainted, but not Mama, although afterwards she often needed a cup of strong tea.
Somehow Mama learned when to administer strong herbal teas, dispense medicine and apply hot or cold packs and various poultices. She knew when a child should be put to bed and when a hired hand was "gold-bricking" or really needed attention. Because many accidents occur in ranch life, some of the wounds she had to treat were pretty grisly, but she never lost a patient.
One of Mama's first experiences as a doctor came when my oldest sister, then 5, decided to climb to the top shelf of a tall cupboard where she had seen Mama hide some candy. She pushed a tall-backed rocking chair close to the cupboard to use as a ladder. As she reached the top shelf, she fell. A deep gash, almost to the bone, was cut along the lower edge of her jaw. Today, a doctor would close such a wound with several stitches. Mama didn't have packaged bandages or antibiotics but somehow she took care of the wound in such a manner that only a tiny scar remained.
My oldest brother, Tommy, was only 3 when he came down with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. There happened to be a doctor in Pinedale that year, and he was called to treat my brother. At that time, the accepted treatment for the disease was quinine, commonly used for tropical and other fevers. This medicine did not help Tommy at all, and his condition became grave. The doctor gave Mama no hope for his survival, especially since a neighbor girl had died of the same disease. However, Mama didn't give up. She continued to bathe Tommy in cool soda water in an effort to break the fever. She also gave him weak soda water to drink. She discontinued the quinine, and years later we learned that Tommy was allergic to it. Finally Tommy recovered, but not until he'd been sick so long that he had to learn to walk all over again. The doctor had the grace to know that it wasn't his treatment that saved Tommy. He had Mama write down her treatment, and he sent the paper to the National Archives of Communicable Diseases.
One hot summer day, I complained to Mama that my right foot hurt. We seldom complained, so when we did, Mama paid attention. She examined my foot carefully. The skin on the sole was very thick from going barefoot all summer, but in the very center was a sore. When she touched it, I screamed. Then Mama tied me to a sturdy kitchen chair, took Papa's straight razor and incised the wound. Out popped a piece of willow twig about 3/4 of an inch long. I had stepped on it, and it had broken off in my foot.
Of all the medical emergencies Mama took care of, the one that amazes me the most was when my sister Mary Agnes became feverish and ill in the middle of haying one summer. Mama insisted that Papa take her and the sick child to the hospital in Rock Springs. Never before had she made such a request--none of us had ever before required hospitalization. Papa was flabbergasted. Mama, who had never even so much as delayed a meal for haymakers, was demanding that he leave the all-important hay harvest to take the child to the Rock Springs hospital.
It turned out that Mary Agnes needed immediate surgery to remove an infected gland. How did Mama know this was an emergency beyond her skills? How did she know" this wasn't a case for cold packs or hot packs? How did she know the illness was not a case for poultices and bed rest? We may never know the actual mechanics of the answer, but in our hearts we knew. That night our prayers, as we were sure hers did, contained an extra "Thank You, dear Lord."
Nellie A. O'Brien