Publisher’s Note: Dr. O’Brien

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This month, we present Top Docs, a feature detailing the results of Sacramento magazine’s poll, in which we report the names of area doctors that other doctors say they would request if they or a loved one needed care in a particular specialty. (Please see page 158.) It made me think of my own top doc, and of the big demands and toll a medical practice can take on a physician and his or her family.

Now 94, my father was a family physician for 40 years, continuing in the same profession as his father. He began to practice during World War II, doing so until he retired in 1984. During that time, he built a bustling practice in a small medical office in Willow Glen, Calif. His patient load and the demands on his time grew while he and my mother reared eight children. He delivered babies, removed appendices and gallbladders, performed other surgeries, set broken bones, prescribed medications and counseled families.

My earliest memories of him included his medical bag, a heavy and foreboding leather case. The bag was both fascinating and terrifying to us kids. It held some amusing tools, such as the magical knee-knocker thing. (Pardon my nonmedical lingo.) On the dark side, there were scary-looking clamps and knives, and hypodermic needles like those that stabbed our butts on more than one awful occasion. 

Dad’s work routine was to leave home early to make rounds, which meant to check on his patients in the hospital, and then to spend the day at the office. Late in the day, he’d often return to the hospital to again monitor patients, usually getting home after Mom had served us dinner. Saturdays and Sundays, he would again leave the house early to make rounds.

He also made house calls, a common practice then. I suppose it was because we kids did not get to see much of him that we would beg to ride along on house calls. Against his advice that the trip would be no fun, he’d sometimes let one or more of us go along, and he usually was right. While he disappeared into the sick patient’s house, the ever-present bag at the end of his arm, we’d be stuck in the car waiting for what seemed like forever. Occasionally, our luck would improve, as afterward he’d stop by the pharmacy to submit a prescription and get us a treat. 

After Mom died in 1995, Dad began a process where all the stuff in the big house we grew up in was doled out to the children through a lottery process. Although most of the stuff could not be taken until he vacated the house, which he did in May of this year, we divvied up antiques, furniture, art pieces and memorabilia. Among the assorted stuff was his medical bag, which I now possess.

Even today, his weathered bag retains a few brushstrokes of faded pale-blue house paint, which I’ve been told I brushed on it (and their new green Ford) when I was 5 and got into a can of unattended paint. The bag is heavy, made of dark-brown leather, with a brass lock and loops to attach the handles. A tiny metal label at the top of the bag reads Emdee by Schell Patent No. 2293363. Dad’s bag retains the pungent aromas of alcohol and astringent, and still contains pills, syringes, surgical needles and threads, and various little tubes of liquids. His personalized prescription pads and state of California Bureau of Narcotic Enforce-ment record book still lie inside, too.

Looking back, I believe that, like most doctors, Dad sacrificed much of himself to tend to his practice. His life, and that of his family, revolved around it. Although he tried his best to be with us, we had to fight for his time. I got his medical bag.

It takes a lot to be a doctor&emdash;and a doctor’s kid.