There must have been something in the water of Oak Park, Illinois. Frank Lloyd Wright would move there and have his first studio and his works are all over this suburb of Chicago, Ray Kroc of McDonalds fame would be born and raised there, Edgar Rice Burroughs of the Tarzan stories would come from there, Ernest Hemingway would be born there, and the three Neal brothers and their sister were raised there. The second oldest of the Neal brothers Phil would attend Harvard Law School and hang out with JFK Jr. He would start his own celebrated law firm, be the dean of the University of Chicago law school, serve on presidential commissions, and argue a case before the US Supreme Court. The oldest brother would be a decorated hero of World War II, a surgeon, and work with Doctors without Borders. The sister would become a teacher of teachers in the Chicago school system. Dick as he was called became an internist with a private practice in the place he grew up.
He was the human among a race of titans. His brothers made more money and had more notoriety and his sister became known throughout Chicago for her contributions to the education system. They seemed to consider him the underachiever. His choice as a doctor was a simple one. He enlisted in the Army to do his patriotic duty during WW II. After boot camp he was told he was qualified to go to officer’s candidate school or be a medic. He was given a minute to make up his mind and he chose medic. This experience would influence the rest of his life. He would serve in the Pacific where he would see soldiers’ bodies torn asunder by bombs, shrapnel, and bullets. He would also encounter various Pacific Island diseases, yellow fever, and dysentery. He was becoming a doctor though the soldiers called him medic. He enjoyed the camaraderie and the ability to help. He learned about cultures of the Philippines, Japan, and New Guinea through his military duty. Through his fellow brothers in arms he learned about the different American cultures southern, mid-western, black, and Ivy league were but a few. He was amazed at how they had all come together to work for one common cause. He would remember these experiences and use them in his practice.
His time in the Army also showed him the value of giving oneself to the group in order to obtain a common goal. This would guide him for the rest of his life. He would find his place, where there was a need he could meet, and give himself to perform that service.
Oftentimes he would look at his brothers wistfully as their fame and financial successes grew. As competitive brothers often do they would remind him of the differences. Yet he chose to have a private practice and would always remain comfortably with that choice. His choice paid well but did not give him the extravagant lifestyles of his brothers. He worked day and night. Married a woman who was okay with his practice being first. He assumed his duty and role in Oak Park with pride and diligence. He became known as a great diagnostician. His peers were amazed at his ability to recognize strange symptoms and identify their sources. He could have used this ability to earn even more money as a consulting physician but he offered his diagnosis to his fellow doctors for free. They were after all in the healing profession together and were comrades in arms against disease.
He rose early every day to make his rounds. He did this seven days a week except for his vacation. After he did his morning rounds he went home had lunch with his wife and then went to his office to see patients there until seven at night. He had no power lunches. He was not interested in climbing ladders. He was interested in practicing good medicine. His children learned on Christmas day they could not open presents until their father had made his rounds and returned home. His practice and patients came first. It was his sacrifice to his call of duty. It was nothing special after all he had seen in war that everyone did their part without complaint. He made house calls although it eventually was not as efficient because of the tests and equipment he had available at the office. His skill as diagnostician was basic: listen to the patient, try to understand their perspective and understandings, and use his learnings and reason to make the best possible diagnosis. He was seldom wrong. This skill had been honed early doing triage in battle.
Many of his fellow doctors chose him for their primary care. They respected his skills and he never charged them for his services. He did the same for his family members. Nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers and in-laws all saw him and he never charged for his services. His talents were given to the larger cause. Much to his wife’s chagrin they seldom returned the professional favors.
He worked to make the local hospital become one of the best suburban hospitals in the Chicago area. He would create the Department of Internal medicine and later as the hospital became a teaching hospital he would be the Director of Medical Education. He served as a trustee for years. He was dedicated and proud of the hospital.
His brothers continue to prosper financially with second and third homes to go with their primary estates. They also had second wives. He practiced and made a good living and stayed loyal to his Nancy. His brother’s trips were epic. His was to the Grand Canyon. His brothers thought they were leaving the runt behind but they loved his simple charm and his boyish humor.
As we all do he grew older. He marveled at the medical advances that had taken place during his practice. He kept himself up to date on all the new procedures, medications, and equipment. But the delivery of services in the medical field was changing with the advent of HMOs in the seventies. He was resistant to what he viewed as the new assembly line approach of medicine. HMOs could tell you how many patients you should see for how much money. It was a science of medicine for money that was slowly driving him out of practice. He was a diagnostician not a wheel in the cog. He could not heal his patients if he did not take time to listen. Everyone around him seemed to enjoy the new money HMOs seemed to be stirring their way. New homes, boats and epic trips were being delivered daily in the new system. But he questioned the practice.
In the last years of his practice he taught at the historic indigent care hospital in Chicago. Maybe he was hoping to escape the HMO world and to help improve a system that was failing so many poor. The new ‘medicine’ made him retire early. He would keep his license until his eighties. Taking his exams and studying on all the new breakthroughs in medicine. He always passed with flying colors. But his practice was now limited to giving advice to his family and friends when asked. He never asked for payment. He taught at the hospital trying to infuse medical students with the healing arts. He still amazed students and other doctors with his skills.
He was always an avid reader but now he was reading books about science and religion. He was an agnostic. Science supplied all the answers his practice needed. But now that he was growing older he felt a need to diagnose what the future might hold. He continued to look at things from all angles and listen to all opinions so he could develop the best diagnosis.
He kept himself in excellent shape. He exercised regularly. He did not smoke or drink. He was a doctor that could say do as I do. He was on his daily bike ride when a car hit him. Bruised and battered he refused to go in an ambulance and rode home. He slowly recovered but his health was never the same.
He had always had difficulty with his hearing. But now age had wreaked havoc on it. He probably could hear only sixty percent of what was said. But he would sit with his practiced stoic face and listen as intently as he could giving you his full attention. You would only know that he had missed parts of the conversation when he asked questions you had just answered. His genteel bedside manner now made him a calming force in the life of his friends and family.
Surprisingly, the healer had not prepared for his own medical decline. He had no insurance and had not thought much about end of life care for himself. His wife would exclaim ‘we thought we would live forever.’ Yet there were the readings and the thoughtfulness about life, god, and death. The healer who had helped so many through death thought that good medical practice would take care of him too. But the hospital he had served and had taught students how to be healers had changed. It was now owned by a private company that prided itself on embracing the principles of non-profit healthcare and marrying them with the business acumen of a privately owned organization. Their motto was non-profit values with investor owned vision.
His trust in the system would lead to procedures that did not add quality or quantity to his life. But they did cost him huge sums of money. He died in the hospital when he wished to die at home. They performed a tracheotomy on his last day that was uncomfortable and took away his ability to speak. The healer had to grimace inside to himself this was the medicine he had fought against.
His funeral was attended by family, friends, and professional colleagues. They all knew him as a doctor and a healer. He had had a simple practice. He was the human in the family of titans. In the end he made no great fortune but he answered his call to duty and became an excellent healer with a good practice. That was all he did and it was more than enough.