A Doctor's Heart
Written by Carolyn Van Bergen, PhD
Did you choose where you live? For many of us the location was chosen by a job, a spouse, love interest, or parents. I live where I live because of a job offer my ex-husband accepted over thirty years ago. My dad could have chosen many places to live, but twice he chose Effingham, Il., a small town in the heart of the country, or flyover country, the middle states, the Prairie, Midamerica, the Heartland. But my dad simply called it “God’s country.”
He chose it for the first time when he finished medical school at Northwestern University in 1959. When it was time to pick a place to practice, he picked Effingham. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect he wanted to stay in state and close to the railroads and highways to connect him to extended family. He joined another doctor in general practice, and did everything from stitching up cuts, to delivering babies, to cancer care. This wasn’t a place a doctor came in those days to get rich. I remember people dropping off eggs, meat, and, his favorite, homegrown tomatoes as partial payment. I also remember someone bringing a corpse in the back of a station wagon to our house on a weekend so my dad could declare the person dead! He loved the people of Effingham, their work ethic and commitment to the community.
As busy as his practice was he contributed to that community in other ways too-- working on hospital committees, Rotary projects, and the local medical society. He liked that in Effingham connections to people were multifaceted. Someone wasn’t just a patient, but also his hair cutter, and his kid’s dance teacher. It was impossible to go out to eat with him but a dozen people would come up to say “hi”. Once I asked him who that person was, and he said, “I’m not sure, but I took something out of them at some time!” I’m guessing he meant a gallbladder or appendix. He wasn’t looking to be a local star, but it was the upside of the cliché that in a small town everybody knows everybody.
The downside of being so connected was the pain when he couldn’t help patients. He was devastated when a pediatric cancer patient died despite everyone’s best efforts. That motivated him to specialize in OB-GYN, where most of the patients are at a happy point in their lives and fatalities are few. For a time, he had to leave Effingham to pursue further education. I think he still counted it as home though and would return, staying at Lake Sara, as often as possible. I know people in Effingham work hard and keep busy, but at this stage it was his respite, where he could slow down, drink a beer on the dock, take his kids waterskiing, and have cookouts with friends. If we kids got our way, the day might end with a ride to the Homewood Grill or Moe’s for a milkshake. Those are the summer days I remember with glowing nostalgia.
When the time was right, my dad picked Effingham a second time. He came back to the lake house fulltime and began practicing OB-GYN full time too. At the time of his death, I realized that he had delivered on average a baby a day for the past years—more than 350 babies a year. Some of you reading this might have been one of those babies. Once again, every time he went out in town, someone would come over to show him a new baby or a big teenager that had been one of his deliveries. He lived alone in the lake house, but because of the sincere community in Effingham he wasn’t lonely. He had his work family, his church family, and his neighborhood family for company. He liked to travel sometimes to big cities like Chicago and New Orleans (he loved good food!), but home was always Effingham. Maybe it didn’t have everything those big cities had, but it had the important things.
Effingham gave him a great deal in the years he lived there. I like to think he gave it something too. If home is where the heart is, The Heart of America was his home.