Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dr. Dorothy’s Choice

By Elizabeth Wesley
(pseud. Elizabeth Adeline McElfresh), ©1962
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

As a doctor at the Still River hospital and as the bride-to-be of Tom Norman, Dee Bailey had exactly what she wanted in life—to cure the sick and to love and be loved. Then both her career and her love were threatened—one by an ambitious doctor, the other by a beautiful, seductive woman. Both had power, money and cunning behind them. Alone, with only her conscience and her love to guide her, Doctor Dee had to make the decision which would determine not only her own future, but the future of the hospital and the entire Still River community as well.


“Give my best to his greater omentum. Long may it remain unpunctured.”

“One of these times he’s going to cut out his own gizzard when he tries to knife somebody and pat himself on the back at the same time.”

“A doctor needs to unbend, to let his patients glimpse something besides strict asepsis and medicochirurgical knowledge.”

“I’d like that better if you left out the comma. ‘Always glad to oblige Nola.’ There! Doesn’t that sound better?”

“She had missed last week’s appointment for a shampoo and set at the beauty shop because of an emergency in Surgery—a cross that any nurse, surgeon, or anesthesiologist has to bear, because the patient comes first, no matter what.”

“You know my daughter, Tom. She’s young, beautiful, spoiled rotten. She needs to get married, but God help the man.”

Dorothy Bailey is the granddaughter of a woman whom Dr. Paul Courtney, now 75 years old, once loved. Though Louise chose to marry another man and died of the flu when she was fairly young, Dr. Paul played the role of uncle to her two sons—one of them named after Paul—and this was Dorothy’s father. Dorothy became a doctor, obviously, “because you are, Dr. Paul,” and now works as an anesthesiologist at the hospital he founded, Still River General Hospital in Indiana. He’s thinking of retiring, and is moved to tears at the realizations of “an old man’s dream” when he offers Dorothy—I just can’t bring myself to call her Dee, as the book does—his job as chief of staff.

But there are a couple of wrinkles in this plan. The first is that some of the boy doctors won’t like it, especially Dr. Rod Howell, who is a coldly ambitious but brilliant surgeon who wants the job for himself. The second hiccup is that Dorothy doesn’t want it, though her reasons aren’t completely clear. “I’m an anesthesiologist! I want to go on being an anesthesiologist. I want to marry you and bear your children,” she tells her fiancĂ©, newspaperman Tom Norman, though I’m not clear what her family planning has to do with it. Tom, to his credit, tells her that she can be a wife, mother, anesthesiologist, and chief of staff, “and you can do a bang-up job at each, separately or at one and the same time.” She responds, “Who ever heard of a woman chief of staff?” So my fear is that Dorothy doesn’t want the job because she is too circumscribed by gender roles, somewhat surprising since she has already done so in spades by becoming a doctor at a time when only 6 percent of medical students were women (this was in the 1960-1 school year; in 2012 it was 49 percent[1]).

But Dorothy can’t bring herself to tell Dr. Paul that she doesn’t want the job, so the bulk of the book is about Dr. Howell’s struggles to win it, by fair means or foul, for himself. He circulates a rumor that a surgery he performed with Dr. Paul was botched by the elder doctor, and that’s why the patient died. A seedy drunk, Jake Smith, is found to be spouting loudly at a nearby burger joint that Dr. Paul killed the patient—though everyone knows that Dr. Howell has paid the man to do so. Then Jake is seeing hanging around the hospital, on the same night that Dr. Paul is found unconscious in the stairwell. Coincidence? We think not!

There’s a lot of to-doing about what happened to Dr. Paul, and confrontations between Dr. Howell and Jake, who attempts to blackmail the bad doctor; Dr. Howell and Dorothy, who has been made acting chief of staff during Dr. Paul’s loss of consciousness (what do they do when he’s asleep, or on vacation?); and Tom Norman and Jake Smith, who protests he never touched Dr. Paul! Then it’s just for Dr. Paul to wake up and tell everyone he just missed a step and fell, Dr. Howell to plead guilty to his mad ambition and be forgiven, and for Dr. Paul to tell Dorothy that he knew all along that she didn’t want to be chief of staff—“You’re in love,” he tells her, again as if her personal relationships somehow make her less fit for the job. She never actually voices her refusal; it’s just assumed that she is turning down the position. Dr. Paul “watched Dr. Dee walk into Tom Norman’s arms as if she never wanted to leave them, and he knew he had done the right thing. He had given Dr. Dee the right to make her decision.” A nice tie-in to the title, but seriously, did she ever not have the right to make her own decision? And did she ever make any decision at all? She is essentially just wafted along by Dr. Paul’s decisions, first to make her chief of staff and then to unmake her.

Unfortunately, Dorothy is not a very vital character, without much starch or spice, and I can’t fathom her lack of interest in becoming chief of staff since she never gives any actual reasons as to why she doesn’t want the job. She’s also brought down by her insecurities about Tom, who is the object of slinky vixen Nola Fenton’s desires. Though Dorothy and Tom seem deeply committed, when Nola lies to Dorothy that Tom kissed her “so hard I’m sure it still shows,” instantly the fountain of anxiety is turned on, and we are treated to paragraphs of Dorothy’s fears: “It isn’t true, Dee Bailey, and you know it! she told herself. So stop tormenting yourself. Don’t give Nola the satisfaction. Don’t let her enter a wedge of doubt between you and Tom—there never has been one; you’ve both been so sure of your love, your trust. But had they? Had Tom?” You see what I mean.

Apart from the disappointing fact that the title character is a bit of a dishrag, the book is fairly straightforward, without much sparkle, but not overly boring, either. It has a bit of humor to it in places, which help you get through it. But in general there’s not enough here to bother reading about Dr. Dorothy’s choices—or lack thereof.

[1] Association of American Medical Colleges, “Total Enrollment by U.S. Medical School and Sex, 2008-2012”.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Island Doctor

By Isabel Cabot
(pseud. Isabel Capeto), ©1963
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti
[Note that Woman Doctor also uses the same cover illustration]
Young and extremely pretty Dr. Alison Clay had come to Britt Island because aging Dr. Ben needed her. With an exciting new life awaiting her back in the city, it wasn’t part of her plan to stay more than three weeks. Then Dr. Alison was caught up in a hurricane of emotions, and she began to discover that a woman’s heart makes its own plans …
“What happened to your sense of humor? Was it bottled in formaldehyde along with someone’s cut-out appendix?”
“I’ve been doctoring for thirty-six years and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of patients I honestly felt could be helped by going somewhere like Boston.”
“What did you get your M.D. in? Sadism?”
“Did Alison pull a boob?”
“Dr. Bond, did you specialize in meddling?”
“We didn’t exactly acquire our medical degrees through a correspondence school, you know.”
“Mr. Kirby knows from nothing, unless it’s bottled, canned, or on draft.”
Alison Clay is a 26-year-old doctor returning home to Britt Island and her uncle Dr. Ben, the island GP. He lives with his sister, and the pair raised Alison—and are still caring for Alison’s younger brother and sister—after her parents died. (These VNRN gals are beginning to feel as cursed as Disney heroines.) It’s been three years since Alison has been back home, but Dr. Ben had written that he’s planning on taking a vacation, so she agreed to fill in for him. What she hasn’t told him is that she’s staying only three weeks, after which she’ll return to a fancy-pants practice in the city with the haughty Dr. Erica Stacy and leave another doctor she has arranged ahead of time in her stead. It turns out that Dr. Ben hasn’t been entirely honest, either; he’s planning to be gone for six months! But when she tells him that she’s only temporary and that the nice Dr. Hale is waiting in the wings, he cancels his vacation and goes all grumpy. It’s not clear to me why she stays on at that point, but she does.
Another doctor, Nathan Bond, lives on the mainland nearby and also works on the island a couple days a week. Wouldn’t you just know it, he turns out to be the same man whom she’d insulted when they both had stopped at a drawbridge outside of town. It turns out that Dr. Alison has a bit of a temper, encouraged by condescending behavior from her fellow trainees during the eight years of her training. Actually, this seems to serve her in good stead: When she meets a patient who has been paralyzed in a car accident and is being over-coddled by his grandmother into believing that he can never walk again, she lets him have it. “ ‘Jim Britt,’ Alison addressed the man on the bed, ‘You’re a disgusting sight.’ ” Out on another case, where a 12-year-old boy is in need of an emergency tracheotomy and his drunk father is getting in the way, she tells the gentleman who brought her there to give the father a bottle of whisky—or hit him over the head with it. As she coolly sets out the tools for the procedure, the woman holding the flashlight professes feeling like she is going to faint. “You do, and I’ll personally ram that flashlight down your throat,” Alison replies. A bit harsh, perhaps, but if Alison is a bit cut-throat in her dealings with Dr. Ben, Nathan, and even her friends and patients, it works: The boy’s life is saved by her brilliant work, and the paralyzed man agrees to check into a ten-week program in Maine, where “they’ve made great strides in physiotherapy,” says Alison, and we can only hope that the pun was unintended.
Drs. Clay and Bond cross paths on Alison’s first night on the island at a house call, when he was summoned after the patient realized, too late to call her off, that it was the female Dr. Clay who was en route to their aid. Alison does not respond well, as is her disposition, when Nathan offers to split the fee. “I’ve had my fill of men like you,” she says, though it must be confessed that Dr. Bond has not said much more than hello. “When you’re not being patronizing, you’re flexing your muscles or beating your manly chest trying to convince people that the space between your ears serves for more than keeping the two apart.” Ouch. Naturally, it isn’t ten minutes before Nathan is thinking, “Why of all women did he have to fall in love with Alison Clay? She was aloof, self-sufficient, and possessed other qualities that he had always despised in women.” First of all, I wasn’t aware that being self-sufficient was a bad thing. Secondly, I’m hoping, but not confident, that the qualities he despises in women are the same qualities he despises in men. Lastly, why would anyone fall in love with someone who is repeatedly nasty and whom they don’t seem to like very much? (When she asks him, “You don’t like me much, do you?” he answers, “You haven’t given me any reason”—and then promptly kisses her.) This is a VNRN, after all, where stranger things have happened.
Alison soon decides that she will stay with Dr. Ben for the full six months so he can leave on his vacation after all, but it seems she’s doing it more out of guilt than anything else and is hoping to get back to Dr. Stacy’s practice before her place there is filled by someone else. But Dr. Ben has other hopes: He confesses to Nathan that he planned this “vacation” so as to lure Alison away from Dr. Stacy, as “being associated with her would be no asset.” Dr. Stacy proves her reputation when Alison telephones to say she’s staying until May. “What is there to handling an island practice? All one needs is a sympathetic ear and a jar full of aspirins,” snipes Dr. Stacy. “This is where your future is, not in some backwash island. What kind of medicine can you possibly practice there? Bellyaches and pregnancies are no challenge. The island grannies have been handling those for generations.” I felt a little uneasy that the only other woman doctor in the book is set up as a bad egg.
Then Dr. Alison, driving out during a winter storm, skids on ice and crashes her car on the edge of a cliff. She’s teetering there, unable to escape, and slowly freezing. Will she be found before she dies of hypothermia or plummets into the ocean? Will she come to her senses and abandon Dr. Stacy? Will she accept Dr. Ben’s job offer? Will she marry Nathan? You can probably guess the answers to these questions, but the wrap-up isn’t as satisfying as it could be. Alison has been defensive and shouldering a large chip through the entire book, but at the end everything is magically washed away, apparently during a brief interchange with Nathan, who asks her, “Why must you regard every little consideration as a personal slur on your medical ability?” He goes on, “My father was seriously ill only twice in his life and both times he wouldn’t have any other doctor but my mother. Yet from the day they were married to the day he died, he never let her take one night call. Do you think that was because he lacked confidence in her medical ability?” So after they are united, he tells her, “Once we’re married, you’ll take no night calls,” and Alison “meekly” answers, “Yes, Doctor,” her neurosis apparently completely resolved. If she can’t tolerate any aspersions on her medical ability, she’s A-OK with chauvinism masquerading as chivalry.
Overall, this is a nice story. The book spends most of its time chronicling Alison’s dealings with her younger brother and sister, her friends on the island, and her growing patient population, and these are enjoyable, amusing anecdotes. Alison is a feisty character, and other peripheral characters have lots to offer as well. (One character, a novelist, is a fount of zippy one-liners, to wit: “Even at the risk of destroying some beautiful image you might have of us Norberts, I must confess that we still have an ample supply of vermouth.”) The main drawback to this book is a regular disregard for sense and logic. Alison is mildly anxious about her brother’s relationship with Mrs. Norbert, but it’s ridiculously obvious that the boy is secretly studying acting with her. Then Alison decides that Dr. Ben and Nathan had shown “good medical judgment” in sending a patient with an abdominal mass to the local hospital when she’d advocated for a big-city specialist. The X-ray had shown a perfectly normal appendix, so Alison had been rightly concerned about colon cancer—hence her desire for the specialist—but the local surgeon endorsed by the male medics uncovers an abscess from a perforated appendix. It’s clear that neither Ben nor Nathan had wanted to accept a diagnosis of cancer: “Both of them were grasping at anything that would point to a ruptured appendix that had sealed itself off, rather than a carcinoma.” That they were correct is not good medical judgment, it’s luck, and Alison’s vow to “re-evaluate” her medical decisions is unfounded, possibly even dangerous to her patients. And, of course, Alison’s apparent transformation at the end is either miraculous or a mirage. But on the whole, though these flaws bring the book down slightly, they by no means ruin it, and Island Doctor is easily worth reading.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Woman Doctor

By Alice Lent Covert,©1952
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Maggie Waynescott was a woman born for love. Petite and beautiful, no man could look at her without wanting to take her in his arms. Now she had fallen deeply in love with newspaperman Mike Hubbard. Here, finally, was the man she wanted close to her for the rest of her life. But Maggie Waynescott was also Dr. Waynescott, a woman in a very special man’s world … a world she knew Mike would never share. Somehow she had to choose—her man or her career.


“Let’s get ourselves an honest-to-goodness Hawaiian tan, not the common variety we get at Rockover beach. Something with class.”

“A physician, of all people, should know how to cope with something as simple and fundamental as a biological urge.”

“He wielded his scalpel like a kingly scepter.”

“ ‘I have a new playsuit that simply begs to be worn—’
‘Brief?’ he asked hopefully, and she chuckled.
‘Positively curt!’ ”

“Women were supposed to have been emancipated way back when. They make a big thing of getting fitted out for a career in medicine or law or industry—then they creep meekly away to some fusty old desk job and the men go right on doing all the worth-while things and grabbing off all the glory. Look at my racket. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so what happened? I sat at a desk and told the dames how to make ducky sandwiches for their Tuesday bridge clubs.”

“He’s been sulking all evening, and uttering cryptic comments. I’m not sure whether he’s feeling downtrodden or simply observing a period of suffering for those who are.”

“If we were poor people, we’d be considered frightfully bad-mannered—with the possible exception of Cleatus. The rest of us are just eccentric. It’s the same thing as bad manners, you know; it just depends on which bracket you can afford.”

“Unless you’ve some other completely asinine remark you feel you’ve just got to make, will you kindly shut up and kiss me?”

Dr. Maggie Waynescott is, at 28, in the midst of a midlife crisis. First of all, as a woman doctor at a prestigious clinic, the only patients she gets are the neurotic wealthy women with no health problems that aren’t psychosomatic. Then her boyfriend, reporter Mike Hubbard, wants to marry her, but to Maggie, “Marriage to him would be the death blow to her career.” She thinks, “If I were insane enough to let Mike talk me into tossing everything else overboard just to be his wife and the mother of his children, I’d come to hate myself, and him!” To be fair, though, Mike has never suggested that she give up her work. “He was willing to admit it might be possible for a woman to successfully combine the medical calling with a healthy, enduring marriage. He was willing and anxious to try to help Maggie combine them.” So the pressure to quit working comes entirely from Maggie and her own ideas of what would make Mike happy: “He wanted quiet evenings with his pipe and slippers and a serene knowledge that if the telephone rang it would be someone with an invitation to bridge, or a wrong number—not a distracted summons calling the little woman out on an all-night confinement case!” So it’s going to be difficult persuading her to walk down the aisle.

Then her uncle, Dr. John King—who raised her from a young age, like all other heroines, when her parents died—writes that he has suffered a heart attack, and his practice in the mining town in New Mexico where she grew up is hers if she wants it. So she packs up and heads for the hills. Interestingly, we learn in the first chapter that what Mike, a former war correspondent, really wants to do is edit a country weekly and write a book, and it seems like Sky River might be an ideal spot to do both. Yet when Mike suggests he go with her, she tells him, “There’d be nothing for you in Sky River.” And she has another reason as well: He shouldn’t do it, she says, because “a man wants the woman he loves to be willing to follow him,” and if he follows her, he’ll be unhappy. Mike answers, “I can see where saving a man’s life rates higher in the human scheme than furnishing him something to read over his breakfast coffee. Maybe the obvious solution would be for the man to follow his woman, for a change. I might free-lance, take a crack at fiction—” But then he shakes his head. “It doesn’t jell, does it?” And Maggie agrees that it does not, and that’s that. Better they break up than try to make their relationship work, regardless of how it might not fit the norm of the day. Given the fact that Maggie has made a career in what was then considered “a man’s world,” you’d think she would be more open to bucking tradition, but apparently not.

En route to Sky River, she travels in a bus with just one other passenger, Chris Rutledge, the general manager of the Fleming mine company, which is the big operation in the area. “He tried to flirt with Maggie, and was cheerfully unabashed when she ignored him. His overtures failing to draw her into conversation, he talked lazily to no one in particular. Today, he informed the sun-flooded, pine-scented world, the scenery inside the stage was even more beautiful than the outside. He meant to write a letter to the company officials, commending them and suggesting that such pleasant interior decorations be made a permanent feature of the service.” Before long, naturally, the two are best friends, going on long hikes up the local mountains and working to restore an old house she’s bought.

The problem is that Chris is the property of Diane Fleming, the daughter of the prominent Fleming family. Diane is a cold, beautiful vixen, and also a state senator. She has no qualms about informing Maggie early on that Chris is hers and she should back off. So Maggie keeps her relationship with Chris platonic, telling him that although “the idea of your kissing me isn’t obnoxious to me,” she has another boyfriend and he has another girlfriend. But they’re still hanging out, and Diane has her revenge when she asks the senate to table a bill that would have funded a hospital in Sky River, which has long been a dream of Maggie’s Uncle John. Chris brings Maggie a copy of the newspaper article announcing this development, and Diane shows up drunk not much later for a cheap, fabulous brawl in which Chris tells Diane that he loves Maggie, not her, and then takes Diane home. As Maggie is recovering on the front porch, who should turn up but Mike—just as the phone rings, and it’s Diane, saying that she has shot Chris. Which sort of puts an end to any chance Diane might have had of winning Chris back.

Mike lingers around town for weeks afterward, getting involved with the local newspaper, writing free-lance and working on a book (sound familiar?). He’s also helping young Bill Fleming, who always had a hankering to write, get the floundering local newspaper back on its feet. Meanwhile, Chris is partially paralyzed from the waist down. He has to undergo rigorous physical therapy, and Maggie, feeling guilty about her part in his shooting, feels she has to be there for every minute of it, bullying and coaxing and teasing him into just one more leg-lift. Diane, thanks to Chris’ insistence that it was an accident, isn’t facing charges, but she’s drinking so much that it looks like she’s attempting suicide by vodka and tonic. Mike, seeing the amount of time Maggie spends with Chris and how her efforts with him are sucking the life out of her, asks her to marry him, but she believes that if she marries Mike, Chris will lose his motivation to walk. So Mike leaves town, and her. Two months pass, and Chris finally walks across a room—and asks Maggie to marry him, and she accepts. But then Diane is arrested for drunk driving and put in detox. Chris goes down on his crutches to visit her, and comes home looking thoughtful.

You know exactly how things are going to play out from here. Not that that’s always a bad thing. This book is a wonderfully written, amusing, thoughtful, and smart, sprinkled with phrases like, “I freely accord you the selfsame privilege of refusal.” It combines stock characters—the shallow bitch on heels, the rangy cowboy, the sage elderly town doc—with real feeling and motivation that gives the book both a sense of fun and the satisfaction that comes with a well-told story that feels true. The book isn’t without flaws: Early on we spend some time inside Bill Fleming’s head, which made me think that he was to be Maggie’s new boyfriend, and at book’s end it’s still not clear why this detour was necessary. Mike’s reasons (slim as they appear) for not going to Sky River with Maggie at the beginning of the story are completely ignored when he does move there in the end, undoing the central angst of the entire book. And the psychology of Maggie’s refusal to marry Mike is somewhat explained, but she never internalizes these lessons to the extent that her acceptance of him makes much sense. But overall, this is an engaging and enjoyable book that even moved me to a few tears in places. It’s a nurse novel (about a doctor) that wants to be a real story, and succeeds in a way that few do.