thank you, Dr. E. F. Ritter
If you belonged to a midwestern Methodist family in the 1950s, patron saints weren’t part of your spiritual practice. But if the Thompson family had nominated one for canonization, it would have been Dr. E. F. Ritter, a general practitioner in Centerville, Iowa.
He entered our lives when I was two and had what later would be diagnosed as appendicitis. For nearly a year, my parents spent considerable time at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. At one point, they were told I probably would not survive, a conversation I, as a parent, cannot imagine having. At another, one of the Catholic sisters quietly advised my mother that they should consider taking me to the University Hospitals at Iowa City.
Then came a chance intervention. Our original family doctor was away, and Dr. Ritter covered his cases. The fact that this gentle but gruff, mustachioed man who peered over his glasses as much as through them had kids just the ages of my siblings and I probably entered the equation. But he would not give up–even when the appendix burst and peritonitis set in. I recovered, obviously.
Some 14 years later, he would surgically remove said appendix. It was spring 1967, and I had a part in the Junior play. Which I tearfully told him during hospital rounds one morning I was afraid I would miss. Each morning, thereafter, he would walk into the room, grab my playbook and dramatically read lines to see if I’d memorized mine. (I made the play.)
But we weren’t the only ones who considered him special. My childhood friend George Valentine shared a story from when his dad and several other young Southern Iowa men reported for their WWII draft physicals. A bit older, Dr. Ritter was conducting them. To put the draftees at ease, he stripped down to his briefs before conducting the exams.
Years later, when a bomb would explode in a plane crossing the Iowa/Missouri air space, Dr. Ritter would lead the local medical team at the scene. He shared with my folks that one news reporter had countered his orders as medical examiner and, when wrath ensued, yelled, “Who do you think you are, God?” To which Doc replied, “You cross that line and you’ll learn that I am.”
I love the fact that Dr. Ritter was a staunch Democrat. And that his beautiful city-edge farm has become the campus for Indian Hills Community College. But today, when Kate sent me this story from NPR: after-30-years-of-surgeries-doctor-and-patient-dance, it was the little girl thoughts that flowed freely.
At two, every doctor’s visit was frightening. So, he would take my baby doll, who wore a red coat and cap crocheted by my Aunt Elma, and fill virtually every hole with a lollipop. We would walk out with Timmy looking like a porcupine, but I wouldn’t be crying.
I think that’s worthy of sainthood.