Doc: Then and Now with a Montana Physician
R. E. Losee, M.D.
Lyons & Burford
At the age of 29, Yale Medical School graduate Ron Losee appeared poised to begin a career that would be marked by prestigious appointments, research grants and international conferences. But the American West beckoned.
In the summer of 1949, Losee and his wife, Olive, loaded their 2-year-old daughter and all their worldly possessions into an Army Jeep and headed off toward an unknown future. By the time they reached Wyoming, their ready cash stood at $15. After a visit with relatives in Oregon, they headed east to Montana. At Helena, they got word that the town of Ennis ("400 people and 400,000 trout") needed a doctor. Losee landed the job: he has never looked back.
Doc is an oddly affectionate memoir, "artless" in the best sense of the word. As books go, it is a bit of a hodgepodge: part episodic adventures of a small-town doctor (Marcus Welby meets Grizzly Adams), part exploration of the practice of medicine and passionate rebuttal of the current system, part paean to a simpler era that has vanished.
Doc Losee is a man who freely admits how little he knew when he began doctoring. When snow closed the road out of Ennis, he responded to the urgent call from an expectant mother by frantically reading Williams Obstetrics. "You can say that a rural general practice of medicine starts with the first home delivery," he dryly notes.
In time Losee came to a deep understanding of the limits of his experience. "My feelings of inadequacy were in no small part due to my mistaken belief that a doctor was supposed to cure people," he writes. "Gradually I came to understand that there are no cures, that healing is the in-built mechanism of the body, and without its genetic, immune, inflammatory, and adaption processes, we are goners early in the game."
In 1957 Losee left Ennis for two years to learn the art of orthopedic surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. This was his true calling. Upon returning to his old routine, he notes, "every time a patient with an orthopedic problem presented, general practice came to an immediate grinding halt. . . ." Losee's fascination with bones and joints led to a pioneering work in the early 1970s on the repair of "trick knees"-knees that suddenly give way while slightly flexed. His innovative surgical technique is still in use today. Now in his mid-70s and retired from the operating room, Losee still consults weekly with patients. The hospital in Ennis, which opened its doors the year after he arrived (the nursery for newborns was an upholstered kitchen drawer warmed by a mechanic's drop light), has expanded again and again. Doc Losee has repaired the trick knees of patients whose births he attended. He has seen enough of medicine to report that the first commandment of the clinician is to listen; and he has seen enough of the world to admonish the rest of us "to revere life with passion."
"I'm so damned glad I was a doctor, that I learned so much about life and creativity, and so little of killing and destruction," he writes. "I am so damned glad that Olive and I were taught to love people, and that we did love people." This love is evident on every page of Doc. What's missing, however, is a full portrait of the man behind the surgical mask. I found myself wondering about Losee's deep urge to go West and the effect that his fierce commitment to medicine had on his family. I also found myself wondering how the town of Ennis gets along without him.
Karl Ackerman's novel The Patron Saint of Unmarried Women will appear in paper from St. Martin's this month.