For the next few months, I’m excerpting chapters from the first of two books about my early years in family medicine in Kissimmee, Florida – The Best Medicine: Tales of Humor and Hope from a Small-Town Doctor. I hope you, your family, and your friends will follow along and enjoy this trip back into the past with me and my family.
CHAPTER 4 — DIFFERENT DRUMMERS
The next day, John and I began a habit that would continue for a decade and a half. At about 10:00 a.m. each office day, our office manager, Susan Mongillo, would herd us to the break room. We shared a cup of coffee, a joke or two, and something about our family lives or interesting patients. Then we’d have a short prayer. Rarely did I not learn something from this remarkable man. He was intensely tuned to a different channel in life and had a unique focus—different from most physicians.
John’s center point and north star were the things of the Lord. Many physicians prioritize pleasures, possessions, and power. Some who have religious or spiritual tendencies consider godly goals as an add-on to life. But John chose a narrower path. He never missed daily Mass and would tell me, “It’s my time to recenter on what’s important in the creation and the cosmos.” He was an avid student of Scripture. In short, his life was God-centered.
As a young man, John wanted to become a priest—at least until he met and married Cleta. After college, he began a career as an electrical engineer but sensed a call to become a family physician. In Kissimmee, he built a small, successful, patient-centered, and God-focused practice. He would often say, “I like to practice by the Book—the Word of God and its principles.” To me, my family, and my patients’ eternal benefit, John invited me to join him on a marvelous professional and personal journey together.
When patients and people in our community saw John put God and church ahead of personal gain and pleasure, they sometimes said, “He marches to the beat of a different drummer!”
He would respond, “So be it. I can’t wait to introduce them to the drummer.”
One morning, when I stepped out of a patient room, Susan was waiting for me in the hallway. “I need to show you something.” She nodded her head for me to follow. We exited through the back door of the office and there, sitting next to my daddy’s truck, was a shiny, blue Mercedes Benz sedan.
A large Filipino man introduced himself as Pete’s brother and handed me the keys. “These are for you.”
“Do I need to sign anything?”
“No, sir. Pete and my people took care of everything—license, title, plates, registration, and insurance. It’s yours for a ninety-day trial. No charge, no commitment. If for any reason you don’t like it, just call me, and we can take it back or trade it in for another.”
After we all went on a test drive, Pete’s brother left. As Susan and I walked back into the office, she explained, “I think Dr. Gonzales does this with all the new docs. What’cha gonna do? Keep it?”
I chuckled. “I have never driven, much less owned, an expensive automobile. Although I must admit, it drove like a dream.”
“It was plush and comfortable and amazing,” Susan said.
I nodded. “But I don’t think it’s me.”
“Why not?” she asked as we entered the staff lounge and poured cups of coffee.
“I grew up in a family with simple tastes. We had no luxuries. My parents taught my three brothers and me to ‘dress down’ and not to show off. We weren’t wealthy financially, but we were healthy, happy, and well cared for. Above all else, we boys knew our parents loved us. Our mom and dad’s priorities were faith, family, and friends. Our lack of money growing up made us depend on each other, appreciate and respect each other, and support and fight for one another. We had everything that counted. That’s an upbringing from which I don’t think I’ll escape—nor do I want to.”
“So, I guess you’re not going to keep it, eh?”
“Nope. But it might be nice to drive for a few days.”
She smiled. “Don’t blame you.”
“Did Dr. Gonzales get one for Dr. John?”
Susan nodded. “Of course, but he didn’t keep his either. I think you two are cut out of the same cloth.”
What a nice compliment, one side of me said. Just wait till she gets to know the real you, said the other. That one reminded me of my grandfather, who always asked, “Is your juice worth the squeeze?” I could only hope mine was!
With apologies to Pete and his brother, I returned the vehicle two weeks later. I prized and drove my dad’s truck for the next fifteen years. Kate and Scott learned to drive in that trusty rust bucket. When Scott, as a teenager, drove that junker around town, everyone knew it was him. In fact, he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. I’d like to think it kept him out of a lot of temptation and trouble.
At 2:00 a.m. one morning, racing to the hospital to deliver a baby, I rolled through a stop sign without coming to a complete stop. I didn’t see Officer Vicars in his police car across the street, waiting to catch the frequent speeders or stop-sign runners that endangered that intersection. By now, he knew my truck. I began to slow down to pull off the road, when he popped out of his car, a gleaming smile unfolding, and waved me on.
Although he let my infraction slide, someone else did not.
That week John invited me to attend Rotary Club with him as a visitor. During the meeting, it delighted Chief Frank Ross of the Kissimmee Police Department to mention what happened that week, and club president, Kevin Cole, immediately fined me the excessive amount of five dollars for the transgression.
“You can’t fine him!” John protested.
“Why not?” Kevin asked.
“He’s not a member!”
“Then, I’ll fine you!” Kevin proclaimed.
The entire room guffawed and applauded. I felt welcome and not more so that when John happily walked up front to pay for my transgression.
“Welcome to the team,” he said, smiling, as he returned. “I guess this officially makes us partners in the eyes of these old-timers. And that’s a good thing, trust me!”
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”[i] Early on in our practice, it pleased me to realize that John and I were going to dance to the same tune together.
[i] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1910), 430.
TO BE CONTINUED
This excerpt of The Best Medicine: Tales of Humor and Hope from a Small-Town Doctor is provided with the permission of the publisher Baker/Revell. You can learn more about the book or purchase a copy here.
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