Monday, November 23, 2015

The Definition of a Hero

Annamaria on Monday

The heart-bursting truth is that amid the worst moments on the planet good human beings can do the right and the achingly beautiful thing.


Case in point: The Quaker Doctor—John Jay Terrell



During the American Civil War, most of the fighting took place in the State of Virginia.  Ordinarily in previous wars, the injured remained near where they fell, treated as best as could be arranged in tents.  But with the railroad nearby, in 1861, wounded confederate soldiers were taken to Lynchburg, where all the available spaces were turned into makeshift hospitals.

Fate had been preparing a hero to receive them.

John Jay Terrell was born nearby in 1829, the son and grandson of physicians.  His family were Quakers.  In those days, most doctors were trained through apprenticeship, but John decided on a formal education in modern medicine at Emory and Henry College and then at Jefferson College in Philadelphia—where he graduated first in his class in 1853.

As Quakers, John’s family had moved away from the slave-holding state, but he returned to his family’s ancestral homestead after completing his education.  He had barely settled into life back home near Lynchburg when the Civil War broke out.  One would have expected a Quaker to be a conscientious objector.  He could have paid someone to serve in his place, but he could not bring himself to put another man in danger in his stead, so he joined the Confederate Army.  Rather than waste his talents on the battlefield, Dr. W. O. Owen, chief of staff assigned him to help the wounded.



Pest houses were common in those days, places—usually located near or in the public cemetery—where people suffering from communicable diseases would wallow in filth until their illness saw them off.   During the Civil War, the Lynchburg Pest House was hell.  Full of soldiers suffering from smallpox, attended by nurses who did little but guzzle the booze meant to be stave off the pain of the suffering.   You can hardly blame them.  What would it have taken for any of us to go to work in such danger and squalor?  J. J. Terrell volunteered to work there.



He waded in, armed with new ideas about health and cleanliness from his recent formal training.  With him went a Jesuit priest, Father Gache’ and Catholic nuns of the Daughters of  Charity.  John’s new fangled techniques, ridiculed by the local medicos as Quaker fetishes, included using a thermometer, boiling instruments. injecting medicine into the sick person, and chloroforming patients undergoing an operation.   Terrell cleaned up the dirt, made sure the patients were kept clean and warm, painted the interior wall of the rooms black to keep the light low and soothe their eyes.  He had their bodies oiled to cut down on bed sores and pain.



He also vaccinated the well, using cowpox from a sick cow he had shipped in from Maryland.  In the process, he also inoculated the local slave children.

Terrell’s methods reduced the death rate in the Pest House from 75 to 5 percent!



After the war, John Jay Terrell returned penniless to his ancestral home in the nearby countryside.  He practiced medicine there until he died at age 94.

His story is a tribute to the healing power of human kindness.  He is memorialized in the Pest House Museum in the Historic public cemetery in Lynchburg.






13 comments:

  1. What an amazing story, Annamaria. How on earth did you come across him? And modern hospitals could learn a lot from keeping everything clean ...

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    1. Zoe, his story surprised me and cried out to be told. I heard of him while visiting Lynchburg. My friend there, Mary Katherine McIntosh, gives historical tours of the town. She took me to see the sights and in the process I learned his story from a short film at the Old Cemetery Museum gift shop. I had to buy a copy of the film to have the info. There is not much about Terrell on the internet. I wanted to write about it to give him the credit he deserves.

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  2. Got me on one of my high horses now Annamaria - handwashing. So many nurses, and doctors who have always known 'gloves and single use' materials have either lost the ability or were never trained to wash their hands properly. In my work, washing my hands 60 times a day is not unusual...I counted it once. And a study showed that patients feel more at ease when they witness the practitioner doing it, rather than the practitioner just walking in the room and saying 'So what's up with you then?'

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    1. Caro, Terrell's fellow doctors pooh-poohed (pun intended) his ideas about cleanliness. I took a picture of a soap dish containing carbolic soap, which I did not include here. A few years ago, I spent five days in the hospital with a kidney stone. What bothered me as much as the pain was the idea of the germs all around me.

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    2. I remember walking into Carlisle hospital a few years ago, which is as big and modern as a shopping mall or an airport concourse, and as you walked in there were hand sanitising stations on posts, right there so you couldn't avoid passing close to one. I had to sit and wait for a while in that area, and the only people bothering to clean their hands were the visitors. Those with staff badges just walked on by. Not reassuring!

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  3. Wow, what a story. A true "profile in courage."

    On the hand-washing front, Caro, that's become a public obsession in NYC hospitals--thankfully--and a Swiss friend I know from Mykonos (William Griffiths) was recently honored for having invented "hopirub," an alcohol based hand-washing solution that's dramatically reduced hospital spread infections.

    He's also a huge mystery writing fan which I assume is why he actually received the award.

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    1. Bro, I wanted to remind myself and everyone I could that human kindness and self-sacrifice are real and can do as much good as the bad guys do harm.

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  4. EvKa and Stan, It is my pleasure. After all the gloom and doom these past weeks, I figured we all needed a lift.

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  5. A strong supporters of cleanliness in hospitals was Dr Ignaz Semmelweis about twenty years earlier. Despite showing a spectacular drop in the mortality rate at the maternity hospital at which he worked - where doctors routinely performed autopsies and then immediately delivered women - his ideas were ridiculed and he was eventually forced out of his post.

    There is even now a "Semmelweis reflex" which is used to describe the reflex rejection of any new knowledge in conflict with the conventional wisdom.

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    1. Michael, I am glad to know the proper name for that sort of dangerous egocentricity. My corporate clients had an aversion we used to call "NIH." I don't mean the National Institutes of Health. It stands for "not invented here." Not matter the results other companies were getting with a particular technique, some execs would reject it out of hand. But as regards cleanliness in medicine, that tendency gives new meaning to the term stick in the mud!

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