By Eric Moorehead
A sultry, sunny day greeted denizens of the mid-Atlantic region in July 2016. I was driving on Pulaski Highway—U.S. Route 40—with my wife, son and daughter on an exhausting, albeit enjoyable road trip that carried us through most states east of the Mississippi River and Ontario, Canada. Some 100 miles southwest of Philadelphia where we stopped earlier, I drove into another big city in a neighboring state. I exclaimed to them, “This is where I was born.” The grit of the city shrouded business after business and rowhouse after rowhouse that we passed as Pulaski Highway turned into Orleans Street. I drove under a railroad overpass with large letters spelling out “BALTIMORE.” We arrived in Maryland’s largest city – its indelible blue-collar image starkly contrasting that of the elite nation’s capital 40 miles to the southwest, its quirky ambience as colorful as the state flag. I wanted to show my family Johns Hopkins Hospital, my father’s employer when I was a small child.
We parked our mini-van on the street, got out and began to walk around the perimeter of the hospital campus to take pictures. “So this is where Dr. Ben Carson got started,” my wife said, referring to the man of Gifted Hands fame.
All I knew is that Johns Hopkins Hospital appeared unrecognizable to me overall from those erstwhile days of my childhood, with several modern buildings constructed decades after my last visit with my father when I was around five or six years old. Only the old red Queen-Anne style building – the original hospital, now the administration building – captured any familiarity. The old hospital was the place I remember telling my father’s work friends there that I wanted to be a doctor when I grow up. I didn’t know any better.
Let me continue to take you back seemingly eons before the revitalized Inner Harbor (which I haven’t seen) and The Wire (which I have). In my childhood, Johns Hopkins Hospital symbolized Maryland as much as the clams, the crab cakes and the Colts — pre-Indianapolis. My father worked there for three years. He was not a doctor – he was a technician who worked on medical machines. In fact, he worked on a machine that saved the life of my uncle following a brain aneurysm. He was one of several relatives of mine who lived in Baltimore in the 1960s. All of those relatives are gone. The historically black Provident Hospital where I was born is gone. P.S. 69 where my two older brothers and I attended school is gone. Yet, this historic Star Spangled Banner city lives on. I was happy to show my family a city that I really knew only as a boy. Of course Johns Hopkins Hospital still symbolizes Maryland – in the modern Ravens era.
My father earned an associate’s degree from Maryland Technical Institute – a trade school that no longer exists – in 1959. Shortly afterward, he started his new job at Johns Hopkins. Unbeknownst to me, as a kid I didn’t know Johns Hopkins was world renowned in medicine, but I was too young to grasp that concept anyway. I just took it for granted, like any other place. To me, the hospital was no different from Sinai Hospital in northwest Baltimore where my brothers and I would go to get vaccinations or anyplace else that required a trip to the hospital.
Then there was my mother. I don’t want to say she followed in my father’s footsteps, but she too worked at a hospital. I believe about a year after her first job as a cashier at a dairy store on Liberty Heights Avenue, a job that according to her lasted about three weeks (she admitted she wasn’t cut out for it – counting money fast wasn’t her forté), she began her first real job as a nurse’s aide at what was then known as St. Joseph’s Hospital, a suburban Catholic hospital in Baltimore County. I must have been six years old, maybe seven. Anyway, this job ushered in a long and more successful stint of similar positions at hospitals in Havre de Grace and the Army base at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
My mother held those jobs after my family moved out of Baltimore to be closer to my father’s next job in Cecil County. Following his years at Johns Hopkins, he began work at the VA Medical Center in Perry Point – a residential government village in the northeast corner of the state between Baltimore and the Delaware line and across the Susquehanna River from Havre de Grace – and spent four years commuting on the 80-mile round trip between there and Baltimore on Route 40 before we settled there in 1966. The facility houses many Maryland veterans with psychiatric disorders; its idyllic campus with stately, early-20th-century architecture and white facades sits at the point where the Susquehanna flows into Chesapeake Bay.
Perry Point was an interesting place for a child to grow up. Forty miles from Baltimore, 75 miles from Washington and 60 miles from Philadelphia, this quaint, Mayberry-esque village was a world away from urban life. It comprised World War I-era houses, a police station, fire station, post office, credit union and community center, but no grocery stores – those were in nearby Perryville and Havre de Grace. Farms dotted the landscape a few miles to the north. Quiet streets where I rode my bike graced the neighborhood. Little League baseball occupied my brothers’ time as I, a less gregarious kid, was more interested in just watching Orioles games on TV. And all the working residents – primarily men – held positions at the VA hospital. Many of them were doctors. My neighbor friend’s father was a doctor, many of the guys I knew in Boy Scouts – that is, the ones who lived in Perry Point — had fathers who were doctors, and just about all the residents who lived on the street overlooking the Susquehanna were doctors. Yet again, my dad was a blue-collar technician.
It was during this time – elementary school and high school – that I vacillated in my dreams of a chosen profession. I wanted to be either a doctor or a writer. Medical dramas like Marcus Welby, M.D. — one of my favorite shows from the early 1970s – inspired me, with Robert Young as the friendly family doctor walking into his office wearing a stethoscope around his neck and donning a white coat. However, since I figured my parents didn’t have the cold hard cash and I didn’t have the scientific acumen for medical school, a reality check set in with a penchant for the latter profession (more precisely, a newspaper writer in my adult years). On summer days I would sit in my room writing stories when I wasn’t hanging out with my best friend, whose dad was a psychiatrist. By the way, we’re still friends some 50 years later as two old guys – he has long since left Cecil County.
I earned my driver’s license at age 16 around the time my father announced his training for a new job at a VA hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. This occurred around the time he simply wanted to make a change for the family, as my middle brother and I set our plans for college. The nearest four-year school was the University of Delaware, 20 miles away, and apparently plans for living on any college campus were out. Anyway, due to the training, he would fly between Baltimore and Little Rock for weeks at a time over a period of roughly six months.
On return trips home, my father would mention the grades he received on tests in his training. Overall they were pretty good, even though I didn’t remember all the scores. I distinctly remember his pride in telling my mother, middle brother and me (my oldest brother had left home to join the military by this time) about an A he received on one test.
An adventurous type, I always liked to travel and experience new places. By this time I anticipated rather than dreaded the move not only to a new state, but also a new part of the country – well, new to me since I never considered Maryland a real Southern state like Arkansas, not entirely new to my parents since they grew up in Louisiana. However, I was dating, and I knew I would forfeit my senior year at Perryville High School in the town next to Perry Point, so I was prepared to eventually tell the girl and my classmates goodbye by June of 1975. Two months prior to that month, my dad made it official when he came home from work and asked me, “How would you like to move to Arkansas?” I expressed my OK. Due to his job transfer, my mother would leave her job at the Army hospital in Aberdeen for a same job at the VA hospital in Little Rock.
Initially he had prepared to move the family to Little Rock until some of his acquaintances at the VA hospital told him about a college town called Conway, 30 miles north of the city. I suppose he anticipated my brother and I attending college there following high school – yes, a new high school with a new mascot. My dad’s acquaintances told him about a Wampus Cat and he had fun explaining it to me.
I remember sitting in my bedroom and getting out a road map showing Arkansas as I tried to locate Conway, then wondered if the town was in proximity to mountains. I heard Arkansas had mountains. No, it wasn’t the desert, as my high school French teacher envisioned.
Summer break arrived as we began the 1,100-mile drive across four states from Perry Point to Conway. As my dad drove across the Susquehanna River bridge on Route 40 with my mother in the front seat, I sat in back, turned around and glanced in the rear windshield at Perryville, wondering if I will ever see that town and Perry Point again.
His official title as biomedical engineering technician, my father would commute to work at the VA hospital, a reprise of his commute to work during my formative years in Maryland — this time on Interstate 40 instead of U.S. 40, this time to Pulaski County instead of on Pulaski Highway. Gone was the camaraderie of kids whose parents were mostly in the medical field. Gone was the quaint village where those parents resided. Gone were the banks of the Susquehanna River where I played as a kid. I adjusted to a new environment of friendly high school students with Southern accents. I simply lived in a 1960s-era subdivision in Conway. I discovered a different river — the Arkansas River — and an adjacent place called Toad Suck. Furthermore, nobody rooted for the Colts – they called the Hogs.
Unlike the verdant surroundings and unique architecture of the Perry Point VA hospital, the Little Rock hospital was situated amid urban, bustling surroundings, its brown, high-rise structure towering above Roosevelt Road and Interstate 30. I don’t remember ever entering the hospital with my father, at least during his early years there. I certainly don’t remember meeting any doctors there. Anyway, both my parents felt contentment about the move away from the East Coast. So did I, although I found the tornado drill at my high school quite unnerving.
Eight years later, 1983. I had moved to Los Angeles almost two years earlier and returned to Arkansas to visit my parents for the Christmas holidays during a bitterly cold December. At least one night the temperature dropped close to zero degrees Fahrenheit and the snow stayed on the ground in what seemed like the entire two weeks of my visit. Anyway, I found it a nice change of scenery and climate from an early winter in Southern California.
I met some of my dad’s fellow technicians in the hospital basement. Talk among them and other hospital employees referred to the move to a new VA hospital under construction in midtown Little Rock. Many employees eagerly anticipated the move to more modern facilities compared to the dated atmosphere of the Roosevelt Road location, an east Little Rock landmark since the late 1940s.
A year passed until my next visit to Arkansas, again for the Christmas holidays. My father showed me the new VA hospital where he and my mother were employed for just a few months. I remember as he drove up to the hospital with what I viewed as its avant-garde architecture, he revealed it to me like a long-awaited Christmas present. “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” he called the hospital, referring to the blue circular shadows surrounding the outer windows of the octagonal pods on the upper floors, much of the hospital still surrounded by soil from the new construction.
We went inside. Its surroundings impressed me, quite futuristic I thought. It even had a robot that would roam up and down the halls like a voiceless teacher pacing back and forth. The interior kept the theme of the exterior circular designs in some of the walls. This time I did see some doctors but I don’t remember my father introducing me to any of them.
My father would remain employed at the new VA hospital until his retirement in 1988, ending a 29-year career as a technician working on medical machines, 26 with the VA. My mother, as a nurse’s aide, would then carry the mantle of the commute between Conway and Little Rock until her retirement a few years later.
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It’s the 21st century, a new millennium, a new age in medicine. In my layman’s mind I still demonstrate some interest in the field. Long ago I kicked Marcus Welby to the curb and recently streamed an episode of ER. I have an administrative position at a medical facility but insistently denied to my uncle in Louisiana – my dad’s youngest brother – that I followed in my father’s footsteps, even with my move back to Arkansas, even with my father’s pleading back in the ‘80s that I should apply for a job at the VA where I am not employed. Yet my closest inclination to anything technical is my love of electronics – audio and video equipment and computers, that is. Medical machines? Nada.
In February and March 2005, I would walk to the VA hospital to visit my father. Long retired, he wasn’t an employee this time – he was a patient. Gravely ill, he was connected to a machine – that very tool that epitomized his long career. Oftentimes in his critical state he would ask about my work, his work at his former employer remaining a distant memory. One day in March, I drove from home with my mother to visit him – it was a Sunday. That day would be my last time to see him before he passed away, in the very same place where he loved his career.
Neither of my parents had a four-year degree, nor did they have the desire to earn one. But if there’s one example they set for me, it is that anyone who contributes to the medical profession is just as important as the scientists and researchers at the forefront. I carried that notion back when I was a kid and still do today.
Almost five years after that road trip, I muse wistfully about my Maryland childhood and accept the reality that I can never get those times back. I’m settled in central Arkansas where fine health care exists without the marquee hospital names. I may never see Johns Hopkins Hospital again, except through documentaries and Hollywood-style renderings in movies like the Ben Carson one. However, through my blue-collar parents, I’ll never forget how hospitals managed to shape my life, regardless of my title or my attire. I’m also grateful for the professionals with whom I collaborate, and I’m grateful to be one of them without an M.D. or Ph.D. after my name. Most of those professionals work in administration, but I’m proud to say that I get to rub elbows with a few of those who don white coats.
Eric Moorehead, part of the Medicine and Meaning staff, is an administrator for the Institutional Review Board, Division of Research and Innovation.