Bert Johnson, MD on his ranch
Catch the Baby is the story of the dramatic evolution of medical training and technology in the past fifty years – told through the lens of obstetrics, the ultimate life and death discipline.
Dr. Bert Johnson’s recollections of delivering babies on kitchen tables in a 1950s Chicago slums lie in sharp contrast to his new students’ experiences practicing with high-tech modern marvels. Dr. Johnson, affectionately known as “the Roping Doc” because he is an accomplished rancher and rodeo rider, as well as a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Stanford University. Dr. Johnson provides the narrative through-line of the story.
Johnson’s memories of both learning and teaching at the Chicago Maternity Center, a pioneering home-delivery practice and training ground for young obstetricians in the 1950s, paint a vivid picture of medicine’s past. We hear about “on-the-job training” from Dr. Johnson and other trainees where rat-infested tenements on Chicago’s South side were the back-drop for real-life dramas like surprise midnight triplets. These senior doctors explain how theirs was a profession with a round-the-clock commitment, where house-calls often lasted several days; where they made up games like “count the cock-roaches” while waiting with laboring mothers; and where their “baptism by fire” shaped them into consummate – and confident – physicians.
The older doctors’ mid-century immersion into the personal and community lives of their patients is the polar opposite of current students’ experiences. Dr. Johnson explains that today’s physicians never see their patients outside of a hospital or office setting, and that 24-hour house calls are a vestige of the past. Congress is about to limit residents to sixteen-hour shifts – like airline pilots – but once they graduate they’ll usually be on call a minimum of 24-hours. He worries about “continuity of care” and that life-saving details might not be relayed at shift change.
“Back in my day we just tried to know our patients. Now we start by teaching students how to defend themselves against malpractice. We’ve lost an essential part of patient care.”