April 25, 2014

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A tale of the elderly, an author and the Amish

WELLINGTON — A group of residents of the Welcome Nursing Home got to step inside the pages of a book this past week.

Cindy McCartney, activity assistant for the home, decided to expand on the home’s weekly “News and Java” sessions and read the residents a book after they finished with the newspaper headlines. She chose “House Calls and Hitching Posts” by Dorcas Sharp Hoover.

PHOTO PROVIDED
A buggy is tied up in Amish country.

The book is a collection of true stories told to the author by Dr. Elton Lehman. Lehman joined a private medical practice in Mount Eaton more than 40 years ago — an area that includes the largest community of Amish in the world.

“I thought they would like it because it’s about this man who lives near us and it’s a true story,” McCartney said.  “It’s about his experiences doing house calls in the homes of Amish patients.”

Lehman’s story
Lehman joined the practice of Dr. Wain Eberly, now retired, and soon was making house calls, which included home deliveries. He had grown up in the nearby town of Kidron and was somewhat familiar with the Amish lifestyle, but he soon realized that more was necessary to meet the needs of these women.

So back in the mid-1960s, a local builder traveled to Columbus to make the doctors’ case to the state: They needed permits to build what became the first freestanding birthing center in the state.

Once the permits came through, the birthing center was finished by Amish workers a year later. In addition to the building, Amish craftsmen made the rocking chairs, cribs and quilts inside. By design, the rooms were made to look like those inside an Amish home — right down to the mock gas lights on the walls. (The Amish don’t own the electrically equipped building, but they are allowed to use it and its modern medical conveniences.)

The nursing home residents loved the book — often pressing McCartney to read beyond the allotted time, said Robin Yeager, activities director for the nursing home.

“They often wanted to postpone or skip lunch and keep reading,” Yeager said, laughing. “We had to be a little strict because they just loved the book so much.”

From page to reality
So when the book was finished, McCartney proposed a field trip to see where the book took place and to meet some of the principle characters, including Dr. Lehman, now retired. The fledgling book club jumped at the chance and traveled to Mount Eaton on Thursday.

For Myra Neuman, 88, a five-year resident, it was a memorable day.

“I got so very interested in that story,” Neuman said. “I met the doctor and it was a thrill. He signed our book and took a picture with us.”

Neuman was very impressed with the handsome 72-year-old doctor’s stories and his dedication to his Amish and Mennonite patients.

“What he did,”  “the way he was always there to help them deliver their babies and their other medical problems, was wonderful to read about,” Neuman said.

“I have eye trouble and can’t read myself, so it was great having Cindy read to us.  Then I got to meet him.  It was wonderful.”
The ladies also ended up with an unplanned surprise that day, McCartney said.

“There was a little baby girl going home that day,” McCartney said. “I wish we could have taken a picture, but of course they don’t let you do that. The baby was adorable, all wrapped up in a black sack with little buttons and a bonnet.  It was the family’s fifth child. We were so lucky to have been able to see that.”

‘Ahead of their time’
Lehman got his medical degree from Midwestern University-Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine and chanced into the job near his hometown.

“I heard that there was a doctor in Mount Eaton who needed help,” Lehman said. “I figured I’d stay a couple of years and leave, but I never left.  My uncle was the treasurer for the board of a local Swiss cheese factory and the Amish would sell their milk to the factory. My uncle signed those paychecks and once they knew I was his nephew, I was in.”

Lehman was immediately struck by the difference in attitudes the Amish had toward medical treatment.

“I remember this one patient needed a cesarean section,” Lehman said. “She wanted to be up and around and to go home the next day.  Today, of course, the main goal of hospitals all over is to get patients up and around as soon as possible. But back then, a woman who’d had a C-section would have been in the hospital for seven to 10 days.”

That was pretty much the standard expectation of his patients.

They “wanted to get better, wanted to go home immediately,” Lehman said.

“We’d let them and then follow up with them at their homes to monitor their progress. Their attitudes toward the end of life and terminal illness were also so different. Today, patients will run up huge medical bills fighting terminal illnesses. The Amish would focus on making themselves as comfortable as possible and were very accepting of the end of life as a natural progression. In a lot of ways, they are very ahead of their time.  We have a lot to learn from them as far as medical ethics.”

The birthing center was a direct result of the progressive attitudes, he said.

6,300 babies delivered
Before the center came along, an Amish woman who had been trained by doctors would monitor a laboring woman in her home until a doctor was needed for the delivery. The mother-to-be would have been surrounded by family until the time of delivery.

Birthing rooms in hospitals are common today, but 40 years ago were almost nonexistent. So when the Amish one was built in 1965, the $450,000 birthing center was a huge medical improvement over delivering in a home with no electricity and no flushing toilets.

“The average Amish family has around seven children,” Lehman said. “I had a few families with more — the largest family had 19 children. Over the years, I’ve delivered more than 6,300 babies.”

Lehman has many stories, most of them detailed in “House Calls and Hitching Posts.’’ He said he was tickled to meet the Welcome Nursing Home residents and to be a celebrity for the day.

“Those ladies were amazing,” he said. “They were a great bunch and were thrilled they got to see an Amish baby. We had a great time. They just made my day.”

Contact Alicia Castelli at 329-7155 or metro@chroniclet.com.