USGC farm scene

Like most other mothers out in farm country when I was a kid, my mom did a whole lot of doctoring for her family.

We lived eight miles from the nearest town, Reliance, and another eight or 10 from Chamberlain, which had a Main Street medical clinic with a couple of licensed doctors. People didn’t head to town every time a kid had measles or mumps or any of the other childhood diseases that plagued families in the days before vaccines became readily available. Moms treated things at home, usually successfully, although not always.

I recall one trip to town – not to doctor, just to shop – that was plain miserable. It was 1950 or so, with a polio epidemic raging. My mom believed if she kept the windows rolled up, we wouldn’t catch it. While my dad shopped, my mom sat with us kids in the sweltering car. I joke about it, but polio was terribly frightening in my childhood.

As I said, people rarely even drove to town for things like a concussion, which I’m sure my big sister suffered in a bicycle crash on the dirt-packed lane to our farmyard. I remember Jeanne lying on our living room sofa for a couple of nights and days. It seems to me she was unconscious for a while, but that could be an active imagination embellishing things. One thing I know – if it happened today, even on the farm, she’d have been to a clinic or emergency room rather quickly.

My mom’s go-to medical approach was “let’s wait and see what happens. Meanwhile, keep a damp washcloth on the patient’s forehead.’’

Terry Woster

Terry Woster

We even did that watchful waiting thing the time my kid brother broke his arm throwing dirt clods at ducks on the stock dam in our north pasture. (I might have instigated the activity.) After one mighty heave, he grabbed his upper arm and howled, “It’s broke. I heard it snap.’’ Well, nobody breaks their arm throwing a clod of dirt, do they? The folks had him lie on the living room sofa for a day, maybe two. In my mom’s defense, she wanted to call a doctor. My dad subscribed to my notion that an arm doesn’t break that easily. He counseled a wait-and-see approach.

The arm swelled, and the kid moaned. Finally, they loaded him in the car and headed to town to see Doc Holland. My brother came home with the arm in a cast and sling. In my dad’s defense – and mine, too, I guess – Doc Holland did tell the folks it was an awfully rare thing, breaking an arm throwing a clod. Not unheard of, obviously, but rare.

That episode turned out to be a valuable learning experience for the whole family. A couple of years later, when the kid was playing infield in pee-wee baseball in town, he made a hard throw to first or second and came away holding that same arm and declaring tearfully that he’d heard it snap. He got in to see Doc Holland a whole lot quicker that time.

The current quarantines and social distancing efforts being employed against the coronavirus have me, for whatever reason, recalling those days of do-it-yourself medicine from my rural childhood. We were isolated out there. People had to handle most situations on their own. Calamine lotion, Vick’s, steamers puffing away under blanket tents, and hot water with lemon and honey did the trick for most of what ailed us. And if they didn’t do the trick, well, we’d pretty much shot our best bolts, so waiting it out became the treatment.

For all the uncertainty in diagnoses and all of the lack of proper medical supplies, the old farm days would have been great for social distancing and even a full quarantine. Gosh, our nearest neighbors – Kistlers to the north and Hamiels to the south – were two miles away. People didn’t go to coffee or drop in to socialize. Whatever infections or diseases we picked up, we got at school and brought home. We didn’t take them back, because while we were under our mom’s care for them, we saw no one from the outside.

Stay at least six feet from other folks? Don’t be in groups of more than 10 people? Shelter at home? It would have pained the folks something fierce to miss Sunday Mass in Reliance. Other than that, avoiding people was a way of life.

It’s more difficult to manage that these days, but it’s surely important.

Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Fort Pierre, S.D.