I share this story of the last days of my grandfather “Doc” Dodgson on Father’s Day weekend for a couple of reasons because of his towering role in our family. As I’ve researched and written stories for the Discover Beautiful Camano series (see more on this at the end of this article), I’ve been struck by how much as a small town doctor his life was woven into the lives of so many people. That hit me again just last week in a conversation I had with well-driller Gene Hitt over the situation of sand in our well. I still have one of Grandpa “Doc”s old coats (see him wearing it below), lives woven together and rooted in place.
What I learned from Gene Hitt
While it is a joy for me to showcase our family of artists at Sunnyshore Studio there are hardships too. One is sand in our well. Years ago, when our 290-foot well was drilled, screens that filter sand weren’t installed or installed properly. Sand comes up in the water and clogs our plumbing. It is a big headache. I called local well-drilling legend Gene Hitt for help. On June sixth, 2022, after a day of work, Gene drove to Sunnyshore Studio and inspected the situation. He looked things over then we sat down to talk. After deciding that I would install a sand-filtration system as a “band aid” before biting the bullet and drilling a new well, I asked Gene about his story.
Gene told me that his parents, Everett and Eleanor, moved from Seattle to Stanwood in 1949. Everett sold his automobile repair shop to fulfill his dream of running a restaurant. They landed in East Stanwood. Their restaurant and tavern named Hansens Café was next to the building on main street where Doc Dodgson had his upstairs office. Eleanor was an RN and sometimes when there was an emergency Doc called her for back up help.
Gene told me that he is one year older than Mom and that they went to school together. They both attended Twin City High which was across the street from Doc and Sayre’s house in Stanwood home. It’s now the middle school. I mentioned how Mom had told me that back in those days there was competition and maybe some bad blood between the Swedes in West Stanwood and the Norwegians in East Stanwood; that her junior year, the kids at Twin City High had the opportunity to name the mascot for the new “unified” high school; and that through a democratic vote, the Twin City Cardinals were rebranded the Stanwood Spartans. Mom even remembered a cheer:
“Lutefisk, Lutefisk. Lefse, Lefse, We’re the mighty Spartans, Ya, Sure, Ya Betcha.”
Gene growled that that the kids hadn’t wanted to change the mascot from the Cardinals but they got overruled by the adults.
I asked Gene if knew my grandfather, Doc Dodgson. “Doc was my doctor,” Gene said. “He took care of me when this happened.” He held up his right hand that was missing two fingers at the knuckle.
As Gene talked, tears welled up in my eyes. I had known that Dad and Mom knew Gene, but I had no idea how interconnected our lives were. It dawned on me that Gene hadn’t driven all the way out to the south end of Camano because he cared about Sunnyshore Studio or knew me (because he didn’t), but because my grandfather had been his doctor and because Mom had been his classmate and because he had helped Dad on his well. He was there because of those threads. I cried because of how our lives were woven together, my life with Doc and Dad and Mom and Gene and so many others.
That’s is what I learned in this book. What makes Camano beautiful is much more than its natural beauty of beaches, farms and gardens. What makes Camano beautiful is the people, and, more than that, the neighborliness of the people. I learned what it means to be neighbors: to have lives intertwined over the years. To be a neighbor means to be there for each other in small acts of kindness and big acts of service. It means that who you are and what you do matters, and it matters for decades to come long after you have passed. It means that caring and giving trumps taking and keeping. It means being committed to a place and caring for the people of that place. And in this way, I return to where this book began, with my grandfather, Doc Dodgson, who embodied neighborliness.
One of the towering figures in this book has been Thomas B. Dodgson, M.D., my grandfather who was lovingly and respectfully called “Doc” by his patients. Doc one of three doctor’s who practiced in the Stanwood-Camano area. The other two doctors who stood shoulder to shoulder caring for their patients were Dr. Fisher and Dr. Anderson, a wonderful lady doctor.
Around 1958, Doc moved from his upstairs office to a stand-alone building on the north side of Main Street in East Stanwood where the parking lot for the Country Store now is. Doc’s patients were greeted as they entered by his wife Sayre and sometimes Mom when she filled in for her mom. After waiting in the reception room for their turn, they were ushered back to one of two medical rooms. Doc listened well and gave accurate diagnosis. His patients knew Doc cared for them, and they cared for him in turn. In 1969, after his main office became a parking lot for Thrifty Foods, Doc into a former modest home on a side street a block or two from the Great Northern Railway tracks. He was a Great Northern doctor and he enjoyed counting the cars that the mighty engines were pulling when there were no patients in his waiting room. Sayre continued as his nurse and receptionist. The steady flow of patients continued. Though at the heights of his powers as a doctor, Doc’s sixties were hard.
The Malpractice Suit
One day two men dressed in suits stopped by. When they were in Doc’s office, they introduced themselves. One was a lawyer and the other was an adult of around forty. He reminded Doc that his father had brought him in as an eight-year old boy to have my dad look at his wrist area where he was having some trouble. Doc told the boy’s father to take him to a specialist (which the father never did.). The father never brought his son back to Doc either. For thirty or more years there had been no contact of any kind. But now the man was there with some kind of deformity to his wrist area, and a malpractice law suit.
The “patient” told Doc that he had recently been to a doctor in Mt. Vernon about his wrist and that doctor had said it had been misdiagnosed by Doc and was something that needed antibiotics. At the time that Doc saw him as a boy, the only antibiotic available was a shot of penicillin. And If a doctor gave it, the patient had to be under observation for twelve hours (or more) in case there was an allergic reaction of any kind. It was not something that was done in a casual way if it was done at all. A hospital would make more sense than a doctor’s office.
Malpractice suits were just gathering up steam at that time. Doc had no insurance because there was no need to have any. Or so he thought. Mom says, “So on that “regular” afternoon at his office, my dad’s world (and all our family’s too) was turned upside down.” The upside down lasted for six years. Doc carried this terrible and unjust weight always on his shoulders, the real chance that he would lose everything he had worked hard to have: our Camano farm, another investment property, their home in Stanwood.
The law at that time went something like this. A harmed person had three years from the day that they realize they had been “harmed” to file the malpractice suit. The Mt. Vernon doctor had told him his deformity was because of a misdiagnosis within that three-year window. Although there had been like thirty or more years in between the one time Doc saw this boy and his father (who never followed up on his advice). Doc got a Seattle lawyer who was used to this sort of trouble and was a good trial lawyer. A specialist doctor saw the man and gave his deposition that the deformity was caused by something entirely different than the Mt. Vernon doctor had said and that antibiotics would not have helped in any case. On and on the nerve-wracking days and then years went.
In the midst of those anxious days, Doc saw a vision. One hobby he enjoyed were two printing presses. Doc was doing a project on the letter press but always in the back of his mind thinking of the unjust law suit and how his and his family’s future hung in the balance. While he was so occupied, he saw in writing that he could read floating in the room where he was printing that said, “Be still and know that I am God.” Those words gave him peace and meant a lot to Doc on the day of the trial.
While Doc’s family was in Everett awaiting the trial, his lawyer and the one-time patient’s lawyer arrived at an agreement. For $10,000 (which was a lot of money in those days!) the malpractice suit would be dropped and the former patient would “cease and desist.” Doc agreed to the settlement. Looking back, Mom says she was “convinced that Daddy would have been TOTALLY vindicated in a trial jury – but a trial jury has Its own world and you could never be SURE of the outcome. This settlement was for SURE. It has always bugged me that my dad had to pay one penny to defend himself. It was crazy and it was wrong from day one.”
Sandra Dodgson, the wife of Doc’s son Robert, wrote the governor and a number of state legislators to tell them of this law that had given opportunity for this malpractice lawsuit. It was not long after Doc’s suit was settled that the law was changed for the better.
Heart Attacks and a Stroke
Doc suffered several heart attacks in his sixties. At his second, Mom and her sister Margaret, who was a nurse, were with him. Doc was in great pain. He told Margaret to get the syringe and administer the pain reliever that he always carried in his black medical bag in case of emergencies. Margaret put a small pill of morphine into the saline and shook it in the glass syringe. Doc showed her where to stick the needle. He lived but the heart attacks weakened his heart.
During these events, Doc refused to go to the hospital. His thinking was that in times past the family took care of their sick family members but now nurses had taken on this holy privilege. Doc felt that it was the family’s right and role to care for their own and that nurses should see their work as a holy privilege, remembering that they are in the place of the family that loves them and cares about them. The irony of it is that though Doc continued his practice and saw patients he never went to the doctor himself.
Another misfortune was when Doc’s office near the train tracks got broken into and set on fire. A policeman driving by on that side street one winter night happened to see the fire and the office was saved. Police were able to track blood stains from the busted back window across the snow to a neighbor’s home. The family were patients of Doc. A son who had “gone bad” had broken into Doc’s office looking for drugs. Doc was left with cleaning up the mess.
Then in 1980, when he was seventy, Doc had a stroke. Mom remembers going down to see him because he wasn’t feeling good. He had slept overnight in a chair in the living room. Mom tried to get him out of the chair but he wasn’t able to move. Mom wanted to call the doctor. Doc forbade her. So she went to her sister Margaret’s house just down the street. Margaret’s family was still at church. Mom called Dr. Fisher. He came over and said Doc had had a stroke. At the end of the day, Doc did appreciate Dr. Fisher’s diagnosis and care.
The family rallied around Doc. A double bed was put up in the living room looking out the big windows at the cars going by on main street and Stanwood High School (now Stanwood Middle School). Doc learned to walk again using a walker to take laps around the inside of the house. Going to the bathroom wasn’t easy. The hardest part of all, at least for Mom, was Doc’s hallucinations. He imagined that it was WWII and he had been given a secret message that had to be brought to the troops on the front-line and was in agony because he couldn’t get the message to the troops who needed it. Mom cried for her dad.
Doc recovered, at least enough to go back to his practice. By now it had slowed down to long-time loyal patients. They liked Doc and he liked them. Doc remained an amazing diagnostician. “He was spot on 95% of the time,” Mom says. Grandma Sayre served as his nurse, but she struggled with MS and had to use a walker to get around. Doc still made house calls to his older patients and family. Mom remembers how once my sister April had a high fever. Doc drove to our home on the south end of Camano and examined her. His words comforted Mom and April. And even though April’s temperature went up after he left, Mom knew that everything was going to be OK.
Doc worked hard to the end. Once a week Mom had made a point to go down and help her dad. “Daddy always had projects,” she remembers. One was picking up sticks and little pieces of wood. He put them in stacks to burn in the kitchen stove. One of the things that Mom wanted when her dad passed were those old leather gloves with holes in the ends by the finger tips. “I still have his gloves,” Mom says. The day before he passed Doc saw a couple of patients. Then his grandson Daniel helped him move boxes of medical supplies from his office to his home where he planned to set up his practice in a couple of spare rooms. Maybe Doc exerted himself to hard and had a last fatal heart attack.
That night was like all the other nights. Doc read a western by Zane Grey. Before Sayre fell asleep in her double bed, Doc walked over to her, held her hand and prayed for everyone in the family. Then he went to sleep in his hospital bed in the same room. Sometime in the morning Sayre heard him talking but couldn’t make any sense out of it. She didn’t know it was sounds that mattered. In the morning she found him still, that tireless worker at rest. Grandma Sayre called Mom before we left for school. Mom remembers that her voice sounded just like a normal day, like she was just calling to say hello. She told Mom that her Dad died.
Mom almost passed out. What sustained her through the hard days and weeks that followed, was a vision that she had seen a few months before her Dad dies.
The year was 1983 and my dad was seventy-four, the age that I almost am right now as I write. At that time, I was thirty-seven, married, with three active children.
My dad had a number of health issues that had gone poorly for him. He lived at a time when there weren’t as many things that could be done medically for his two heart attacks and one stroke, but Daddy never went to the hospital for any of these serious troubles, either, to find out. He looked to his wife and family to nurse him back to his new “health.” He was a doctor – one of the last of the era who had a private practice as a general physician and surgeon and was basically on call 24/7 for close to 45 years.
In general, I can’t remember my dreams at all once I wake up. Occasionally I remember them long enough to tell my husband as a sort of amusement and then promptly forget them. However, at 37, I had a dream so real to me still, that it seems more than a dream. In this vivid dream, my sister and her musical husband, my two brothers and their wives, and Jack and I were traveling to perform as a Christian musical group. None of our children were with us. It was just the adults.
We were in an older touring bus on our way to perform. That part, in itself was quite startling because although Jack and I and my sister and her husband were Christians, my brothers had walked away from their youthful faith (although years later they both returned). However, in the dream that was not so. We were all Christians and amazingly we were all musical too!
Unfortunately for our traveling group, the old bus had a breakdown that none of the guys could figure out how to fix. Eventually we called our dad because he usually had good ideas about what to do and all of us went into a building, out of the sun, to wait. We went to a big, empty room downstairs in the building that was like a school or hospital cafeteria. All the tables were up and out of the way and the floor was newly polished to a dazzling shine. At the far end of the room there were a couple of tables with benches and we sat down and waited for daddy.
In due time he came walking across the floor. He had his little reserved English smile, and it was easy for me to see that he was extremely pleased about something. I looked at his face trying to read why he would be happy at such a time! As he came closer, I realized that he was walking with his normal stride, and I saw that he was well again, free somehow and like he’d been before his heart attacks and stroke.
I was so very, very, very happy for him but then I woke with a terrible jerk. I KNEW he had died for all this to happen. It was still night and I waited for the phone to ring. I knew that he had died and was in heaven, totally restored and totally happy, totally himself. There could be no other explanation for what I’d seen in the dream. As soon as I could the next morning, I called my parent’s home and they were all totally fine.
However, in a couple of months, my mother called me, in the morning, to say that “Daddy had gone home.” He had died in his sleep with no more pain or struggles. I was, of course, extremely sad at this giant loss in my life, but also truly comforted then and ever since then with the image of him, healed totally and totally pleased about it, that my vivid dream had shown me. That special dream was and always will be for me a peek through the windows of heaven.
The Discover Beautiful Camano Project
Discover Beautiful Camano is a multi-year project that tells the stories of people and their places on Camano Island. It weaves history, biography and art to celebrate our beautiful Island and the neighbors who make it the special place it is. It will culminate in an art show, the publication of a coffee table book, and a film. Enjoy these past articles:
My Uncle Robert Dodgson made a video of Doc’s old office near the railroad tracks just west of Main Street. Enjoy…