Modern healthcare, with all it has to offer, seems impersonal compared to a vanishing figure— the town doctor of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

I know there have been great strides made in medicine since I was a kid halfway through the previous century. Yet I sometimes think the human, caring element has taken a hit as we process patients through a healthcare system that is scarfing up smaller community hospitals where doctors and nurses beyond the reception desks knew who we were. Doctors and nurses may have more tools to detect symptoms and treat patients in their high-tech domains, but if you have been around long enough, you might remember a kinder, gentler and more personable breed of physicians and nurses.

Doc Pete, born 94 years ago on July 25 and  just three weeks shy of his 66th birthday when he died in July of 1996 several years after retiring as general practitioner and classic family physician. He had three different offices in Wyalusing, PA, over a span of 25 years where he served a 25-mile radius of mostly rural terrain. That included the hospital in the county seat of Towanda where he delivered most of his 2,600 babies, not including house-call emergencies. Sadly, anyone under the age of 35 would have no memory of him as a physician. His name was Karl R. Peterson. The Missouri native came to Wyalusing from West Point at the end of three years of military service in 1960 after a search process for a town physician by a group of community leaders.

I am a decade older than he was when he left us, but he lives on in my memory as a crusty old guy with a soft heart. I was a kid and he was my doctor. He decided how much weight I could afford to lose as a high school wrestler and drained my cauliflower ear during the season. Doc was not only the town doctor. He was also the school physician. He gave us our physicals for football, wrestling, basketball and all the other sports. He was always on the sidelines at football games in the modest stadium now bearing his name just outside the Borough of Wyalusing.

A few years after returning to Wyalusing following military duty, college and a few years as a newspaper reporter elsewhere, I awakened in the early morning hours with excruciating chest pain. Every breath was torture and I had to take short shallow breaths, because breathing deeply was an impossibility. The terrifying pain in my chest seemed to me the signs of an impending heart attack.

So, eschewing an ambulance, I drove to the emergency room at Towanda Memorial Hospital, wondering if I would make it on time during the 25-minute drive. I do remember the pain easing as I waited in ER for a physician to see me. He checked me out, including an x-ray. I don’t have a clear memory of all the procedures, but I remember the emergency room doctor at the time being very patronizing and treating me as if I had imagined it all.

“If you came here for some medication, I can prescribe something,” he said dismissively. I was angry and embarrassed. He thought I was a hypochondriac! I refused his offer.

The paid had subsided driving home from the hospital. What had happened to me? Had I overreacted? So some time in the vicinity of three o’clock in the morning  the chest pains returned. I toughed it out. After all, I had been told nothing was wrong with me. The pain had gone away before. It would again.

It didn’t.

Out of desperation I went to Doc’s office as soon as it opened and I was soon in his examination room. I described the pain. He placed a stethoscope to my chest and I took a painful breath.

“You’ve got pleurisy,” he said nonchalantly, explaining it was inflammation of the chest lining next to my lungs. Prescription rendered and case closed. That was Doc. He only needed five minutes to tell me what they couldn’t figure out in a couple of hours in a hospital.

He was a general practitioner by trade, but he was more than that. He was the doctor who would come to your house in an emergency or if you were housebound. I was 15, I believe, when he made such a call to the bedroom of my grandfather, who was in the latter stages of throat cancer. It was too late, but the tears in Doc’s eyes told us all we needed to know.

Going Above and Beyond for His Patients

“That man showed me that being a good doctor is also about being a good person,” Dr. Martin Mikaya told me a dozen years ago. Dr. Mikaya who would become head of emergency medicine at Towanda’s Memorial Hospital, was a young colleague and protégé of Doc there. “When he would discharge his patients, if they had no way to get home, he would give them a ride or recruit someone who would.”

Oh yes, among those  2,600 babies Doc had delivered over almost three decades, was our oldest, now in her fifties. Not only did he deliver other peoples’ babies, but he fathered eight of his own— four sons and four daughters.

Doc would pick on his patients, sometimes using salty language if he knew they wouldn’t be offended. That was part of his nature, and some might think him insensitive and maybe too blunt— until they got to know him.

During one particularly busy span of about 36 hours in June of 1971, Doc delivered five healthy babies. One of them was my daughter. Most impressively, two of the babies were 10-pounders, my daughter was nine-and-a-half pounds and another weighed in at just over nine pounds. The fifth baby weighed something like eight-and-a-half pounds.

Doc delivered them all and was clearly excited by his crop of big bundles, wisecracking with the new mothers, including my wife, in their rooms. He paused at the foot of the bed of the mother of the eight-and-a-half pounder and quipped: “Looks like you got the runt of the litter.”

The new mother, her eyes welling up with tears, blurted out: “I’m sorry. Will he be all right?”

Realizing she had taken him seriously, he thundered: “Runt hell! That’s a big, beautiful boy you got there!”

I interviewed a group of Memorial Hospital employees a few years back and shortly before it became part of the Guthrie Healthcare System, Doc Pete’s name came up often. Even though he was in private practice, he delivered a lion’s share of the babies born there in the seventies and eighties.

Lynn Dibble came to Memorial Hospital the Monday after she graduated from nursing school in 1978. She started as a nurse in the medical-surgical wing, eventually rising to top administrator in Patient Care Services.

It was back in those days when Doc ordered her to do something regarding a patient in a room not assigned to her that caught her off guard.

Lynn shared this memory:

“He said, ‘I want you to go in and talk to her. That’s an order, Lynn!’ I’m thinking, ‘Why is he telling me this?’ I didn’t understand.” Dr. Peterson explained that the patient’s disease had disfigured her and he felt she was socially isolated, bordering on unresponsive. “He said, ‘I think she knew your father (the late Grover Worthington, a long-time local high school teacher and coach) and you need to go in and just talk to her.’”

That tells you all you need to know about Doc Pete. He cared about the whole patient— not just the symptoms he was treating.

“His concern for a patient went beyond the right medicine and treatment for the injury or illness at hand,” Lynn said. “He cared about the person.”

Lynn Worthington Dibble, as is too often the case with healers like her and Doc Pete, died in her mid-sixties in March of 2022 after an extended illness. She was described in tributes after her death as “a beautiful soul,” an exemplar of “kindness and compassion” and “always positive and encouraging.” Similar things were said about Doc after his death, although his occasionally gruff persona may not have matched the beauty of his soul.

Dr. Mikaya, a native of the Sudan (now South Sudan) in Northeastern Africa, retired in 2018— 37 years after joining the staff of a hospital he had never heard of or expected to remain at, but, like Doc Pete, became a fixture in rural health care and a physician who considered the treatment of every patient a solemn trust. Let’s hope there are more like him and the man he considered his mentor out there.