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The Medicine Men

 by Vern Zielke

Life on the prairies of Southwestern Kansas in the 1930's and 40's had its hazards and its illnesses. Accidents happened and people succumbed to various maladies, too numerous to mention. Older folks did not have Medicare to fall back on, and almost no one that I knew of had health insurance. Most babies were born at home under the supervision of a local practitioner and many doctors still made house calls

I became aware of an interest in medical care at an early age because my father was always looking for relief from pain and hoping for a cure for whatever ailed him. I remember that there was a great variety of medical advice and treatment available, outside of the regular medical field. Kansas, after all, had the infamous Dr. Brinkley and the Meade community was visited regularly by one Dr. Amend. My father was greatly interested in Dr. Brinkley and listened to his radio harangues although I don't think that he ever tried any of his snake oil.

Dr. Amend had a large following in the community and would come to Meade and set up for business at the Palace Hotel. His equipment, as I recall it now, consisted of several mysterious machines plugged into an electrical outlet. Everyone was pretty much convinced that his was state of the art medicine. He did seem to have state of the art diagnostic tools and his manner was such that people had great confidence in him. I was taken to him somewhat regularly, and was intrigued by the electrodes that were connected to parts of my body. He would twist some dials and watch intently as the needles pointed at numbers on his control panel. It was believed that he could diagnose any and all potential or present medical problems and then prescribe a reliable cure.

On one occasion his machine informed him that I was infested with worms. This was, indeed, bad news! The cure came in the form of a powder made from sage leaves. This was, as I soon discovered, worse news! We were not strangers to sagebrush in Southwestern Kansas and it was a surprise to discover that herein would lay a cure for such a disgusting malady. He provided me with a finely ground powder made from the leaves of this lowly bush.  This was to be mixed with hot water and the instructions were to drink a cup of this mysterious brew every evening. If there had, in fact, been a resident worm population, surely this vile beverage would have made a quick end to these invaders on its first application. But the instructions were to drink it every evening for six weeks. Even though I dreaded it, I performed the nasty chore each evening and eventually was pronounced cured.

The Mennonites in the Meade community had their favorite medicine man near by and available twenty-four hours a day. You could go to him or he would come to you if the situation warranted. He was, in a sense, the medical patron saint for the populace. He was greatly revered and his opinion greatly respected.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he was beloved by the adult population and feared by all children. This man's name was Will Schlichting. He came by his trade honestly in that he came from a long line of "knoake doktas" (bone doctors) or sometimes referred to as "knibble doktas" (massage doctors.) There were several of the Schlichtings, all from the same family. Some Meade folks would travel to Corn, Oklahoma to see the one who practiced there, evidently thinking that to drive out of state was an effort to secure the best in "knibble" care. They were referred to as doctors, but in reality they were farmers with no specific training except for what they had learned from their forbears. They did seem to have a knack for righting certain wrongs. Families would visit regularly, and every one would receive an adjustment, much like is given by chiropractors today. They also had a variety of interesting medicines and pills that they would offer as a cure for a perceived ailment. I have wondered where they procured these colorful liquids and what medicinal qualities they might have had.

The Dr. Schlichting that we visited lived northeast of Meade. It seemed a long trip to me, as we followed Highway 54 through Fowler and then turned north and crossed a bridge over the Rock Island tracks a few miles east of Fowler. We then drove several more miles north and a little east and came to his farm. I do not know whether he kept office hours, took appointments, or whether we just trusted to luck that he would be home. I do remember that it was a frightening thing to fall into the hands of this seemingly gruff man. His movements were deft and quick, as he twisted your head first one way and then the other. As a result of this violent treatment, your neck was pronounced "back in place." He would then proceed to do, what seemed to a child, life threatening things to your back. The ominous cracking sounds that accompanied his violent assault on your body were regarded as proof that everything out of alignment was coming back together. I know of few ill effects as a result of these encounters and many claimed that his hands had healing powers. My schoolmate, David Loewen, reported to us once that he briefly escaped from the doctor's clutches on one occasion by jumping out of a window and hiding in the barn. He was, however, soon retrieved and brought back to the treatment table where the doctor may well have applied just a bit more pressure than might be expected.

It was my misfortune to fracture my wrist in a tumble I took at school. I was only a first grader and I foolishly volunteered my body for an experiment that the older boys thought up. The township road that bordered the schoolyard to the south was being improved and a rather deep ditch had been excavated. The construction crew had left a large plank on the ground next to the ditch. The older boys thought it would be of interest to try an experiment based on the theory that a catapult could be used to launch an object into space. A large plank, left behind by the road crew, lay just at hand. The plank was placed so that half of it extended over the edge of the ditch. The procedure was quite simple. A small body (mine) was placed on the landward end and a large body (a big eighth-grader) took a short run and landed squarely on the end suspended over the chasm. I was catapulted flawlessly, high into the sky, had a pleasant enough flight, but found the landing quite undesirable. Every one present heard the sharp "crack" as the wrist bone broke cleanly in two. I was escorted with great ceremony into our teacher's presence, and upon observing the state of my very limp and useless arm, she took immediate action. She placed me securely in the front seat of her Model A Ford, laid a book on my lap upon which to rest my arm, and we traveled north the two miles to our farm. Every slight bump on the dirt road added to my pain and misery.

Upon my arrival at home, my parents knew exactly what to do. There was no 911 but there was Dr. Schlichting. No other alternative was considered. I was hustled into the back seat of our 1933 Chevy and we were on our way. We arrived at his farm about an hour later, only to find that he had gone to Minneola on farm business. His wife assured my father that he could easily be found somewhere on Main Street. My father drove to Minneola and there, just as predicted, he found the good doctor, told him of the situation. In another hour they were back to set my throbbing wrist. By this time I had experienced several hours of pain, and the dreadful thoughts of what was to come were of no comfort. The doctor took one look at the pathetic looking appendage, set me in a chair, and instructed my father to stand behind me and hold me tight. He took my arm and held it few seconds as if to contemplate the exact moment to act. He then gave a quick but mighty pull, putting the broken bone back into alignment. It happened so quickly that I had time for only one good hearty scream. A great sense of relief flooded over me, as I realized that the worst was behind me. A cast was expertly applied to the arm and I was pronounced whole. I returned to school and in the subsequent six weeks tried to eat and write with my left hand. By the time I got the hang of that, the cast had come off and all things were normal again.

Research and advanced technology have changed medical care immensely over the last sixty years. It did seem a lot simpler in those days with no insurance premiums to pay, no paperwork to fill out, and no worries about the system running out of money. Dr. Schlichting would have, and often did, treat those who came to him for nothing if they were unable to pay. An incorrect diagnosis or a botched attempt at setting a broken bone did not result in a lawsuit. That would have been unthinkable. That's just the way things were.


(copyright Vern Zielke)

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