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April 1, 2002

Remembering a country doctor

Paige Parvin is associate editor of Emory Magazine


When I was 5 years old, I was allowed to dial exactly two telephone numbers: the automated recording that gave our local time and temperature, and my grandmother.

“Hey, Honey Mama,” I’d say, still in my nightgown in the early morning, gripping the heavy receiver importantly.

“Hi, Paige-O.”

“Whatcha doin’?”

“Oh, nothing much.” (That, of course, was never true.)

At this point I would be quite at a loss for anything more to say, but I fervently wished to keep her on the phone. So I’d stall for time. She still delights in recounting how, one of those mornings,

I went on to ask politely: “Has your bossy old husband gone to work yet?”

It is not surprising that, as a little girl, I considered my grandfather bossy. Maybe it was his medical training, maybe it was too many nights on emergency duty, maybe he just had a remarkably cautious nature, but to our Honey Paul, the world was little more than a minefield of hazards for me and my cousins. Standing tippy-toe high on a chair to reach the cookies was just asking for a nasty fall. Eating hard candy would choke us. Running with a stick or pencilwell, every kid knows where that leads. “Stop that!” Honey Paul would bark. “You’ll poke an eye out!”

Testing the ice on our neighbors’ pond, climbing trees, tearing around the house with wet hair after a bath—such shenanigans kept Honey Paul in a constant state of agitation.

At his memorial service in February, Honey Paul’s boyhood friend Lyle Smith said that, as a doctor, my grandfather was “almost compulsive in his need to care for others.”

Lyle, a fellow physician, told of running into Honey Paul at the hospital one icy night at around 2 a.m. When they went to see my grandfather’s patient, the man grasped Honey Paul’s hand and said gratefully, “I called every doctor in town, and I finally got you!”

Paul Alexander Ervin Jr. was born in 1920 and grew up in Pleasant Hill, Tenn., a rural but relatively progressive pocket of Cumberland County. His father taught vocational agriculture at the local academy. As kids, Paul and Lyle were expert at squirting fresh cows’ milk straight into the mouths of barn cats, leaving their whiskers dripping.

Summers were spent fishing, playing Tarzan and hiding behind bushes, trying to overhear the bad words a neighboring farmer shouted at his stubborn mule. When the farmer caught on, he changed his tack: Lyle swears the poor man would actually stomp up to the mule’s head and whisper furiously into the cursed animal’s ear.

My grandfather graduated from Cumberland County High School in 1937 and went to the University of Tennessee, hitchhiking 60 miles home each weekend. In 1941, he entered medical school at UT-Memphis. There he roomed with another lifelong friend, Donathan Ivey, and also met my grandmother, Hazel, a name I never once heard him use. (Their habit of calling each other “honey” later inspired their funny family names)

To facilitate the courting of their future wives, the roommates pooled their resources and purchased a rusty 1928 Nash—which doubled as a mobile greenhouse for various mushrooms and ferns—for $45 and a fifth of whiskey.

After finishing his M.D. and serving two years in the Army Medical Corps, Honey Paul returned to Cumberland County in 1948 with his family. He was home to stay. In 1950 he helped open the new Cumberland Medical Center and served on its first board of directors. He and Dr. Ivey also founded Crossville Medical Group, a respected handful of doctors with whom he would work for more than 30 years.

I got to visit him in their clinic building each week when my mom went for her allergy shots. In summer, my bare legs stuck to the sleek black leather furniture in his thickly carpeted office as I read Highlights magazine and ate lollipops. One wall was mirrored, surely the pinnacle of elegance in the 1970s. There, in his white coat, Dr. Ervin was stern and purposeful and a little scary. At home, he mellowed in the glow of family and a glass of wine.

Sometimes he would take me on Saturday morning hospital rounds with him. I was both frightened and fascinated by his patients’ sickness, their surgery scars, their vulnerability as they spooned up Jell-O like little kids. Their ages and ailments ranged far and wide.

Honey Paul was an old-school country doctor at heart: He removed tonsils, set broken bones, dispensed antibiotics, made house calls. Yet he was also an early proponent of women’s equality, civil rights and abortion—positions I suspect had more to do with his practical nature than his progressive politics.

Dr. Ervin wasn’t known for his soothing bedside manner, but what he lacked in sympathy he made up in skill.

Without high-tech machines to pinpoint problems, his diagnostic talent was uncanny. He could locate a bad appendix with one well-placed thump to the abdomen. Our veterinarian’s wife used to tell about the time Honey Paul showed up unannounced at her door in his snow boots, the drifts piling high behind him, and calmly asked to see the baby he’d been treating. To her surprise, they found her infant son dangerously dehydrated.

Honey Paul earned the community’s devotion with his care. For many years he received a dozen red roses each Valentine’s Day from the Davis family, a token of appreciation for his efforts on behalf of their oldest son, who arrived in the world on year on Feb. 14 after a particularly protracted and difficult delivery.

He retired in 1986, but leisure didn’t suit him. Within six months he went back to work for the Tennessee Department of Public Health, traveling to clinics in surrounding counties. He retired for good at 81, a year before his death.

The practice of medicine has changed dramatically in the half-century since my grandfather hung his M.D. on his office wall. Now there is little place for a doctor who might begin his day with a hysterectomy and end it stitching up a gashed finger. Surely medical specialization, new technologies and advanced treatments have made health care more efficient; certainly they have increased our collective chances for a full life. I do wonder, though, how many doctors today can find an infected appendix by touch.

I wonder how many get roses on Valentine’s day from a family whose children are long grown.

All through the holidays, Honey Paul did spirited battle with a rare bone cancer. He had spent his life trying to outsmart disease, and he was acutely aware of each stage of his illness, could predict the progression of his body’s betrayal. In the final weeks he at last allowed himself to be cared for, a gift on his part that was both wonderful and wrenching to see.

When he gave up the fight on the last day of January, my grandmother’s home swelled effortlessly with food and people. Squash casserole, ham, pound cake, all made their way to us in tins and Tupperware neatly marked with the familiar names of a community. At his memorial service, stragglers had to stand in the back of the packed church. There were country folk in overalls and nurses still in uniform from their hospital shifts. Honey Paul’s cousin Joe, an Episcopal priest, officiated.

“This is Paul’s death,” he said. “It is a significant happening. Each of us has only one life to live and one death to die. This is Paul’s death—the only one he will ever have, and therefore it is just as significant as his life.”

And that is significant indeed.