During those two summers in Harlan, our family of six stayed in a two bedroom apartment. We had air conditioning and a color TV with cable! I think the only station on was TBS. I got to sleep in the living room with the TV, so as long as I kept the volume low, I could get away with watching TV, in the early morning. I would watch the Andy Griffith show and have a bowl of cereal. Once my parents were up, the TV had to go off.
I was kept entertained and out of trouble by reading. I had finished reading the encyclopedia, and tore through the Hardy Boy's series at an alarming speed. My Mom, in desperation, put a hard bound copy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes Mysteries (Complete and Unabridged) into my hands. I sat in the apartment's recliner with the dictionary on one armrest and Sherlock Holmes in my lap the rest of the summer.
Now, from my father's perspective, something else that happened that summer.....
Many years ago, when I was a resident in family practice at the University of Kentucky, there was great competition among OB/GYN residents, family practice residents, and medical students for delivering babies at the University Hospital. For this reason the family practice program had made an arrangement with Appalachian Regional Hospital in Harlan, Kentucky for family practice residents to work a six-week rotation there with Dr. Hurlocker, their OB/GYN attending physician. This would enable us to gain the additional obstetrical experience needed to obtain obstetric privileges once in private practice.
As I planned to do obstetrics in my future practice, I took advantage of this opportunity for two summers in a row. The first time, as we drove to Harlan, we were stunned at the growth of the kudzu. This vine had been imported from Japan by our federal government to be a ground cover for road cuts in the South. Unfortunately, the vine had become invasive, growing up to a foot a day and now devouring over three million acres! We saw it encasing telephone poles, power lines, and even entire houses.
During the two summers we were there, we stayed in an apartment building located between the hospital and a strip mall with a Piggly-Wiggly grocery store. Throughout the first - and most of the second - summer we were there, most of the people of Harlan would speak little or not at all with us. We were outsiders, “not from around here”, and the people of Harlan county were very wary of people from the “big city”. This was understandable given the history of Harlan County, Kentucky, and how the people had been looked down upon, used, and taken advantage of for decades past. Nonetheless, it made our stay there seem strangely unwelcome.
Not far from the city of Harlan lies the man-made Martin’s Fork Lake, where coal companies had trucked in tons of white sand to make a swimming beach for the people of Harlan. We did not go there the first summer we spent in Harlan, but the second summer I had to promise to take our four children swimming at the lake. Several weeks went by, during which I had been very busy with work at the hospital. The morning of July 4th, tired from being on-call the night before, I walked back to the apartment only to have my wife remind me of my promise to take the children swimming. This would be our last opportunity to keep that promise, so on that day we went to the lake.
Though the Martin’s Fork Lake is only about fourteen miles from town, it took over a half hour to get there on the twisting, winding mountain road. In addition, huge slow coal trucks often would slow traffic to a crawl. Finally arriving at the lake, we parked our car under the shade of a tree and walked the children down to the beach. We spread out our beach blanket, laid down the towels, and the children took off running to the water’s edge. On such a warm day the water felt really cold, so it took them a while to get in, but soon they were “swimming” with delight. Of course the two youngest ones could not really swim, so I had to stay close to them to make sure they would be all right. The older two children were able to swim on their own.
We had been there a few hours enjoying the coolness of the lake in the summer heat when my daughter, our eldest, ran up to me and said, “Daddy, there’s a little boy that drowned down the beach!” I replied to her, “Sure. That’s not such a funny joke.” She insisted, “No really, Daddy! There’s a boy that’s drowned!”. At that point I realized she was in earnest. I had her watch her two youngest brothers and took off running down the beach.
About twenty yards down the beach I saw two men leaning over a little blonde boy lying face down on the sand. He was bluish and not moving. Two men were pushing on his back, then pulling up on his elbows in an attempt to resuscitate him. As I reached them, I said forcefully, “I am a doctor! Let me have him.” They immediately stepped aside and let me work.
I turned the boy over on his back and wiped the wet sand off his mouth. I quickly gave him two rescue breaths then checked his carotid pulse; there was none. I immediately gave him a firm “thump” on the chest. Again I checked his pulse, and this time he had one. I then continued giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for a few minutes until he suddenly and spontaneously began to choke and breathe on his own. We sat him up and he vomited what seemed like a gallon of lake water and began crying and shivering. His father, Hank, then wrapped him in a blanket and took him up by their car.
Someone had already called the ambulance to come from the hospital, but it took half an hour for them to arrive. Hank’s family had returned to Harlan that summer to visit with his cousin, Jake, who told Hank, “I know all the doctors at the clinic, and he ain’t no doctor. You oughta put that boy in your car and drive fast as you can to the hospital!” Hank said nothing, but looked at me with urgent concern in his eyes. He had just seen his son almost die and was scared. I took out my wallet and showed him my Kentucky medical license. I explained to him that I was down for the summer getting extra obstetrical training. I advised Hank not to try to hurry to the hospital. As upset as he was, he was liable to go too fast around a curve and run head-on into a coal truck. I pointed out that his son was breathing, his heart was beating, and although he was frightened and shivering, he was stable. Hank looked at his cousin Jake and said, “I think I’ll do what the doctor says.”
When the ambulance crew arrived, they were almost shocked to see the young boy sitting up breathing on his own. The driver told me, “Wow! We have a live one! In most cases by the time we get here, the victim is already dead!” They put the young man in their ambulance, covered him with an additional blanket, and began the drive back to Harlan, Hank following in his car, and both going slow enough to be safe. As they left, we decided we’d had enough swimming at the lake that afternoon. We would go back to town ourselves, clean up, and begin preparing our holiday dinner.
After taking a shower to wash off the lake sand, the two youngest boys and I walked over to the hospital to check on the one whose life I had saved. A chest x-ray showed he had aspirated some lake water into his lungs. He had been started on an antibiotic and admitted to be watched for a day or two on the pediatric unit. Again, Hank and his wife thanked me for what I had done, and I assured them I was happy I had the opportunity to be there to help.
We left the hospital and immediately walked across the three parking lots of the hospital, the apartment building, and the Piggly-Wiggly. We went inside to pick out hot-dogs, buns, chips, marshmallows, and a cold watermelon for our Independence Day feast. To my complete surprise, as we pushed our cart up to the cash register to check out, the cashier turned to me and said, “Oh, Dr. Yarbrough! That was a wonderful thing you did out at the lake this afternoon. The people around here really appreciate when someone helps one of their own. We all sure hope you’ll come back here to practice. We know you’ll be very busy.” She kept on talking, saying more than she had in two summers! I couldn’t believe how freely she spoke to me, an outsider, or how fast she had found out what happened at the lake. That evening we kept going over what had happened. It was certainly a memorable Fourth of July dinner.
The next day at the hospital, Dr. Hurlocker explained to me that once an outsider like myself had shown such care for one of their own, the people of Harlan would accept them with open arms. This, he said, was why the cashier had spoken to me so openly about what I had done that day. Dr. Hurlocker also confirmed her words that if I were to come back to Harlan, I would have a very busy practice. Unfortunately, I already had made a commitment to go elsewhere and would not be able to do that. Yet after the incident at the lake, it seemed I could go nowhere in town without people thanking me for what I had done. After a while it got to be embarrassing to be thanked so much by so many complete strangers for doing what any decent person should have done in such circumstances.
Weeks later, back at the university, I was called to come to the office of the residency program director. Usually such a call meant there had been some sort of complaint or problem. Naturally, I was quite apprehensive as I entered the director’s office, as I had not heard of any problem with my work and could not recall any complaints. As I entered the office, the director stood up and smiled at me. Also in his office was a lady I had never seen before. Apparently, she was from the governor’s office and was there to present me with a certificate stating that I had been named an honorary Kentucky Colonel. It seems the mayor of Harlan, with his report to the governor’s office about the incident at the lake, had nominated me for this honor. I was speechless.To this day I still have that framed certificate. Ironically, performing CPR on that little boy was the first time I had ever done so outside of a hospital. So many times we do it in the hospital unsuccessfully, yet when out deep in the countryside, with no equipment of any kind, I was able to save a young boy’s life with CPR. Whenever I look at that certificate, I remember that little blonde-haired boy on the beach at Martin’s Fork Lake.