Primitive Health Care Of Rim Country's Past



In the years before hospitals, EMTs and air-evacs, the Rim country had to make do when sickness or injury occurred.

In the days before the Beeline Highway, when the nearest hospital was in Cottonwood, Verde Valley, deputy sheriff Howard Childers was commandeered for a special duty. One of the Burdette women from Indian Hill was about to have a baby and needed to get to the hospital 72 miles away. Childers packed the mother-to-be and her sister-in-law into the back seat of his patrol car, and headed speedily west on the Fossil Creek road.

No sooner were they in the wilds of the mountain hill than the baby decided it was time to be born.

Cries from the back seat warned Childers to pull over, and his police radio got him in touch with Phoenix. They patched him into Prescott and in turn they patched him into Cottonwood. "Get a doctor," he called. "Put me through to a doctor on a telephone hookup and make it fast. A woman is having a baby in a car 40 miles from the hospital and there's nobody with her who knows anything about delivering babies. Get hold of a doctor who can tell me what to do!"

By this tenuous connection, a Dr. Bates in Cottonwood relayed instructions to the rough rancher turned law enforcer.

The sister-in-law retreated to the side of the road, saying, "You do. Me scared."

He heard the doctor say, "Tell him he needs a sterile kit and catgut."

Childers was not entirely unprepared. He had his pocket knife, some twine and a bottle of alcohol.

"I dipped the string in the bottle and poured alcohol all over my knife," he later reported. "I was shakin' and prayin'. The doc told me, ‘Tie two knots ... cut between ... and it was a boy."

When they reached Cottonwood the doctor there told him it was as pretty a knot as ever he saw. "Only experience I'd ever had with quick tyin' was a piggin' string on a calf's legs," said Childers.

As for being a mid-wife, Childers concluded, "I sure wouldn't want to make no career out of it." However, the family named the new-born Howard Burdette, and as he was growing up in Payson the local folk called him "Little Howard."

At times, the local pharmacist was the nearest thing to an available doctor. Hazel Owens testified to how soft-spoken pharmacist Don Manthe saved the life of her 10-year-old daughter, Gwenna.

The girl had been seriously hurt in a fall from a moving car. Don got on the telephone with a doctor in Cottonwood while at the same time he applied emergency bandages and gave the frightened child a sedative.

This prepared her for that long trip over rough roads to the hospital, where she was treated and able to recover.

Other residents tell of the times Don Manthe gave emergency aid to accident victims from the mines, sawmills and ranches of the Rim country. Then there was the day Don and other volunteers worked their way down into an almost inaccessible canyon to bring out a 17-year-old boy injured in a fall from a cliff. This was in the days before there were trained search and rescue teams. Again, in a telephone connection with a doctor miles away, Don was able to ease the victim's injuries enough so that he could survive the trip to the hospital.

Again, a telephone call to doctors and pharmacist Manthe's quick action was able to save a female victim of a heart attack. "I am not a doctor," protested the pharmacist.

"A doctor was what Payson had to have," Manthe said.

It was in the summer of 1957 when Payson did get its full time doctor, David Gilbert. Six years later, my own family would be grateful there was a doctor in Payson.

We were building a cabin on the upper reaches of the old Belluzzi homestead, and our son Tom was swinging on a tire someone had roped to a large tree branch. Out over the river he went, and then with the daredevil instinct of a 10-year-old, he jumped out of the tire to land in the middle of the stream. Apparently he also landed on a piece of glass or a sharp rock, and whatever it was cut his big toe so badly it appeared almost severed. Wrapping it in towels, while wife Ruth remained with the other children, I sped the 17 miles to Payson over roads that in those years were still rocky and narrow.

A quick inquiry gave me directions to the new rodeo grounds at Rumsey Park where Dr. David Gilbert was one of the judges for the August Doin's.

"Where is he?" I breathlessly inquired of a cowboy. He pointed to the judges booth, perched over the chutes. There was no way to get up there but to climb over the wooden pens so full of bull and bronco.

Dr. Gilbert was quick to respond, and leaving his important tasks there, he clambered with me back to the ground and we ran the rest of the race to his office on the Beeline.

Our son's toe was deftly cleansed and sewn up by the doctor, and healed in the weeks to come. He administered a necessary tetanus shot for Tom, and I returned home while the doctor returned to the rodeo.

However, every time we came to Payson, as long as Dr. Gilbert held his office, we stopped before going out to the cabin and the whole family got their tetanus boosters.

We've come a long way in Rim country medical care. How grateful we all must be!

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