Family doctor marks 50th year
It's been 50 years since a 27-year-old, red-haired father of three walked the several blocks from the Tonganoxie bus station to his newly rented home -- and started work the following day as Tonganoxie's newest physician.
"It seems like about the day before yesterday," Dr. Philip Stevens said this week. "I remember it vividly."
In fact, Stevens remembers that he actually started work on a Thursday -- a half-day -- in the practice he purchased from Dr. Bill Howland.
"He went one day, and I came in the next," Stevens said. "The second day in the office, I had 27 patients."
This week, Stevens is celebrating 50 years of practicing medicine in Tonganoxie.
But, as is typical of the soft-spoken doctor, Stevens isn't seeking out the limelight. In fact, he's begged his staff to keep news of the approaching anniversary under wraps.
"I've tried to keep it a secret," he said. "I swore all my staff to secrecy because I did not want any public celebration."
He doesn't want any fanfare. He doesn't want any party. And for Friday, the actual anniversary date, he has no special plans.
"I'm going to come to work about 9:15," Stevens said. "I'm going to work my regular day. And what's funny is: I'll probably have about the same number of patients. I'll probably have, I would guess, 27 patients."
For Stevens, this anniversary is highly emotional. He's worked day-in and day-out -- for many years as Tonganoxie's only physician -- providing care to residents of the area. Thousands and thousands of patients have walked into the office, which has changed little in the past 50 years.
The milestone is remarkable, according to Jerry Slaughter, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society.
"It is, from a couple of respects," he said. "One, while it didn't used to be the case, anymore to have a physician stay in one community for their entire career.
"It's remarkable when you have someone spend their entire practice career in one community. And, two, that he's practiced 50 years is amazing.
"Particularly, in smaller towns, medicine is very demanding. ... It tends to take a toll on physicians.
"That's remarkable. I congratulate him."
When the Stevens family arrived in Tonganoxie -- 4-year-old twins, Chuck and Flip, 2-year-old Lisa, and wife Betty -- they rented a small home near the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Two months later, they moved to the home on Pleasant Street, where Dr. and Mrs. Stevens raised six children -- Matt, Danny and Loralee came along later -- and where the couple still live.
In 1955, Stevens was one of two physicians in Tonganoxie.
"For the first 18 years, we didn't work by appointment," Stevens recalled. "I'd get here, and they'd be lined up outside."
And later there was a time -- for 10 or 15 years -- that Stevens was Tonganoxie's only doctor.
"I was the only doctor between Lawrence and Leavenworth," he said.
Pressures of the job didn't exist solely in the one-story buff-brick building on Fourth Street. They followed him home, in the form of telephone calls at all hours.
"I was delivering babies then," Stevens said. "You couldn't ignore a phone call. ... It was day and night."
Photographs of the babies he delivered line the wall in one of the two exam rooms at Stevens' office.
"We have pictures of about 250, and there were a few more that we didn't get pictures of," he said.
Before he stopped delivering babies, Stevens would prepare for the unpredictable arrivals in all types of weather.
"I can remember going out and putting chains on my car just in case somebody had a baby," he said.
And the many county roads that now are paved and marked certainly weren't when Stevens started practicing. So those night-time house calls were occasionally treacherous.
Takes a toll
Stevens also spent considerable time visiting patients at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where he was on staff for decades.
Such a pace takes a toll, even on developing friendships.
"Friendship takes time," Stevens noted. "It's hard to devote time to that. The time would be the big constraint there."
But Stevens' demeanor makes patients feel as if they're confiding in a close, very interested, friend.
"It's like you have a whole lot of friends," he said. "I see them, but generally not when they're healthy."
For Walter Lee and Nila Denholm, their patient-doctor relationship with Stevens has blossomed into more.
"You can talk to Doc," Walter Lee said, "and he'll listen to you. I just like to go to Doc."
When Nila moved to Tonganoxie in 1964, Walter Lee suggested she see Stevens. And she still does.
"I always just counted on Dr. Stevens," she said. "I felt like he was very knowledgeable, and if there was something that he would rather have a different opinion on, he didn't hesitate to guide you to the right person. He was always very caring. He's always been like our best friend, our best doctor.
"I guess we've always counted on him. And we've never been sorry, and he's always been right-on. He listens to you. He is quiet. He's a down-to-earth type of doctor. He's just kind of one-of-a-kind. ... We sure think a lot of him."
No to retirement
Retirement isn't something Stevens is entertaining.
"Oh no," he said. "I'm having too much fun. I love what I do."
He and his medical assistant, Barbara Hardisty, have a pact.
"We'll both retire at the same time," she said. "We look at each other every year and say, do you want to do another year?"
Hardisty, who's worked with Stevens for more than half his 50 years in Tonganoxie, enjoys watching as he sees patients.
"He has a very good bedside manner," she said. "And he is always willing to sit and listen to the problem to determine what's wrong, which a lot of doctors won't do.
"He's a good diagnostician. He'll come up with the answer, or he'll tell you where to go to find it. He's always very patient with everybody he sees."
The march of time
Over time, the practice of medicine has changed. The number of doctors has increased significantly, as has the number of specialists.
"There are now four emergency rooms within 20 miles of where we're sitting that are staffed 24 hours a day," Stevens said. "I don't get called out at night or on weekends anymore. And that's been the greatest thing. It used to be that I was it. If somebody needed to be sewed up, I was it. That just made my life so much easier."
And while physicians have found better ways to care for their patients, those patients are living much longer than their parents lived -- but living with more chronic diseases.
"When I started out, there were no antibiotics except penicillin," Stevens said. "A lot of people died from infectious disease. It's rare now."
And while the type of medicine Stevens has practiced has changed during the past 50 years, the way he's practiced hasn't changed much. And where his practice has remained, in many ways, untouched by time.
"I've always regretted that my space here is so small," he said. "I thought at one time about doubling the space, but when you're raising six kids and trying to make a living, it just didn't work out.
"It's kind of like going back in time. You walk in any other doctor's office, it's kind of like walking into a hospital."
When he was preparing to take over Howland's practice, Stevens received some advice.
"He said, now don't wear a white coat because it scares kids. And he said Dr. Parker gives a lot of shots, so don't give shots you don't have to. He said people come to you because they don't want a shot," Stevens said, smiling.
The Tonganoxie where Stevens launched his career was a rural, farming community. Half of his patients were farmers.
"It used to be that you spoke to everybody," Stevens said. "You'd go to the grocery store, post office, everywhere, walking down the sidewalk, and you spoke to everybody. ... I think it would be real nice to have one day a year, one day a month, to have a howdy day, say we're going to speak to everybody. I really miss that."
Other aspects of his practice have changed.
The 1955 office call cost $2. Inflation has pushed that to $30.
"A house call, I think, was $5, and I made a lot of house calls," Stevens said.
The practice has remained strong during the years, fueled recently by an increase in population.
Stevens, like his father before him Dr. Delos Stevens, believes strongly in the importance of obtaining an education. Phil and Betty Stevens sent all six of their children to college, and many of those now-grown children hold advanced degrees. Betty Stevens holds bachelor of science degrees from the University of Missouri and Kansas University.
Phil Stevens, who graduated from KU in 1950, phi beta kappa, and later from the university's medical school, understands the college tuition that his father paid for has paid dividends for years.
"If my dad had given me the money, it would be been gone years and years ago, but to give an education, it's like giving them a fish or teaching them to fish," Stevens said.
And so it was for each of his and Betty's children.
Although Stevens wouldn't trade the past 50 years as Tonganoxie's physician for anything -- except, perhaps, to have been a professional college student -- he does regret the time it took away from his family.
"I wish, when my kids were little, I wish I'd taken more time away from my practice to do things with them," he said. "But, of course, they all turned out great."
When he made the decision to purchase his practice in Tonganoxie, he already had a sense of the community because he'd grown up in Oskaloosa in nearby Jefferson County, where his own father had practiced for 42 years.
"I felt comfortable here," he said. ''... I always wanted to live in a small town in Kansas. And I wanted to serve people of the community. I wanted to do that since I was a kid."