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A Frontier Doctor's Christmas


      Ephraim McDowell listened to the messenger's strange story of a woman laboring through her ninth and tenth months in a wilderness cabin. Two doctors already in attendance were baffled. Would Dr. McDowell come?

     He checked the bottles in the pouches of his saddlebags, drew on his coat, and rode away from Danville, which in 1809 was the principal town of the Kentucky frontier. Sixty miles later he jogged into Motley's Glenn.

     There was snow on the ground, but behind the cabin a small stream was purling over the stones in its bed. A half-grown boy who was dipping a bucket of water from the brook stared at the tall doctor.

     "How is your mother?" the doctor asked. "Not good." answered the boy. He handed the reins of his horse to the lad and went inside the cabin.

     "McDowell, it's good you're here." said one of the waiting doctors. "We'll have to deliver the child at once."

     McDowell eyes looked past him to take in the rest of the room, a covey of small children cringing in a corner and a stocky woman, lying on her side on a narrow bed against one wall. Her name, Jane Crawford.

     McDowell stepped to her side and without a word began his examination. His fingers gently bared the woman swollen abdomen. After minutes he spoke, "Jane, no woman has ever recovered from what ails you. I can't tell you different and be honest. But if God wills it, you may not die."

     "The woman must be made to deliver the child," said one of the doctors.

     "The woman has no child," said McDowell. "Her womb is empty. She carries an ovarian tumor."

     McDowell knew that in a operating room of a medical school it was foolhardy to perform an operation to removed the tumor. Here in the frontier forest with only the rudest instruments it would be deadly. Yet he remembers there had been surgeons who wondered if a stricken woman might recover if only the tumor could be cut out of her womb. Jane could live no more than two years, but the agony of the tumor swelling within her would kill much sooner than that.

     "If you think you are prepared to die, I will take that lump from you. You would have to come to Danville," he stated. Jane nodded yes.

     Tom Crawford, her husband, refused to let his wife go. He feared that he would never see her again. Four times Dr. McDowell had to explain that since she was strong enough to make the trip, he was going to take her home to Danville. His instruments, his operating table, and a trained assistant wyre there. Tom finally gave in. He saddled his horse and rode off to a neighbor's cabin to ask the wife to accompany Jane to Danville.

     In the morning Dr. McDowell rode away. Mrs.Crawford and her neighbor followed in a few days. Her enormously distended abdomen bounced and scraped against the pommel of the saddle for the next sixty miles. At last the women reached Danville with its church and its single street of frame houses.

     At the McDowell house, the doctor met them at the door. His wife helped the suffering frontier mother to a cheerful room and put her to bed. Soon the whole town knew what Dr. McDowell was about to perform. That evening the doctor's mends and relatives and finally the minister came to plead and argue that he return the woman uncut to her cabin in Motley's Glenn.

     "If she must die," said the minister, "it's God's will. But, Ephraim, you are doing the devil's work if you open her with a knife." Not even these words changed the doctor's mind.

     During the days that followed, Dr. McDowell tended his patient's diet with care. Throughout his medical practice he made every effort to build up a patient's strength before he operated. At night when she slept, he studied the illustrations of the abdomen in his medical texts and rehearsed what he would do when it was time for the operation .. Each movement of his knife was repeated over and over in his mind before he was satisfied that he was ready. "I'm only waiting for God to smile," he told his patient.

     While Dr. McDowell waited for the time when God would smile, God's servant in the church thundered sermons against the butcher who lived among his flock. As the year came around to Christmas, the villagers talked of nothing but the doctor. James McDowell soon came to see his uncle and urged again that he send Mrs. Crawford home.

     "I'm going to operate in the morning," said the doctor.

     "You can't, tomorrow is Christmas!" his nephew exclaimed.

     The doctor just smiled and said, "God's beneficence will be at its highest."

     That night Dr. McDowell studied his text again. Was his effort of the last fifteen years to be wiped out by the pitful mother's blood?

     On Christmas morning the sun shimmered on the snow. To James McDowell, hurrying down the street to his uncle's house, the Christmas bells sounded sullen. He had spent a sleepless night. Ifhe could not argue his uncle out ofthe surgery, he felt bound to help him.

     He found Dr. McDowell in the bleak room where, over the years, he had removed many arms and legs mutilated in rough rrontier life. He acknowledged his nephew's presence as if he felt he had expected it all along. Together they went into Jane Crawford's room.

     While Christmas bells rang out, Dr. McDowell prayed, "Direct me, oh God, in performing this operation, for I am but an instrument of Thy hands, and am but Thy servant. And if it is Thy will, oh spare this poor, afflicted woman."

     Ether had not yet been discovered, and the doctor could only give Mrs. Crawford a few opium pills. He led her down the hallway but at the doorway of the operating room, she pulled back. Dr. McDowell gently pulled her along. He strapped her on the table and covered her face with a cloth so she could not see the knives cut.

     The surgeon's instruments were spread out on a clean linen cloth. Mrs. McDowell had washed them in strong, homemade soap and water as if they were her best table service. Antiseptics were still unknown, and even the cleanliness that Dr. McDowell always observed was considered by most contemporary doctors to be an eccentricity.

     When he had bared the woman's swollen abdomen, the doctor took his pen and drew the line for the incision just as he had done in this mind over and over again. At the same time Jane Crawford dug her nails into the rough table boards and began singing a familiar hymn. What they were about to do would either show the way to save countless lives or it would end in the woman's death and possibly their own destruction.

     At the same time, in the church, the minister had set aside any thought of Christmas and of God's beneficence to cry out against the devil in his village. An ungodly man was butchering a woman. In frontier language he told his congregation that the evil must be stopped. His strong words made his listeners clench their fists.

     When the minister finished his preaching the people left the church and ran to Dr. McDowell's house. Men tore rocks from the frozen ground with their fingers and threw them at the house. They shouted and cried oaths at the surgeon. Men battered at the doctor's door until the sheriff and a few others forced them back. A burly frontiersman noosed a rope, and a crowd shouted approval when he looped it over the limb of a tree.

     Inside Dr. McDowell had just finished his operation. He was just stitching and plastering the wound. He had removed what he would later describe as a "15 pounds of dirty, gelatinous-looking substance." Now it was in God's hands.

     The doctor carried Mrs. Crawford down the hall to her bed. Then he went to his front door. He stood for a moment looking at the crowd of embittered neighbors, friends, who had long honored him. As he studied their faces, men avoided his eyes. They soon dropped their stones and were shuffiing their feet.

     "It is over now," he finally said. "If God is kind, everything will be all right."

     Someone in the crowd cheered. Then all at once everybody was cheering and shouting. Women wept out-loud. But would this Christmas of 1809, in Danville, Kentucky, be one that people remember? Would God smile on Jane Crawford?

     In five days Jane Crawford was out of bed, fussing with her covers, neatly tucking the spread around her pillow. Dr. McDowell was shocked.

     A few weeks after the New Year, Jane Crawford climbed back on the horse that had brought her to Danville. She rode home to the husband who had never expected to see her again and to her children in the cabin in Motley's Glenn. She later moved west with the westering frontier and lived to be seventy-eight years old. And to top it off, one of the frightened children that Dr. McDowell had confronted in the sticken cabin grew up to become the mayor of Louisville.

     This Christmas of 1809, God truly smile on Jane Crawford and also Dr. McDowell. The operation he performed made ways for saving many of lives. In ways it reminds use of the first Christmas when God smiled on all mankind. When the angel appeared to the shepherds in the field and proclaimed, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people: for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord." That single event has saved many of lives and continues today.

May God smile on you this Christmas too.