Dr. Lee gets ready to take in his shingle Pioneering GP ready to retire

March 02, 1993|By Knight Ridder News Service

COATESVILLE, Pa. -- Sometimes around midnight, a nurse would call Daniel Lee, physician, just as he was clambering into bed. Out he would climb again.

He never hurried an expectant mother as she waited to give birth. When the baby dallied, so did he, even if it took all night.

And when local football fans cheered Coatesville's Red Raiders with pompons, Dr. Lee stood on the sidelines with Ace bandages and ice packs.

"It's a calling; it's a sacrifice," he said. "They come in, and they put their lives in your hands, and their babies'. They're depending on you."

The 75-year-old Dr. Lee plans to retire in April, and Coatesville will lose its last black general practitioner, along with the shoulder it has leaned on for more than 35 years. At a time when doctors usually specialize, no one now will fill his special role.

"You could ask him any question, he didn't rush you out of the office," said Bertha Macon, 63, a longtime patient. "He didn't use all them high medical terms you didn't understand. He'd explain things in terms you understood."

To Ms. Macon, no one can replace the doctor who comforted her when her husband died of cancer eight years ago. She has her last appointment with Dr. Lee soon, she said, and has yet to find another physician.

Dr. Lee searched unsuccessfully for five years for someone to buy his practice. But he could not lure young black doctors away from Philadelphia, where they find opportunities today he once thought impossible.

"It's much better today," Dr. Lee said. "They're hiring black specialists at most hospitals."

Coatesville Hospital would not allow blacks on its staff when Lee arrived in 1957 from Germany, where he had been stationed with the Army. Knowing this, Dr. Lee said, he did not bother to ask the hospital for a job.

Instead, Dr. Lee came in answer to a letter from Dr. Whittier Atkinson, whose small hospital catering to blacks was growing rapidly.

Dr. Lee joined Dr. Atkinson's staff, then set up his own practice a few years later in the city's predominantly black East End.

"It was one dollar for an office visit, two dollars for a house call," Dr. Lee recalled with a smile. "When you start out, money is a major factor. As you get to the end of the trail, money is not a factor. I tell old patients of mine they don't need money to come here."

Thomas Clayton Brown, 48, knows Dr. Lee as the doctor who fought for working people.

"If you were sick, physically, and the company wanted you to go back to work, and said there was no reason why you couldn't work, they would try to fire you," he said. "He would take time from his daily schedule to go to court for you. I don't know any other doctor like that."

Like many patients, Mr. Brown has been coming to Dr. Lee since he was a child.

"A lot of African American patients felt more comfortable, more at ease when they came to see him," said Daniel Lee Jr., 46, his eldest son. "Black doctors were good role models for black citizens in the area."

In time, white patients began coming to see Lee, too.

"Dr. Lee was everybody's doctor. He was not a black doctor or a white doctor, he was just a doctor," Mr. Brown said.

Dr. Lee finally joined the staff at the Brandywine Hospital in the late 1960s, when racial barriers began to fall. But generational lines have proven somewhat harder to cross.

As physician for the area school district -- a post he will keep after he retires from private practice -- he said he loves to encourage children to follow in his footsteps, to make medicine their calling.

They too often respond with excuses. He grows visibly $l saddened when he reads aloud the list he keeps:

"I'm not smart enough.

"My grades are not good enough.

"Becoming a doctor takes too long.

"It's too hard, you got to learn all the stuff in these books."

To be sure, Coatesville has produced many black physicians, Dr. Lee said, but he sees few of them return home after medical school. There is little here to attract them anymore, he said, and the city has changed from the safe, close-knit community he found when he moved here.

His office has been broken into three times in recent years. Burglars have stolen drugs, equipment and whatever else they could carry, he said.

The last time Dr. Lee remembers being so fearful of crime, he was a child growing up in North Philadelphia.

"I thought a small town would be safer," he said. "But you get to a small town, you realize they have crime and all, too."

Daniel Lee Jr.'s medical training began at age 13, when he would file records in his father's office. As he grew older, he did lab work.

Now the eldest of Dr. Lee's three children is a physician's assistant at Coatesville's VA hospital.

Mr. Lee Jr. recalls growing up amid a bustling practice and a busy doctor.

"He was going seven days a week, even Saturdays and Sundays," the younger Lee said. "Days he didn't work in the office, he went to the hospital. It left very little time for vacation, even."

Now the practice has slowed, and so has the doctor.

Dr. Lee leads visitors through the examination rooms, which once were filled with patients. He hustled from room to room then, and kept four nurses and a secretary busy.

Contrast the one-stop services Lee used to provide with the list of specialties confronting Coatesville residents these days.

A clinic for mothers and infants opened nearby in the former offices of a colleague who retired last year. Across town, the Visiting Nurses run a prenatal program in the housing project. Elderly patients must see a gerontologist; broken bones are set at the hospital's trauma center.

Abdominal pains? A patient might not know which specialist to turn to, Dr. Lee said. One might hop from urologist to internist to surgeon, only to discover an ordinary malady Lee used to cure in his office.

Medical knowledge expands. Technology improves. Costs skyrocket. But people's needs remain the same, Dr. Lee said.

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