Archive for Wednesday, April 23, 2003

The good Dr. Stevens

April 23, 2003

Dr. Phil Stevens, 75, has been patching up and prescribing for the folks of Tonganoxie and the southern half of Leavenworth County since he arrived here by bus nearly 50 years ago. Most can't remember when he wasn't here and many can't imagine life without him.

Today, Doctor Phil, as many call him, tends to the great-grandchildren of some of his first patients, four generations back. He still treats a few older citizens who doctored with his father, Dr. Delos Stevens, in Oskaloosa.

Danielle Irwin, 5, tries on tiptoes to reach the sliding weight on
the old set of scales in Dr. Phil Stevens' Tonganoxie doctors
office. The scales belonged to Phil's father, Dr. Delos Stevens,
and were used in his Oskaloosa office. Danielle is the daughter of
Steve and Elizabeth Irwin.

Danielle Irwin, 5, tries on tiptoes to reach the sliding weight on the old set of scales in Dr. Phil Stevens' Tonganoxie doctors office. The scales belonged to Phil's father, Dr. Delos Stevens, and were used in his Oskaloosa office. Danielle is the daughter of Steve and Elizabeth Irwin.

Some go back further.

"I remember Phil Stevens when he was a little, red-headed, freckle-faced boy ... ornery as the dickens too," recalled Dorothy Rumbaugh, 84. She still lives in Oskaloosa where she and Phil grew up.

"He and the Gibson boy were watching us at a dress-up party downtown and when we'd dance by they would pull on our sashes and they would come untied," Rumbaugh said.

After several warnings she threatened 9-year-old Stevens with a kiss, "right there in front of everybody," if he did it one more time.

"Well, that didn't stop him and I planted a big kiss on him and he ran right out of that hall."

Walter Denholm, 76, left, says he's been "doctoring" with Phil
Stevens "since right after he came to Tongie," and considers Dr.
Phil a good friend as well as a physician. "You bet," said Denholm,
"and if he doesn't know he'll send you to of docs won't do that."
The photos on the wall are of babies Dr. Stevens delivered during
his first eight years of practice.

Walter Denholm, 76, left, says he's been "doctoring" with Phil Stevens "since right after he came to Tongie," and considers Dr. Phil a good friend as well as a physician. "You bet," said Denholm, "and if he doesn't know he'll send you to of docs won't do that." The photos on the wall are of babies Dr. Stevens delivered during his first eight years of practice.

Rumbaugh is now Phil's patient.

Virtually in poverty

As a youngster Phil and his four brothers and sisters, all born at home and delivered by their father, would sometimes go with their dad when he made house calls.

"When he walked into a room you could just see people relax," Phil said softly, wiping away a tear, "he was very good with people."

Dr. Delos Stevens was one of three doctors practicing in Oskaloosa. Times were lean in the 1930s. Few had automobiles but buses ran to Topeka and Kansas City.

"I grew up in poverty ... everybody in Oskaloosa was virtually in poverty but we were happy. We didn't have government agencies rubbing it in, saying 'you're in poverty.'"

In 1947, after a year in the Army as a draftee, he enrolled at Kansas University. Medical school was only a consideration.

Betty and Phil Stevens first met in 1948 in Topeka when Phil was
dating Betty's roommate. They eloped in 1950 and married in
Bentonville, Ark. They have six children.

Betty and Phil Stevens first met in 1948 in Topeka when Phil was dating Betty's roommate. They eloped in 1950 and married in Bentonville, Ark. They have six children.

"I saw Dad work so hard and get so little for it I was kind of turned off. ... I thought I'd be a social worker."

He enjoyed his biology class so he took a course in zoology, which led to an A in comparative anatomy.

"If you didn't do well in that you didn't have a prayer of getting into medical school," Phil said.

He graduated from KU in 1950 with nearly all A's. He took a train from Lawrence to Kansas City and then a streetcar to the KU Medical School on Rainbow Boulevard. He was interviewed by the school's dean, Franklin Murphy, who later became KU's chancellor.

Phil recalls being flattered when Murphy said, "Stevens, with these grades you should be running the school instead of me."

At that time the first year and a half of medical school was on the Lawrence campus.

Negative net worth

His father had paid the $50 a semester tuition at KU and the GI Bill paid for most of his medical school tuition. He arrived in Tonganoxie with his wife, Betty, 4-year-old twin boys, a 2-year-old daughter and a "negative net worth."

He'd made a bee-line to Tonganoxie because Dr. Bill Howland, a local physician, was selling his medical practice for $3,000. He knew a fellow medical school graduate was also interested. It attracted Phil because it was close to Oskaloosa where his father was in ill health.

"I didn't have a nickel and I went up the street to meet Ed Diekman, the building's owner, " Phil said. Diekman, also owned the town's pharmacy and after a handshake loaned him $1,500 for the down payment.

The Stevens household is home base to three dogs and three
"outdoor" cats. Phil Stevens is greeted by dogs Shy Guy, left and
Sonny.

The Stevens household is home base to three dogs and three "outdoor" cats. Phil Stevens is greeted by dogs Shy Guy, left and Sonny.

Dr. Delos Stevens died on Phil's 28th birthday, Sept. 8, 1955, during his son's first year of practice.

"Dad had seen about 10 patients that day and had called me to talk about them," Phil recalled sadly. "Mother called me later and we took him to Lawrence Memorial. He'd had a massive stroke."

His father had practiced medicine 43 years without setting foot in a hospital. "It could be done back then," Phil said.

Babies, lots of babies

Young Dr. Stevens' patients were seen on a first-come, first-served basis.

An office visit cost $2.

"We'd get here in the morning and people would be lined up like they were waiting for a bus and whoever got in the door first we saw first," Phil said smiling.

And, for nearly nine years he delivered babies, over 300 of them. His care began when he diagnosed the pregnancy and ended when mother and baby left the hospital. Prenatal care and delivery: $95.

"In the middle of the day I'd be seeing patients in the office and I'd get a call from Lawrence Memorial saying my patient was ready to deliver," he said. Many times it would be a false alarm.

"Dr. Phil," as many of his patients call him, checks out the throat
of fourth generation patient Danielle Irwin while her mother
Elizabeth watches the proceedings.

"Dr. Phil," as many of his patients call him, checks out the throat of fourth generation patient Danielle Irwin while her mother Elizabeth watches the proceedings.

"It was maddening," he said.

He referred his obstetrics patients to Lawrence doctors R.L. Hermes and Howard Wilcox.

Today, more than 250 black and white baby photos, taken by his former medical assistant, Beryl Stoner, hang on his office walls.

"Lots of patients bring in their grandchildren to show off their baby picture," the doctor said proudly.

Before emergency rooms were staffed with doctors and when ambulances were operated by funeral homes Phil made lots of house calls, many times for farm- related injuries. He charged $5.

"Today there are four emergency rooms within 20 miles of where we're sitting," he said. "But, when a patient asks for a house call we try to respond and we do one or two a year."

A corner of a desk in one of the examining rooms in Dr. Philip
Stevens' office. Stevens' abilities to diagnose are well-known
among his patients.

A corner of a desk in one of the examining rooms in Dr. Philip Stevens' office. Stevens' abilities to diagnose are well-known among his patients.

He's an accommodating kind of guy.

Phil Stevens is the kindly doctor we've seen in Norman Rockwell drawings.

There are still a few patches of red in what little hair remains and what isn't bald is mostly gray. He wears heavy horned-rimmed glasses and behind them is a face anyone would trust. He speaks in soft, caring tones that stop the second he hears another voice. He's an awfully good listener.

"Did you hear that redbird," the doctor asked, interrupting himself.

"They're in the crabapple tree out back ... that pair stayed all winter."

It's in the genes

When you mention Dr. Stevens to his patients you hear phrases like, "a blessing to the community" ... "a wonderful friend" ... "he's touched so many lives" ... "he's like your father or grandfather."

McLouth resident Karen Bartlett, 53, has been Dr. Phil's patient since she was 8. She's a life-long fan.

"When I was 13 my dad was working full time for General Motors all day and farming all night. I was scared to death he was going to die so I went to see Dr. Stevens."

She recalled him patting her hand and saying, "Oh honey, he'll probably outlive you." Bartlett said that was the reinforcement she needed. Today her father, Raymond Thomas, is 84.

Phil believes genes have everything to do with how long people live.

"When I first came here the only people who lived to any great age inherited a normal blood pressure ... weren't overweight ... very few exceptions."

Now he says, medications treat high blood pressure and other diseases that used to be fatal. One of his patients takes four blood pressure medicines, prescribed by her internist.

Stevens calls modern treatments of heart attacks "an amazing phenomenon."

In the past, he said after a heart attack, physicians could only wait to see how much of the victim's heart muscle had died, hoping for the best.

"Today, my gosh, they give them an injection of clot busting medicine, get them in the cath lab, do an angioplasty, maybe put in a stent ... and we've got lots of people walking around town who would have been dead 30 years ago," he said enthusiastically.

Until a couple of years ago, Alberta Irwin was Phil Stevens' medical assistant. She had the job 33 years.

"Before we began taking appointments our waiting room was like a party ... but I wasn't invited," she said laughing. "Everyone knew everybody, they'd be reading to one another from the magazines, it was pretty wonderful."

Diagnostic powers

Dr. Philip Stevens in his tidy Tonganoxie office talks about
changes in the medical profession during his nearly 48 years of
practice. "When I started my practice, half of our patients were
farmers. ... Now it's down to one or two percent," he said.

Dr. Philip Stevens in his tidy Tonganoxie office talks about changes in the medical profession during his nearly 48 years of practice. "When I started my practice, half of our patients were farmers. ... Now it's down to one or two percent," he said.

Many of Phil's patients comment on his ability to diagnose their problem quickly. Longtime patient and rural Tonganoxie resident Fred Leimkuhler, credits Stevens' quick diagnosis with saving his daughter Lynn Marie's life when she was a child.

"We'd get calls from specialists telling him he was right on the money with his diagnosis," Irwin said.

During one flu season she recalled that her boss saw 79 patients in one day. Sometimes Irwin would accompany him on house calls or to the scene of a fatality when he was deputy coroner.

"He always has time for his patients," she recalled. "Phil is very sensitive ... we've cried with patients, children love him and would come in for an appointment after school by themselves ... he's just a special person."

Dr. Stevens admits he doesn't get sick very often but if he gets a cold he's not one for trying to nip it in the bud.

"I wait about three days until the cold stimulates my immune system so I can build some antibodies and then start on a good antibiotic like Biaxin or Keflex," he says.

He waited a little longer, eight years, before having a hip replaced.

"Four years ago, my son Dr. Philip D. Stevens, an emergency room physician, finally said, 'Just do it,'" Dr. Phil said sheepishly.

He described joint replacement as a modern miracle.

He has other descriptions for health insurance.

"When I was first started I'd come in on Sunday to fill out one, maybe two insurance forms a week," Stevens recalled "Now when we start in the morning we turn on the electric typewriter and we don't turn it off 'til we leave in the evening."

That's right, electric typewriter. There is no computer or fax machine in the good doctor's small, tidy office.

He sees between 30 and 35 patients a day. He doesn't take new patients who live more than 10 or 12 miles from his office.

"It's hard enough keeping up on a busy day without having someone driving past 10 doctor's offices to get here," he said.

About 20 percent of his patients don't have insurance the rest are on Medicare or Blue Cross.

"We bill people for six months and if they don't pay we just stop billing and don't worry about it," he said. He thinks he does about as well with the uninsured as he does with insurance companies.

Retirement? No way

One patient brings him loaves of fresh baked bread and he appreciates it.

He says it reminds him of his dad who used to come home with fresh eggs and an occasional side of beef.

"Dad used to say the two hardest bills to collect were grocer's and doctor's ... when the bill comes they've already eaten the food or had gotten well."

He said he'd recently seen retired Lawrence physician Phil Godwin at the Lied Center on the KU campus who asked him about his retirement plans.

He has none.

"I enjoy talking with people and one thing you know when people come in to talk about their health you're not boring them," he said quietly. "This morning, for example, we have a war going on and not one person mentioned it. Their health is vital to them."

Dr. Phil has an older brother, Robert, who at 80 is still practicing medicine in Garnett. Another brother, William, now deceased, got his doctorate in anthropology at Harvard. An older sister, Marie Huey, 85, lives in Tonganoxie.

Phil and Betty Stevens have raised two nurses, Charles and Dan; a stockbroker/investor, Matthew; a newspaper editor Lisa Scheller; a community college admissions director, Loralee, and a doctor, Philip D.

"I always wanted to be of service, wanted to live in a small town and I wanted to raise six kids and send them to college," he said. "I watched my folks sacrifice to educate us, and I thought there was only one way I could pay them back and that was by doing the same thing."

-- Bill Snead is deputy editor at the Journal-World newspaper in Lawrence. At the request of The Mirror staff, he readily agreed to write this story about Dr. Stevens.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.