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Archive for Sunday, May 25, 2003

Dr. Phil a modern medical rarity

After nearly 50 years, Tonganoxie physician still makes house calls

May 25, 2003

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— 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 by bus nearly 50 years ago. Most can't remember when he wasn't here, and many can't imagine life without him.

Today, Dr. 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.

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."

Rumbaugh is now Stevens' patient.

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," Stevens said softly, wiping away a tear. "He was very good with people."

Dr. Phil Stevens, or "Dr. Phil," as many of his patients call him,
checks out the throat of fourth-generation patient Danielle Irwin
as her mother, Elizabeth, watches the proceedings. Stevens has
practiced medicine in Tonganoxie for nearly 50 years.

Dr. Phil Stevens, or "Dr. Phil," as many of his patients call him, checks out the throat of fourth-generation patient Danielle Irwin as her mother, Elizabeth, watches the proceedings. Stevens has practiced medicine in Tonganoxie for nearly 50 years.

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," Dr. Phil said. "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.'"

Starting the practice

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

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

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.

Stevens 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.

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.

His father 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 beeline 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. The practice attracted Stevens 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," Stevens said. Diekman also owned the town's pharmacy, and after a handshake loaned him $1,500 for the down payment.

Dr. Delos Stevens died on the younger Stevens' 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," Stevens 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," Stevens said.

Young Doctor 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," Stevens said, smiling.

Baby pictures

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

For nearly nine years, he delivered babies, more than 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.

"It was maddening," he said.

Today, more than 250 black-and-white baby photos, taken by his former medical assistant 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."

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, but what isn't bald is mostly gray. He wears heavy horn-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."

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."

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

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

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

Many of Stevens' 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," said Alberta Irwin, who, until a couple years ago, was Stevens' medical assistant. She had the job 33 years.

She recalled that her boss saw 79 patients in a day during one flu season. 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 Viaxin or Keflex," he says.

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

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

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

"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.

Hardest bill to collect

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 until 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.

One patient brings him loaves of fresh baked bread and, "we appreciate 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," Stevens said.

Stevens has no plans to retire anytime soon.

He and his wife, Betty, 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."

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