An advanced doctor at an advanced age
When Dr. John Schmidt began his medical practice, there were 48 states in the Union, Ike was president, and Southern drinking fountains were still labeled “White” and “Coloured.” There was no vaccine for measles, mumps or rubella, and the world of medicine was still adjusting to Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.
Today, at 80, Dr. Schmidt administers the H1N1 vaccine and examines MRIs delivered to him electronically. Much has changed in the 50 years of his medical career, but Dr. Schmidt still has the patience and bedside manner of a man who made house calls at local farms.
Growing up in rural Illinois, Schmidt’s inspiration for becoming a physician was the doctor in his own small town. “Dr. Roberts was the only doctor I knew,” Schmidt recalls. “He was the idol of everybody—very highly thought of.”
When he was only 12, John’s mother died of a brain aneurism and when he was 22, his father was burned alive after the basement furnace erupted. John went to live with his eldest sister, Dixie, who was like a second mom to him. Dixie went on to study nursing at the University of Chicago. Seeing her work and hearing her stories only gave his medical enthusiasm a shot in the arm.
John studied human biology at the University of Illinois. He graduated in 1951 and married Barbara Crawford as soon as he was accepted to medical school at the University of Chicago. After graduation, John and Barb moved to San Bernardino, where his sister Dixie was a nursing supervisor at San Bernardino County Hospital. There, John got a plum internship, where he could experience a full range of medical training.
“In one year at a smaller hospital you may not be able to work in orthopedics or get to deliver a baby,” he explains. “My whole idea was to have a well-rounded internship.”
After his one-year internship, rather than having his studies interrupted by the Korean War draft, John enlisted in the navy. Stationed in San Diego, he practiced orthopedics at the Naval Hospital and eventually spent six months at sea on a destroyer.
After the war, John and Barb prayed for an opportunity to return to California. John received a call from an old friend from his pre-med days when they waited tables together at a girls’ dormitory. The friend had settled in Fullerton, Calif. as a pediatrician. A colleague asked if he knew any doctors interested in practicing in nearby Yorba Linda. He called John. “I hopped a plane,” John says, laughing, “came out here and decided, out of the blue, that this was the place we needed to go.” At the time, Yorba Linda had only one doctor who had been practicing 50 years and was ready to retire. In 1959, John and Barb set out for Yorba Linda.
“I was the only doctor in the area,” he says. We didn’t have freeways and the nearest hospitals were in Fullerton. I used to make rounds starting at about 5:30 a.m. to get all four hospitals there attended to.” For a year, he didn’t take a single day off and built his practice by being available when doctors typically weren’t—making house calls at any hour, any day.
John continually adapted to huge technological leaps in response, diagnosis, and treatment. “As time went on, transportation became more available, house calls became less needed, and there was a greater dependence on technology—blood studies, X-rays, EKGs, and so on. Technology became the cornerstone of our profession, and, really, it still is.”
Eventually, because of the growth of the community, it was essential for Dr. Schmidt to take on partners and form a medical group. “As I observed other doctor groups in the area, ones that had one doctor as the boss usually failed. So my philosophy was to make my new partners equal with me—I didn’t get any more salary than they did, and they had equal voice when making decisions. And that philosophy made my career very successful compared with running the show.”
Looking back, John finds much contentment while also looking forward; he has no intentions of retiring. He still drives daily to his Yorba Linda clinic. He still sets broken arms, stitches up split chins, and hits knees with a rubber hammer. And he still treats every patient like a neighbour. “As long as it keeps working up here,” he says, tapping his noggin, “I’ll keep working.”