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Raised To Be A Racist, Medicine in Memphis and New Orleans: 1954-1964

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The day before Easter 2007, I baked our well washed bed linens in the Florida sun. Essence of orange blossom infused the fibers by the wind that blew off the lake, all day long. The unseasonably mild and cool conditions the past few days, put me in a Christmassy mood, but what I craved was a kitty.

Johnny; my husband of seventeen years told me, "No way! Two in the house and three dogs outside is enough. When you take off, I get stuck with all the maintenance. I am 68 year old physician and this is my life? You take off for occupied territory every few months hoping to save the world and I have to feed dogs and clean litter boxes. It's not a good deal."

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I retorted, "Gandhi said something about peace being a birthing process, I am but one little mid-wife doing what I am called to do. We the people in America know nothing at all about so much we should and too much about what doesn't matter at all. I am doing that to which I am called, but I am craving a kitty. Just one little kitty is all." 

 For seven hours on Easter day, Johnny smoked the twelve pound turkey he had dispatched [a clinical euphemism for shooting and swiftly killing a wild animal that will be consumed] upon a 1,000 acre mitigated parcel of property ten minutes from home.

A few weeks later our 22 year old daughter phoned to say that a teacher friend had found a box of abandoned kittens and our daughter, KA took one in. Two days later KA phoned that her roommate was allergic to cats, and Katherine, known as Kat moved in with Oreo and Tobee.Tobee is KA's old tom that was too spoiled to leave home and Oreo, is a long haired black and white with yellow green eyes. She is also neurotically over dependent upon me for she was abandoned at three days old and required me to bottle feed her at hourly intervals around the clock for many weeks. She follows me around the house, but if any company shows up she hides and will not show for a few hours after company moves on.

When Oreo gets upset-and it doesn't take much-she pukes. This really ticks Johnny off when I am not around to clean it up and he has to. My most vivid memory of a glimpse of what life was going to be like with Johnny, was circa 1989, before we were married.

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We attended Johnny's folk's 60th anniversary, a major social event in Memphis. Frances was in the kitchen and Johnny's father Jake and I were in the parlor chatting. Dr. Jake as he was called- not for being one himself-but for siring four sons who did; a cancer specialist, a plastic surgeon ophthalmologist, a nuclear radiologist and Johnny, an Internist and now Geriatrician, known as the black sheep of the family for leaving Memphis for good in 1966, more so that, than for his two divorces and three marriages.

Dr. Jake was interrogating me about my parenting skills-or rather lack of, for he pointed out my impending failure for not explicitly telling my daughter exactly what she should be when she grows up. I laughed it off then, but now I wonder if he didn't have a point, as KA is 24, works as a waitress and wants to be the next American Idol. I have never even seen a show, but in a few weeks, I will be accompanying KA to Miami Beach for try outs. 

KA was four when I met Johnny in 1988. Most people call him Dr. Fleming, and that is all I called him too, for about three years. I had been working as a visiting nurse in the ghettos of Orlando for 10 years and was in need of a change. Scanning the want ads one day I noted a position for an office nurse with good hours and no call time. After Dr. Fleming described what the job required, I replied, "Oh, you need a buffer."

"You're hired!" He said.

The pay was poor, but compensation was the hours, vacation time and the camaraderie of the office staff. The pace was perfect, constantly busy, but never frantic. Every month the office manager would ask me to carry two or three, two foot high stacks of patient charts down the hall from her office to Dr. Fleming's. He would tell me to wait as he would write: "Write Off" on every one of them. "Write off" meant forget the bill; do not send the patient another one, nor send them to collections.

Dr. Fleming never fired a patient until he quit seeing patients and focused on training geriatric specialists thirteen years ago, after he suffered spinal cord damage. He founded Winter Park Internal Medicine in 1968 and even during my days as his office nurse in the late 80's early 90's, every Wednesday afternoons; Dr. Johnny would make house calls to all the patients who were too weak to get to the office but not bad enough for the hospital.

Johnny was born in 1938 and I was born his senior year of high school, 1954. As a child, Johnny had golden curls and eyes as blue as Paul Newman's. He played piano by ear at the age of three, graduated high school at seventeen and Nashville's Vanderbilt Premed Program at the age of twenty. Between 1958 through 1961, Johnny attended the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine. In 1962, with a wife and two children he filled his internship requirement at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

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"I never saw the light of day. We worked our asses off before the days of counted hours. Twenty-four hours on then twelve off, twenty-four back on again, constantly. When they finally figured out how impaired working without sleep can be, things changed for the better... I saved a few babies in those days. Probably some of them were on a roof when the levees broke, what's it been now, one year or two?

"Saturday was Gladiator Night, we'd get ten or more stab wounds into the ER and line them all up in a row and watched and waited until one collapsed a lung. Those who did, went immediately to surgery, the rest were discharged after eight hours if their lungs didn't collapse."

Only Dr. Fleming's family and oldest of friends call him Johnny, everyone else calls him Dr. Fleming or John. He was John all through the years of weekends he played piano at the Memphis University Club while attending the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine.

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Eileen Fleming,is a Citizen of CONSCIENCE for US House of Representatives 2012 Founder of Staff Member of, A Feature Correspondent for Producer "30 Minutes with Vanunu" and "13 Minutes with Vanunu" (more...)

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