SUNDAY MORNING I opened the Morning News and, after Doonesbury, looked in Metro for the obituaries, something I do more often than I used to. I scanned the gallery of faces — some in black and white, others in color, strangers — and sampled the religious content (“David went to be with our Lord God on August the 3rd…). Then, down the left hand side of the page, a familiar face caught my eye, with a name above it. No! Couldn’t be. But it was: VORHIES Jr. John Royal Harris MD. My doctor. Damn.
I had been thinking about Dr. Vorhies lately as it was getting to be time for my annual physical, and I needed to call his assistant, Roxanne, to make the appointment. I looked forward to seeing him, which I can’t say has always been the case with my primary care physicians through the years. When I moved back to Dallas from California four years ago, I suddenly needed a doctor before I had figured out how to pick one approved by my disorganized HMO. My friend David Searcy recommended Vorhies, telling me he was unorthodox, smart, worked with poor people in Latin America and would take cash.
I drove to his office on the back side of Preston Center, in a low-rise retro medical building that seemed frozen in time — that time being the 1960s. Oddly appealing. I discovered that he had a solo practice, with one nurse and a receptionist/assistant. The waiting room was not crowded. He was a tall, stolid man, a couple years older than me with a grave manner softened by a quiet, wry sense of humor. He had a bass voice that conveyed wisdom and authority without affect or pretense. I am reminded of that first encounter now. There was an honest austerity about him. No wasted words, yet he looked you in the eye and seemed to care. And he seemed interested in the world. He was aware of books and literary life. I liked him immediately.
I had a chest infection that required anti-biotics. My insurance situation was still unclear, but his assistant told me not to worry, they would work it out. She said $50 would cover the visit.
Over the next few years, I continued to see him occasionally and tried to select him as my PCP through United Health Care without United Health Care ever conceding that he was in their system — while his office said he was. It never got sorted out, and eventually I switched to another HMO that was able to find him in its directory. But all along he never seemed concerned, which marked him as unusual in the “concierge care” money-driven U.S. medical community.
I can’t say I knew him well, yet I was not prepared for him to go. Two years ago, he almost retired when his vintage office building was slated for demolition. He had been practicing internal medicine for almost 40 years, another way in which he stood apart from the swelling ranks of high-revenue specialists. I was relieved when he accepted an offer to partner with another general practitioner at Baylor. He was in his office on the 7th floor of the Wadley Tower examining a patient when his heart failed him last Wednesday. He was 71 and appeared to be in tip top shape.
I knew he was a rower, but not until I attended the memorial service for him at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church Monday, did I learn that he rowed almost every day after work with the Dallas Rowing Club at Bachman Lake, through all seasons and weather. He only took off Wednesdays for choir practice. An outdoorsman who grew up in Wyoming, he had rowed at Harvard and many years later got back into the sport in Dallas. During my physicals we talked about fitness and he offered advice and encouragement. When I told him I had stopped running and was trying out a water-rower machine, he smiled and told me he had one at home. He left out the Bachman Lake part or that he had won gold medals in his age division at the US Rowing Masters Nationals.
Members of the Rowing Club gave stirring remembrances of him at the service, as did his son, John, who is also a doctor, in California. Fighting back emotion, John remembered his father as the rock of the family, steadfast and calm through one crisis after another. From his father’s biography in the program, I knew that before John was born, his mother and father lost their first child to cancer. Once, when he was in medical school, John said, he was feeling nervous before an important exam in organic chemistry and called his father for advice. His father listened and then told him, “It’s simple: Just learn everything in the textbook exactly, and you’ll be fine.”
After these recollections and readings from Matthew and Luke, the long-haired Rev. Bruce Hearn asked the hundreds in the sanctuary to join in singing two short blessings the Vorhies family always sang before dinner, followed by a three-part round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
It was a beautiful and fitting service, but it was not enough. The feeling persisted: How could he be gone? I saw no one there I knew, yet I know I was sharing that thought with many of them. Some had been his patients for 25 years and more. I only got the last four, but they were important ones to me. I got over the nasty chest infection and later monitored some aging aches and pains with him. When I weighed the pros and cons of moving back to Dallas, John Vorhies was at the top of the “pro” column. I clipped the obit from the paper and have it on my desk. I am looking at it now, reliving the shock of first seeing it Sunday morning. In the photo he is smiling beneath his big horn-rimmed glasses. High forehead and untrimmed graying hair. Striped shirt open at the neck. His lips are parted as if he’s about to say something. I can hear his voice. Damn.