A Journalist's Archive

Heart In The Right Place
Carolyn Jourdan
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Now this is a refreshingly different memoir! The author is not a drug addict or alcoholic, nor was she abused as a child. In today’s memoir market that equals three big strikes against the marketability of this book. But occasionally some sly writer slips into the mix, skipping the standard “woe is me” bugaboo. In “Heart in the Right Place”, Carolyn Jourdan reveals how fate offered her the opportunity to become more than rich and successful. Her story is upbeat, funny, introspective, and proves that happiness is often found where we least expect it.
          After receiving degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Law from the University of Tennessee, Carolyn found a niche for her skills in Washington D.C. While the Capital isn’t a great distance from her childhood home east of Knoxville, the high-paced lifestyle and financial advantages offered in the nation’s seat of power made the two places appear light years apart. In a city where everyone’s an attorney, success doesn’t normally happen overnight. But after 20 years of gritty determination, Carolyn reached the pinnacle of success when she became “U.S. Senate Counsel to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.” She rubbed elbows with the political elite, traveled in private jets, and dressed in designer outfits. In addition to the perks, she believed the laws the committee sponsored were actually improving people’s lives.
          Then her life takes an unexpected turn when she receives a phone call saying her 72 year-old mother suffered a heart attack. Rushing back to Tennessee, Carolyn assures her boss, Senator Hayworth, that she will return shortly. Arriving at the hospital, Carolyn finds her mother barely conscious. Yet, she manages to reach out and grab her daughter’s sleeve. “You’ve got to fill in for me for a couple of days,” she pleads.
          But as the days turned to weeks, and then months, Carolyn begins to question her career choice. Did her environmental work in Washington actually make a difference in the world? If so, then what kept her chained to her mother’s old desk, working as a receptionist in her father’s primary care office?
          In the Prologue, Carolyn reveals a childhood memory that provided the title for this book. When she was 10 years old, her father showed her an x-ray. “You’ll never see anything like this again,” Dr. Jourdan said as he pointed to a “shadowy gray blob near the center of a small rib cage.” The out-of-place heart belonged to a 7 year-old girl. Looking at her father’s face, Carolyn knew the condition was serious, but all she could think to ask was - “How does she say the pledge?”
          “Heart in the Right Place” is more than a memoir, it’s an historical account of what it meant to be a family doctor in rural America. Along the way, we get a sense of the Smokey Mountain culture and landscape. And watch as the author slowly becomes aware of what is special about the people and place of her birth.
           As Carolyn explains, her father was on call 24/7, and it would have been impossible to run his store-front office without his family’s help. The term “primary care” was not yet in vogue, nor does it adequately describe Dr. Jourdan’s practice. As the only doctor available for much of the rural population of Knox County, he delivered babies, patched up workers who were injured in the local zinc mine, rendering factory, or the meat processing plant, along with caring for everyday illnesses. And yes, he made house calls!
          His staff included a nurse, Alma, and his wife who worked as the receptionist, backup nurse, and “jack-of-all trades.” When things got truly hectic, Carolyn manned the phones or handed her father instruments while he performed minor surgeries in his office.
          There is little doubt Dr. Jourdan wanted Carolyn to follow in his footsteps; unfortunately, when she was fifteen she developed a squeamishness to surgical procedures, fainting when the blood became too profuse. That ended any aspirations she may have had for a career in medicine and fueled her desire to find a career where she would no longer be a “spectator to any more catastrophes” that walked into the office daily.
          Carolyn’s first day back in the office as an adult didn’t go exactly as the cool-headed lawyer expected. First to enter the office are the 90-something Hankins sisters, Herma and Helma, along with their friend Miss Viola, who has what the sisters call “old-timers” disease. What follows is a hilarious episode involving a hydraulic surgical table – hilarious for the readers – but not for someone used to being in control of any given situation.
          Next, Carolyn discovers the Medicare coding system is beyond comprehension, even for someone with a law degree. During her childhood, those who could pay for medical care, did. Those who couldn’t would bring her father preserves, plants, and even the back half of a 1935 pickup truck that they were sure the doctor could use as a trailer. Getting reimbursed by Medicare now requires putting the right code into the right box. She finds codes for such ridiculous things as “Spring Fever, “Clumsiness,” and “Decapitation, Legal Execution (by guillotine)” but has to dig deep into the book to find the one for “Sprained Ankle.”
          In between ushering patients in to see the doctor, Carolyn fields calls from Washington. At first, she misses the action, but as she reconnects with her Smokey Mountain neighbors, her former life fades into the background. There’s Fletcher, her next door neighbor who is always on hand to help – without being asked. And Harley Hawkins, who specializes in sealing underground leaks; his skills are legendary in the mining industry and he has never been injured on the job. But when he isn’t working, he drinks, and engages in dangerous feats that ultimately require medical attention. Then there is Michael Mayshark, who suffers from congestive heart failure, but faces his medical condition with unbelievable optimism; plus a cast of characters who depend on the doctor to save them from their own bad habits.
          The one thing I found maddening about this memoir is the lack of dates and place names. Digging deep into “A Conversation with the Author” at the back of the book, I discovered the name of Carolyn’s hometown is Strawberry Plains, which is about six miles from her father’s office. But while this book was published in 2007, I haven’t encountered any dates to let me know when these events took place. Thus, by the end of the book every reader is left with the same burning question. When did real family doctors disappear from the American landscape?
          Regardless of what I consider to be a major omission, I highly recommend “Heart in the Right Place,” because it teaches us an extremely important lesson. Making a difference in people’s lives can be accomplished through many different occupations. But in Carolyn’s case, happiness was found far away from the limelight, with the simple gesture of caring for her neighbors.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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