A Country Doctor and a Horse from St. Mary's Hospital
Helene C. Maichle, Esq.
St. Mary's Baby Alumni Association
A young medical resident at St. Mary’s Hospital gave up his dream of becoming a surgeon to help another doctor, his patients – and an ambulance wagon horse.
That resident was my late grandfather, Robert J. Maichle, M.D. (pronounced "Michael"), of Cohocton and Dansville, who was known as "Dr. Bob" to his patients during his nearly 70-year career and "Grandad" to his many grandchildren.
After graduating from the University of Buffalo Medical School in 1908, the tall, lanky young man with nose-pinching spectacles interned at St. Mary’s and then started his residency in surgery there.
My grandfather was asked to return to his hometown unexpectedly to help take care of the patients of Dr. Spaulding, an older physician in Cohocton, who had become ill. As a child, my grandfather had organized the doctor’s medicine room, where medicines and supplies were stored, and cleaned his horse barn. Dr. Spaulding became his mentor. Now he was making house calls to Dr. Spaulding’s patients and his own throughout Livingston and Steuben counties by horse and buggy.
At St. Mary’s, another resident who was next in line to pursue a specialty in surgery got that opportunity because my grandfather decided to stay in Cohocton and be a general practitioner.
As automobile horsepower replaced real horsepower, my grandfather heard that St. Mary’s was going to retire the horses used to pull its ambulance wagons with motorized automobiles. "Retirement" meant the glue factory. My grandfather fondly remembered the hardworking horses from the days of his residency, particularly a horse named "Blossom".
He took the train to Rochester and found "Blossom". Then – like Paul Revere – he rode "Blossom" back to Cohocton. He spent the night at The Big Tree Inn in Geneseo and boarded "Blossom" at a nearby stable. When they reached Cohocton, "Blossom" arrived at his retirement home, a farm with a large pasture. My grandfather visited "Blossom" often. Each time, the horse recognized him and galloped to the fence to see him.
My grandfather may not have stayed in Rochester to practice medicine, but word of his skill as a diagnostician found its way back there.
Before CT scans and MRIs became a physician’s tools, he became known for his ability to identify diseases and conditions by listening to his patients, performing thorough physical examinations, and evaluating their symptoms. He honed this skill by constantly reading medical books and journals in hospital libraries or in his office at night after seeing his last patient of the day.
St. Mary’s Hospital staff members approached my aunt, Margery M. Sauerbier of Dansville, when she worked on the men’s floor as a registered nurse shortly after her graduation from nursing school in 1947.
"‘Are you Dr. Maichle’s daughter? Oh my goodness, he was the best diagnostician we had,’ they would say to me," she recalled.
A school custodian in Dansville came to my grandfather complaining of severe back pain. My grandfather arranged to have him transported immediately to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester accompanied by a nurse, Evelyn Roberts. He told her to tell the doctors at the hospital that the man was suffering from an abdominal aneurysm.
Upon arrival, the hospital’s chief resident met the ambulance and Nurse Roberts told him my grandfather’s diagnosis.
The chief resident laughed and belittled the country doctor’s assessment. "What does he know?" he asked the nurse.
Nurse Roberts told him: "He’s no quack. He knows what he’s talking about."
The next time Nurse Roberts went to Rochester with another patient, she saw the same chief resident. "He asked her, ‘Could you see if I could work with that doctor for six months to a year? I’d really like to work under him,’" my aunt said.
My grandfather did not seem to regret changing the direction of his medical career. Because of him, people who lived far from the big city hospitals did not have to forsake good medical care. Always neatly dressed in a dark suit, crisp white shirt, a conservative tie, and shined shoes (there were no scrubs, jeans, or "Crocs" in my grandfather’s wardrobe), he never truly retired and remained sharp until his death at age 92 in 1977.
Dr. Maichle recognized "Blossom’s" contribution to medicine and did not forget that. We have not forgotten yours either, Grandad.
Helene C. Maichle is an attorney and lives in Quincy, MA. She was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1959 and is a member of the hospital’s Baby Alumni Association.