Country doctor James DeLine talks about his work with the Amish
In 33 years at the La Farge clinic, Dr. James DeLine has gained the trust of many Amish. He understands their beliefs and their financial limitations, and he leaves the medical decisions to the families.
Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE, Wis.It is 5 degrees below zeroand a light powdering ofsnow swirls across the roads of Vernon County.Afew horses and buggies clop through the chillmorningair, but Perry Hochstetler leaves his buggy at the family farmand has a driver take him to his doctors appointment.
TheHochstetlersare Amish. With no health insuranceanda modest income, they cannot afford most doctors.
They can afford James DeLine, once the lone doctor in the western Wisconsin village of LaFarge. Population 750.
When he became the village doctor in 1983, DeLine had no experience treating the Amish and no idea the crucial role they would play in his work. Today, about 20% of the doctors patients are Amish or Old Order Mennonite, part of a Christian population called Plain People. They are known for their separation from the modern world and adherence to a simple lifestyle and unadorned dress.
Something of a throwback himself,DeLine, 65, is a short,bespectacledman with a walrus mustache, a doctor who carries a brown medical bag to house calls. For years, he carried his equipment in a fishing tackle box.
He knows the families on every local farm and their medical histories. He knows whos beenborn,andcalls on the mothers and infants to make sure they are healthy. He knows whos dying, and looks in on them in their final days, sitting by their bedside, talking in a gentle voice, making sure they have what they need for pain.
Amish farms are clustered together along Highway D between Cashton and La Farge.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As a young doctor,DeLine never imagined he would find himselfsomedaywith one foot planted solidly in medicines past, the other in its future.
The doctor who makes housecallsalso collaborates with English and American geneticists studying some of the rarest diseases on Earth. Some occur at much higher levels among the Amish, Mennonites and other closed communities that dont allow marriage to outsiders. This prohibition increases the likelihood that when a rare, disease-causing mutation appears in the community, it will take root and pass from generation to generation.
It has taken DeLine and his staff years to gain the trust of Plain People, some of whom are wary of medicine and technology.Often,theyfear that going to a hospital or clinic will mean surrendering the decision-making to doctors who neither respect their beliefsnor understand their financial limitations.
DeLine, not a religious man himself, accommodates the beliefs of patients and parents; he has always viewed them as the ultimate decision-makers.
At first glance, Hochstetler seems an unlikely candidate for a rare disease or a health problem of any kind. Work at the local sawmill and his family farm has given the 26-year-old father of two a lean muscular frame. Beneath the skin lies another story.
He has the vasculature of an 80-year-old smoker,DeLinesays.
He inherited the genetic mutation that causes an illness most people have never heard of: sitosterolemia. Only 100 cases have been described in the medical literature, but DeLine has 13 patients with the condition, including four of Hochstetlers 10 siblings and their father.
The disease prevents the body from getting rid of lipids from vegetable oils and nuts, causing them to build up and clog the arteries.
Since diagnosing the disease,DeLinehas treated Hochstetler with a cholesterol-lowering drug called Zetia.
Without diagnosis and treatment,Hochstetlercould by now havesuffereda heart attack, a trauma that Zetia should delay, thoughfor how long isuncertain. There is no cure for sitosterolemia.
Im not afraid, he says. If I die young, I guess Im going to die young. I cant do much about it. I cant say I ever get low and have the blues about it.
Saving grace: The story of an Amish community and the fight for their children's lives
A blizzard almost kept the doctor and village from their appointment.
It was February 1983. DeLine drovehis familyover hilly country roads, staring out the windshield into flurries and fearingtheir carmight not makeit to LaFarge.
DeLinehad just completed his residency at the Wausau Hospital Center. Now, a10-membercommitteeof localswas recruiting him to fill LaFargesvacancy for a doctor. Thevillage had beenwithout one for a couple ofyears.
The doctor liked the friendly villagers, a welcome change from the suit-and-tie types hed interviewed with in other places.
He was 28 years oldwith a bad car, a growing family and $30,000 in unpaid student loans. The average salary for a family doctor in America was then around $80,000, enough to settle down and beginpaying offhis debt.
But the people of LaFargewantedDeLine needed him. Their offer: $20,000.
That would have to coverDeLinesannual salary, the salary of an assistant to answer the phones and handle billing, plus all the clinic equipment andexpenses. .
DeLine took the offer.
The photo of country doctor Ernest Guy Ceriani, made famous in a groundbreaking Life Magazine photo essay by W. Eugene Smith, hangs on James DeLine's refrigerator door at his home in La Farge.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
DeLinegrew up in New Lenox, Illinois, a farming community outside Joliet.
The village of 1,750 was mostly cornfields. DeLine remembers it asthe kind of place where children grew up building forts during the day and watching bonfires at night. DeLine had twin sisters five years younger than him. Their father owned a restaurant.
From an early age, though, itjust seemed like Id be going to medical school. It was meant to be.
DeLineremembers nights when he could hear his mother struggling to breathe. He could hear his father, too, trying to persuade her to go to the hospital.
She had rheumatic heart disease and took blood thinners starting in her 30s. She sometimes joked about needing a valve job.
DeLinewas 17 when his mother went in for the procedure.
He saw her once after surgerybut I didnt like how she looked.About the third day, his mother suffered cardiac arrest. She was resuscitated but had sustained a severe brain injury. Days later, the family shut off life support. She was 42.
One week after her death, JamesDeLineset out to become a doctor,leavinghome for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Physician James DeLine eases into his work day starting at 5 a.m. at his home in La Farge.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
University life was hard.DeLineremained so miredin grief that when he ate, he suffered terrible abdominal pain and had to lie on his stomach for relief.
Still, he took on a demanding schedule.Driven students tended to enter the more advanced honors program in either chemistry orbiology. DeLine, a physiology major, enrolled in both.
He paid for college through restaurant jobs and financial aid.
He went on to medical school, first in Champaign, then at the University of Illinois campus in Chicago. He lived in the citys Little Italysection on the nearwestside. There he met his future wife, Ann Doherty, who worked in a print shop.
DeLinegraduated from medical school on June 7, 1980. The next day, he and Ann married.
A week later, he started his residency in Wausau.
He would work a 24-hour shift, take 24 hours off, then head back for another 24 hours at the hospital. By the time Id stagger home for some rest, he says, I was sleep-deprived, hungry, with a headache.
The schedule bothered his wife. She missed him.In his next job, she would see even less of him.
Physician James DeLine checks on Dean Pease at Vernon Memorial Healthcare in Viroqua. Pease was admitted to the hospital for breathing difficulties.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In LaFarge,DeLineworked harder than he had in his residency.
He was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To make ends meet, both for his family and the clinic,DeLineworked five shifts a month in the emergency room at Vernon Memorial Hospital in Viroqua.
Some days he would work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the clinic, then drive to the hospital and work 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. in the emergency room. He would return to the familys home just in time to shower and get to the clinic by 9.
There were times when he was tired, but it didnt slow him down, Marcia Bader, his now-retired office managersays. It was that deep-seated caring that kept him going.
After a morning of driving around visiting patients, physician James DeLine, right, updates the staff at his clinic.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It was his wife,AnnDeLine, too.
The woman who had dreamed of being a mother did everything for the couples four children, all born within a five-year span. She washed cloth diapers and hung them out to dry. Shecooked, cleaned, took the children for walks, helped with school and play, and accepted with grace all the times when her husband was called away from holidays and birthday parties.
"The calendar of holidays does not apply," she says. "He helps people when they need him like the volunteer fireman races off when the alarm sounds; like the farmer plants and harvests when the ground and weather are ready."
"Life is lived by needs, not calendars and time slots."
This drawing is a gift from an Amish patient. James DeLine keeps it on his desk at home.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Villagers embraced their doctor. Patients said they were accustomed to physicians who talked at them most of the time;DeLinelistened.
The clinic struggled financially in the early years. Not everybody paid their bills, Bader recalls. But the doctor wasnt going to send them to collection firms, and he wasnt going to stop caring for them.
The doctor and his wife became fixtures ofcommunitylife. They went to their childrens cross country meets and other school events. They attended the annual Kickapoo Valley Reserve Winter Festival.
But it was his presence in the homes of area residents that endeared him to them.
My father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1994. The thing that always struck me was that Dr.DeLinestopped in to see my mom and dad one night after a basketball game, recalls Bonnie Howell-Sherman, editor and publisher of the weekly Epitaph-News in nearby Viola.
That was just unheard of. My mom is going through dementia now and out of all of the people shes met since shes been here, hes the one she remembers.
The villagers didnt just likeDeLine. They depended on him.
They worried about him, too.
Theres been two things about Dr.DeLinethat the whole community has been concerned about, Steinmetz said. One was, how do we keep him? The other was that hestayhealthy.
From time to time, rumors spread that the doctor was sick, even dying.
In 2007,DeLinehad noticed a problem. He would urinate, only to discover a short time later that he needed to go again.
It was prostate cancer.
Courtesy of the Viola Epitaph-News
Feeling, as he put it, reflective, maybe anxious too,DeLineapproached the Epitaph-News editor. He asked to write a series of columns for the newspaper describing his illness and treatment. He would counter the rumors with transparency. He called the column, From the Other Side.
I decided early on that I was comfortable sharing my experience with our community, he wrote in the first column. After all many of you have shared your concerns, fears and symptoms with me for nearly 25 years. Each of us knows that our turn must come for illness and eventually death.
He discussed his fears about surgery to remove his prostate Would I be able to jog again?He evensharedthe frustration of phoning to make a doctors appointment and going through endless computer prompts before reaching a live human voice.
His columns took readers through his surgery, recovery andreturn home.
The way the whole village shared the doctors illness and treatment, thats part of small-town life, explains Howell-Sherman, the newspaper editor.
Its been 12 years sinceDeLinessurgery. The cancer hasnot returned.
An Amish teen pulls farm machinery down a road in La Farge.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Of all the relationships the doctor built in LaFarge, the most challenging involved his Amish patients.
DeLine found his medical work was affected by a deeply held principle among the Amish, expressed in the German wordgelassenheit, which means yielding oneself to a higher authority. Among the Amish, the word encompasses a calmness and patience, as well as a belief that individualism must take a back seatto the good of the community and the will of God.
A sign warns motorists they may encounter horse-drawn vehicles on Highway D between Cashton and La Farge.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
While some Amish visit hospitals and accept modern medical techniques, others prefer natural methods and traditional treatments: herbs, vitamins, supplements and home remedies. In the LaFargearea, it is not unusual for an Amish family to turn to these methods beforedecidingto see DeLine.
Such was the case with Abie and Edna Yoder when their 8-year-old daughter, Barbara, first grew sick in spring 2015.
The girl had little appetite and suffered from a terrible stomachache and bloody diarrhea. Barbara weighed 38 pounds 19 pounds below average for an 8-year-old.
The Yoders took her to a so-called non-traditional doctor used by some of the Amish; these tend to be herbalists, specialists in natural medicine and others, all of whom lack medical degrees.He viewed her blood under a microscope and told the family she might have colon cancer.
The parents worried terribly about their daughters survival, but worried too about putting her in the hands of a traditional doctor. The scenario that haunted them had happened to a 3-year-old Amish boy with leukemia. The boy was given chemotherapy, they say, despite the excruciating pain andultimate failureof the treatment.
He begged to be released to go to Jesus, Edna Yoder recalls.
The Yoders approached a midwife, whosent her husband to speak with DeLine. The husband explained to the doctor the circumstances and the familys hesitation. Then the Yoders brought their daughter.
"Dr.DeLinemade it really clear that he would respect our wishes,Edna Yoder recalls.
Their daughter was admitted to American Family Childrens Hospital in Madison.DeLineconsulted with a pediatric cardiologist hed worked with at UW, Amy Peterson.
Dr.DeLinehad noticed that she had interesting looking bumps on her arms and on her legs, Peterson recalls. They were deposits of cholesterol. Dr.DeLineand I started thinking along very similar lines very quickly.
Genetic testing confirmed their hunch. The girl had extremely rare sitosterolemia, the same illness that would later be diagnosed in Perry Hochstetler.
Treatment lowered the girls sitosterol levels and helped her gain weight.
DeLineand Peterson have since foundamong the local Amisha dozen othercases the second largest cluster of the disease in the world.
An Amish farmer makes his way to work on a fence along Highway D between Cashton and La Farge.Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Almost 200 diseases are found in much higher proportions among Plain People. Scientists have developed a special Amish genetics test that screens the blood for more than 120 of them.
DeLine has seen patients with more than 30of the diseases on the testand has at least two patients with diseases neverdescribed in medicine.
Across the globe, there have beenonly20 to 30 cases of a disease called BRAT1; DeLine has seen six. Babies with the illness are born rigid and are prone to frequent seizures.
When the baby is born you cant straighten the baby, DeLine says. The eyes are jerking, face twitching. Some moms say they have felt things that suggest the babies have been seizing in the womb.
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