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Care and Compassion

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Winding his way through the rolling hills near ‘Mount Eaton, Ohio, Dr. Elton Lehman maneuvers his 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee down a dirt road toward an old white-frame house. Lehman, 63, one of a dwindling breed of old-fashioned general practitioners, is paying a visit to Sarah Byler, a bedridden 87-year-old dressed, in the Amish fashion, in a white bonnet and a plain black dress. Her daughter eases her into a chair with the help of a manually operated steel hoist. Lehman carefully wraps a blood pressure cuff around her arm. “We watch her blood pressure to make sure it is all right, and check her heart,” he says simply. Without visits like these, Byler would need to live in a nursing home.

Lehman’s presence recalls an earlier epoch, when babies were delivered at home and house calls were expected. But for the 35,000 Amish who live on the farmlands near tiny Mount Eaton (pop. 261)—and who provide about one half of his patients—Lehman is more godsend than throwback. For nearly 35 years, the Amish of Holmes County, who for the most part shun such modern conveniences as cars and electricity, have relied on Lehman, for his sound advice and sympathetic bedside manner. In a culture where virtually no one has more than an eighth-grade education, Lehman is the rare trusted outsider. So beloved is he in the area that Mount Eaton, a town with Amish and non-Amish residents, recently reelected him mayor for a third consecutive term.

“He has changed the face of health care in his community,” says Phillip Miller of Staff Care Inc., a national temporary placement firm for physicians that recently named Lehman as Country Doctor of the Year. “He has tailored it for his patients and made an effort to bridge that cultural gap.”

Lehman sees his role more humbly. “The Amish have their own society, but they are not independent,” he says. “I try to reason with my patients. They don’t believe in doing heroic measures if it’s terminal.”

Lehman himself can be heroic. This past spring, he took a 3 a.m. phone call from a former Amish patient with a relative who had suffered a massive stroke. Could he come? Without a second thought, Lehman drove 60 miles to answer the call. Though the woman was dying, the doctor made her last hours more comfortable with intravenous fluids to keep her hydrated, thus saving the family a hospital visit and “a million-dollar workup,” he says.

Lehman also sees patients back at his Mount Eaton office. It is distinguished by two parking lots—one for cars and the other for horse-drawn buggies. This morning, Esther Miller, 34, who lives on a 90-acre farm in nearby Mount Hope, has come for a checkup. The Amish woman has four sons between the ages of 3 and 10—all delivered by Lehman—and is expecting another. “About time for a girl,” he teases, as he examines her. “All I want,” Miller says, “is a healthy baby.”

Since 1965, Lehman has delivered more than 6,100 healthy babies, including 73 sets of twins and one set of triplets. One Amish couple has 18 children—all delivered by Lehman. He likes to joke that altogether he has spent “seven years of my life with ladies in labor.”

Lehman, who grew up on a farm in nearby Kidron, is not Amish but he understands their ways. Both his parents were Mennonites, members of a less conservative religious group related to the Amish. At home, he and his 11 brothers and sisters learned the virtues of hard work. Lehman’s childhood chores included milking the family cow and feeding the chickens. His father, a farmer who died in 1960, once caught him dissecting baby chicks with a pocket knife to see what made them peep. “I can still remember the look on his face,” says Lehman. “I got a spanking—and never became a surgeon.”

Hooked on science by a favorite biology teacher in high school, Lehman went on to graduate from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.; in 1953, he received his medical degree from Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine. Two weeks later he married his wife, Phyllis, now 59, a music teacher. They have three grown children—Brenda, 31, an accountant; Brent, 29, a family physician; and Beverly, 23, a part-time youth minister—whom Lehman sometimes took along on house calls when they were younger. “Maybe he wasn’t at every ball game,” says Brent, who might one day take over his dad’s practice. “We still had our time together.”

The family’s life has been more manageable since 1985, when the Amish and Mennonites—under Lehman’s guidance—built their own state-of-the-art birthing facility, Mount Eaton Care Center, with spacious rooms where women can stay overnight. Thanks to a nursing staff and other doctors, Lehman no longer needs to be on call 24 hours a day.

“The birthing center has a nice home atmosphere,” says Judith Klippenstein, 22, who has brought her 2-week-old daughter Kristie in for her first checkup. Lehman holds Kristie’s foot as he places his stethoscope to her heart. He picks up the baby’s arms and lets them fall. When they bounce back up again, little Kristie cries.

“That,” Lehman says warmly, “is a normal response.”

Alec Foege

Giovanna Breu in Mount Eaton