MORE TALES AND ANECDOTES FROM DR. JESSE MEREDITH
A selection of anecdotes from Jesse Meredith, MD, FHO ’58, primarily from the Oral History Project of the Dorothy Carpenter Medical Archives, 2005, interviewer Mike Sprinkle, director emeritus. Also included are two news reports about Meredith’s famous hand-reattachment surgery and a day-long trauma team surgery that saved the lives of nine teenagers.
From Snow Patrol to the Library of Congress
“When a big snow came to Fancy Gap it was the boy’s job to saddle some sort of horse or mule and go from one farm to the other making sure everybody was all right. I once found somebody like that who was sick and brought him home with me, a fellow named Dan Tate, a good banjo player. One time when I was a college student, he and I played for one of the professors at Elon College. I played the fiddle, he played the banjo, and that professor had a recording device that would operate on a six-volt car battery. We spent a half-day putting some stuff on records, and those records are in the Library of Congress now.”
Fireside Cowboy Stories
“Until 1933, we lived in a log house, which would probably be classified as a one-room house with a little kitchen off to the side of it. Heated by a fireplace. My memories there are of my mother reading Western novels to my father at night. Zane Grey and such. He loved those, and he wasn’t literate enough to read as rapidly as she did, so she read them to him. One after another.”
“This was one of those times I was gone three or four days when things were bad at home with my mother’s sickness. There was a cemetery which had been taken out of the place which was now our farm. It was on a ridge, and below that cemetery was one of our pastures. Blackberries grew in that pasture. I’d been gone from home three or four days, living under a big ol’ leaning rock, called a buzzard roost, where it was dry under there. It was about three miles from where we lived. I guess I was getting lonely with that, and I was lying on my belly on the ground watching my mother and my sister pick blackberries. My father put his foot on my back. I had no idea he was anywhere around. He said, ‘Don’t you reckon it’s about time to come home?’”
“We grew a lot of cabbage. Acres and acres. We’d put 3,000 pounds of cabbage on a little half-ton pick-up … and bring them here to Winston. My father did that. He would sell them right over here at this Farmer’s Market, which is still over there—the same building. He would bring that and some other produce. But later on, a kraut company built a kraut factory near us and we sold our cabbage to the kraut people and didn’t have to haul them. That kraut juice is what gives the Japanese cancer of the esophagus, we think.”
“We killed chickens for the weekend sometimes. One time my mother said (to my father), ‘Preacher’s coming tomorrow, Russell, so I guess we’d better kill a chicken.’ He was sitting on the porch. She had a favorite Rhode Island Red Rooster. He took his pistol out and shot that rooster’s head off and said, ‘Will that one do?’ I don’t know what the pillow talk was that night.”
“My father didn’t like it one time when I was dissecting something—I think I was dissecting a grasshopper. He said, ‘I’m going to put a dress on you. You ought to be out here working.’ I was in a field where the grass was high enough to where I could be working on a grasshopper and not be seen.”
“I went to Hillsville, Virginia, for high school. I walked four or five miles to that store where we caught the bus. My father gave me a pistol to carry on my way. I would walk to that store and leave my pistol every day at the store and go to school and come back and pick it up that evening. I don’t even kill a snake now, except for the viper, which kills us.”
Preserving Food for the Winter
“The way we preserved apples was to put them in a place under the house with a washtub full of water. That’s because the washtub, before the water in the washtub froze, it would give off heat and that would keep the apples from freezing. They froze at a lower temperature because they had sugar and other things in them. So, the water froze first and the apples got the heat from the water when the water froze.
“We also preserved our seeds. You see, we had to keep our own seed. Some seed would not keep, like sweet potatoes and white potatoes. Those were the only things I remember putting in there. But, we would also preserve our seed by digging a hole in the ground deep enough so they wouldn’t freeze. Covered that hole with lumber, planks, then piled dirt on top of it so that the dirt was high enough that it wouldn’t freeze all the way through there.
“The way we preserved cabbage was to plow a furrow, turn the cabbage head upside down, wrap the leaves around it and plow the dirt back over that cabbage head. It was well known that if you took the cabbage head up while it was frozen you couldn’t eat it. It had an awful odor to it. But, if you let it thaw, let the ground thaw and took it out, you could eat it.”
Begging the Colonel’s Pardon
“When I was in the army in South Carolina preparing to go to Europe, it was the muddiest, coldest winter in South Carolina. Because I’d learned to build a lasting fire, I was ordered to go to the colonel’s home and build the stove fire. (During college, my ‘rent’ was keeping the fire built.) The colonel came in and said, ‘I can’t have you doing this unless you also clean the bathtub.’ I said, ‘I’m mustering all the respect I can for all the eagles on your collar, sir, but we who know how to build a fire have never seen a bathtub.’ He laughed up a storm at that and showed me the bathtub, and I was able to work inside and avoid the training in the cold and wet.”
“When I was in the army they sent me to State College, to engineering school. I know now that what they were doing was developing scientists for the atomic bomb program. We weren’t told that. Nobody knew; even Harry Truman didn’t know that bomb existed. I learned later that’s where some of those people went. When the U.S. Army chooses a bunch of people like that and sends them to college, boy I’m telling you, you’re in high cotton.”
Jesse Meredith for President
“…People are grateful. There was a fellow from down east who came through here once. He had a perforated colon, and we fixed him up. For the next 20 years, I got a Christmas card from him. He signed it ‘President of the Jesse Meredith for President Club.’”
From an interview in the Winston-Salem Journal, September 1998
Thanks for the Hard Lesson
“There was a very bright student on my rotation who had become accustomed to getting around difficult or complex situations or problems with charm rather than diligence. I told her, ‘You might have wiggled your way through college, but you won’t wiggle your way through me.’ One day, after she’d graduated and been out in practice for about five years and highly successful, I got a package from her in my mailbox. It was a very fine fiddle bow, with the message that my strong message had been the best lesson she ever got.”
The Prisoner’s Hand
On June 14, 1965, Jesse Meredith, MD, performed a hand reimplantation on Robert Pennell, a prison inmate whose left hand was severed by a bush axe during an accident. He was part of a roadwork crew near Lowgap, N.C., and another prisoner was quick enough to create a makeshift tourniquet and pack the hand in ice. The hand and the patient were transported by ambulance to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center (then North Carolina Baptist Hospital).
Meredith got a call asking if he could do the replantation and he said, “We’ll try.” In eight hours, he and his surgical team successfully reattached the hand using a procedure that preserved arteries and nerves as much as possible. He became the first in the United States, or anywhere in the western world, to reattach a human hand.
A newspaper account at the time said, “The final stroke of luck occurred because the director of the surgery research laboratory, Dr. Jesse H. Meredith, had been thoroughly researching limb re-implantation.”
Saving Nine Lives
(Excerpted from Baptist Hospital Topics, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall 1987)
Nine Catawba County youth unknowingly drank a highly corrosive lye-like chemical from a bottle located in a refrigerator in 1987. The patients’ lives were saved by radical surgical treatment from the trauma team led by Jesse Meredith, MD. The other doctors were Wayne Meredith, MD, then a thoracic surgery resident; and James N. Thompson, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist.
The liquid in the bottle was liquid lye, which was in the refrigerator for baking purposes. The corrosive lye destroyed some of the victims’ stomachs and throats, and caused severe burns of their mouths and tongues.
The young victims were all originally taken to Catawba Memorial Hospital in Hickory, but were soon transported to (then) N.C. Baptist Hospital, where Jesse Meredith led the team that would have to devise a solution to the multiple severe stomach and throat wounds.
The team had to determine how to treat the victims, because there was little in medical journals and literature about liquid lye, and most of what had been written about similar injuries suggested treatment such as steroids.
“And we decided we needed to start operating on these kids. Line them up, worst to best, and start operating on them until we find one that’s OK. So we wound up operating on three of them that day.”
Others would face different kinds of surgeries to the stomachs and esophagi in the days to come, and all faced months and years of rehabilitation.
Although the most severe victim had permanent trouble with swallowing, all of the victims survived and were able to regain eating function despite their severe wounds. The doctors wrote about the case for the Journal of Trauma.
Wayne Meredith, who today is director of surgical sciences for Wake Forest Baptist, said the case resonates for reasons beyond the unique surgical aspects.
“Another thing that I remember so clearly about this is, I mean, this was a Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening. And people came, residents came, other doctors came, people came from everywhere who weren’t on call, who didn’t have to. But they knew we had need for more people and more help. And people just came.
“And a team formed of its own out of the goodness of people’s hearts and the desire to do the right thing. People would assign themselves to a patient, stick with a patient. They’d constantly make phone calls. They kept everybody in touch with everything that was going on. It was really my first exposure that I could remember to a mass-casualty event. Now it’s a very formal process, but it is almost exactly the process that happened by itself with this group of kids. So the outpouring of people’s altruism totally impressed me.
“And, of course, on a human note, it’s always cool to have an opportunity to be really proud of your father. He was just a superb clinician. He was a superb technical surgeon. He did all of this without breaking a sweat. He was never nervous. He was never frustrated, overwhelmed, any of that. He was just trying to keep these kids from suffering, trying to help them as much as he could.”