By William Rawlings, M.D.
Rural doc gives illiterate patient the tools to make art. Patient gives doctor hope in hard times.
The practice of primary care is never easy, especially in lesser towns and rural communities across the land where small physician groups and the few remaining solo practitioners guard the front lines against illness and medical misfortune. But for those of us who prefer the countryside to urban sprawl and traffic congestion, a practice far from the city lights is nothing short of the best lifestyle possible.
I am now winding down my medical career, having reached my thirty-five year milestone a few months ago. It’s been a good run, and when I’m asked if I would change things given the opportunity, my answer is a resounding “No!” Both professionally and financially, the rewards reaped in my small Georgia town have been more than adequate. I am happily drifting into my second part-time career as a writer all the richer for the experience and insight gained from my years of medical practice.
Every now and then someone asks what has been most meaningful to me over the years. Did I enjoy my patients? Did I achieve whatever goals I might have set for myself? Did I have fun? To these questions, the answers are affirmative, but among the many convoluted tales in my mixed bag of memories, one stands out: My friendship with J. B. Murry.
John B. Murry—or simply “J.B.” as he was known to everyone—was an illiterate African American man who lived far out in the country near the rocky river crossing known as The Shoals. He was a patient, having first come to see me for some routine problem, the exact nature of which is now long forgotten. By the time we met, he was in his seventies, having ceased work to live a hermit-like existence in a house that he’d constructed with his own hands, drawing water from an open well, and subsisting on the produce of his garden and whatever small pension he might have qualified for.
For some reason, we became friends, an odd pairing between the thirty-someish Johns Hopkins-educated internist and the elderly farm laborer. It was a bad time for me. I was in the midst of a divorce, not a pleasant thing under any circumstances. J.B., considered a bit peculiar by most, was a serene fellow. Always willing to listen, always having faith that things would work out for the best in the end. “It’s God’s will,” he’d say, deliberately ignoring the fact that I had never been especially religious. His persistent belief that good follows good intention gave me the faith to persevere.
One day, quite out of the blue, J. B. appeared in my office with a grocery sack full of drawings done on small spiral-bound note pads, on bits of cast-off paper or whatever he might have found about his modest home. He’d had a vision, he said, one that told him that I was a “spiritual doctor” sent to help him take his message to the world. His art work—if one could call it that at the time—consisted of eerily beautiful stylized anthropomorphic figures. The figures themselves told tales—of good and evil, of heaven and hell, of those who sinned and those who sought the truth of the Lord. Surrounding these figures was writing—or so he said. In a strange but consistent alphabet of scribbles, he had carefully annotated the meanings of his work, but in a language that he believed could only be read by those who had truly come to know God. It was the written equivalent of the New Testament “speaking in tongues.”
I was fascinated. Stopping by the local sundry store, I picked up a few pieces of art paper and a set of colored pencils for J.B., thinking that he might enjoy working with more proper media. Within weeks, he had produced a dozen or more stunning works, each with the theme of salvation through faith and good works. Months passed. Experts were consulted, articles written, and a parade of scholars passed through J.B.’s humble door. Museums eagerly sought his work. There were shows in New York, Washington and London. A poster from a show in Tokyo still hangs in my foyer.
Almost as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. J.B. died a quiet and peaceful death from widely metastatic cancer, pleading with me near the end to continue to take his message of goodness and salvation to the world. He has been dead for more than twenty years now, but his works live on. Every so often I see one on display in New York or Atlanta, or even a reference in a recent book as to how one of his drawings had inspired a woman whose life seemed to have crashed around her.
As I look back on my career, my relationship with J.B. stands out as one of the most memorable and rewarding things that could have happened. I’ve often wondered if it was mere chance or the greater hand of fate that brought us together, and in turn brought J. B.’s message to the world via his art. I came to truly know him; he came to truly know me. He showed me the meaning of faith in a brighter future. I’m not sure that would have happened if I had chosen a different path.
William Rawlings, M.D., M.S.H., F.A.C.P., lives in Sandersville, Georgia, where he is semi-retired from the practice of Internal Medicine. He is the author of five novels, with a non-fiction book on the crash of the cotton economy in Georgia in the 1920s forthcoming in early 2013. Dr. Rawlings attended Emory and Tulane Universities. He completed his post-graduate training at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Learn more about J.B. Murry's work here.