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Dr. Robert Doyle, A Rarely Off-Duty Surgeon In Rural Maine

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Dr. Robert Doyle (Courtesy Eric Doyle)
Dr. Robert Doyle (Courtesy Eric Doyle)

Dr. Robert Doyle was 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, but his skills were delicate and artisanal, whether he was using a surgical blade or a fishing rod.

“I can remember when we would go fishing, he would tie the knots for the hooks,” said his son, Eric Doyle. “And he was just so adept. He would tie the surgical knots for the hooks, and he’d tie them so quickly you could barely see his fingers moving. He would tie them perfectly — that knot would never come off.”

Mastery on many fronts came in handy when he moved his family from Baltimore to a small town in Maine. He was the only physician in Bridgton, the only surgeon in the only hospital, and never off duty.

“Never,” said Eric. “Never. We would get calls — he would get calls — at all hours of the night, and he would never refuse a call. It could be 2:30 in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning, I would hear my father get out of bed, walking downstairs, getting into the truck, driving to the hospital. Without fail for 30, 40 years, he would get up in the middle of the night any time he was called.”

Dr. Doyle was uncompromising about patient care. If someone needed him and couldn’t pay, he accepted wood, chickens or road repairs in exchange. If they had nothing, he treated them anyway. For years, he engaged in what his inner circle referred to as "guerrilla warfare" with the administrators and insurance companies that tried to deter him.

“There was this one woman, she was like 90 years old. She came into his office, and he knew there was something wrong, and he admitted her to the hospital,” Eric recalled.

Without a specific billable diagnosis, she didn’t meet the administrators’ criteria for care. On her chart, Dr. Doyle wrote the ominous words: LEVO CARDIA. They carried a dire ring.

“And he told us later that Levo cardia means ‘your heart is on your left side.’ But it wasn’t on the list to admit or not admit, so they had to go research it and let her in," Eric explained. "Of course, when that came out, he’s not only getting what he wanted done, he’s also sort of thumbing his nose at them at the same time.”

Dr. Doyle and his family lived on a farm at the end of a dirt road, unpassable in mud season. He populated it like an Arc, with two of every resident: horses, cows, sheep, goats. He’d grown up in urban Massachusetts, and had no farming experience whatsoever.

So, from birthing calves to fixing the hay baler, he needed to teach himself. Between delivering babies and caring for the entire town, and with his wife and four children as willing assistants, he did. In rare free hours, he serenely weeded his garden in a cloud of black flies and mosquitoes. That was the treatment he prescribed for himself.

“Of course, I don’t know,” Eric reflected, “but I doubt he regretted a day in his life. He lived his life exactly the way he wanted to, and it’s an honor being his son.”


To nominate someone for remembrance, please email remember@wbur.org.

This segment aired on March 22, 2017.

Headshot of Elissa Ely

Elissa Ely Creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project
Elissa Ely is a community psychiatrist in Massachusetts and the creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project.

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