'The Girls' meet for lunch in honor of Dr. John C. Rawlins

By Lynn R. Parks

At the end of last year's annual gathering of former employees of Dr. John C. Rawlins, held in January 2011, June Rawlins, the doctor's wife, said to the women who were there, "I'll see all of you next time."

As it turned out, there was no next time. Neither June nor John Rawlins was well enough to host this year's reunion. June Rawlins died in April and her husband died just three months later, on July 9.

Last week, 11 women, or, as he called them, "The Girls," who used to work in Dr. Rawlins' medical practice gathered at the Pizza King restaurant in Seaford, to reminisce about their former employer and their time together. At the end of their discussion, before they ordered lunch, the women posed for a picture for the newspaper, something that, when he had hosted the reunions, Dr. Rawlins always insisted on.

"He would be very pleased to know that we are doing this," said Ruth Sneller, a registered nurse who worked for Dr. Rawlins for 10 years. To a woman, the former nurses and office workers praised Dr. Rawlins as a kind and generous man. "I can't remember that I've ever heard anything bad said about him," said Sneller, 72.

"He was a great counselor," added Joyce Webster, 78, who now lives in Salisbury, Md., and who worked as a receptionist in Rawlins' office for 14 years. "After I started working for him, I went through a divorce and he helped me get through that."

"If I told him a secret, I knew that that was as far as it would go," said Shirley Isaacs, 84, a registered nurse who worked in the office for 14 years.

"To my knowledge, nothing ever got out of that office that shouldn't have," agreed Mary Lou Spicer, 83, who was the office manager for 23 years.

But beyond that, they all said, he was a wonderful doctor – the old-fashioned kind, they added, who made house calls, drew blood himself and set broken bones and who treated everyone in the family, young and old. Many recalled times that he had visited their homes to treat ill children.

"My daughter was sick one New Year's Eve, with a high temperature, and Dr. Rawlins came to our house, all dressed up in a tuxedo," said Isaacs. "I don't really remember what he did, except I know that he made me feel better."

Pat Shannon, a registered nurse who worked off and on for Rawlins for 20 years and who is also his niece, remembered when, after working all day at Milford Memorial Hospital, she came home with a pain in her stomach. "It kept getting worse and worse and finally, that evening, I called Dr. Rawlins and asked him if he could open up his office for me to come in," said Shannon, 73. "I told him that I thought that I had appendicitis. He said, 'If you think that you have appendicitis, I'd better come to you.' And he came to my house." As it turned out, Shannon was right in her diagnosis. She had surgery that night at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital.

Jane Tate, 77, of Blades, worked as a receptionist for Rawlins for about six years. When he visited her home to treat her sick daughter, he ended up diagnosing the 4-year-old girl with polio. "I think that it was as hard for him to tell me that as it was for me to hear it," Tate said. Her daughter was sent to Wilmington General Hospital, where she was placed in an iron lung to assist in her breathing. She eventually made a full recovery.

Spicer said that Rawlins was always fair to his employees. On one occasion, when a man complained about the treatment he had received at the office, Rawlins asked her for her version of the story. "OK," he responded after listening to what she had to say, "then that's just the way it is." "He would always stand up for his staff," Spicer said.

Many of those staff members were hand-picked by Dr. Rawlins for his office, the women said.

Pat Wheatley, a registered nurse who worked there for 32 years, said that Dr. Rawlins called her one day at her home and asked her to come work for him. "I knew him already; he was our family doctor," she said. "I agreed to try it on a trial basis and ended up staying."

Of course, Dr. Rawlins had a private life. He and June had four sons and "he was ferociously proud of those boys," said Isaacs.

"I would bet that a lot of patients left the office knowing as much about those boys as they did about their illness," said Shannon.

"I never asked him about his boys at the end of the day, because I knew that if I did, I'd be there for another half hour," said Wheatley, smiling.

But despite his attachment to his family, he never left the office until patients who had called him that day received return phone calls. "I can hear him yet, talking to June and telling her that he'd be home in a half hour, after he'd finished making his phone calls," Webster said.

And he never missed an opportunity to learn something new about medicine. "I also worked in the operating room at Nanticoke and any time a new procedure or new equipment came along, he would ask about them," registered nurse Pat Wheedleton, 69, said.

Rosalie Thompson, 84, who was a receptionist in the office for 30 years, said that she still runs into people who ask her if she worked for Dr. Rawlins.

"Many people still tell me how much they miss the man," added Spicer. This fondness wasn't only because of his expertise as a doctor, she said. It was also because of the kind of person he was.

"He never came to work grouchy," said Shannon. "And he always had a joke to tell us," added Sneller.

These were all characteristics that stayed with Dr. Rawlins throughout his life. Until just a year before his death, Sneller said, she asked him for advice on medical matters. And recently, she turned to him for help with a history of Nanticoke Memorial Hospital that she is writing. "His memory was very good, even with details," she said.

Also unfailing was his sense of humor. Isaacs said that at his funeral, his son Ron told the crowd that just weeks before Dr. Rawlins' death, they had had a conversation about finances. Dr. Rawlins wanted to know, with the home care that he required, how his money was holding out. Ron told him a couple of times that things were fine, Isaacs said. Finally, when Dr. Rawlins still seemed unsure, Ron told him that if they ended up running through Rawlins' money, they could start in on Ron's.

"Dr. Rawlins was quick," Isaacs said. "He told Ron, 'Why don't we run through your money first?'"

"He was sick, so very sick, but he was still the same man we'd all known," Ellen Cooper, 78 and a registered nurse who worked for Rawlins for 13 years, said.

Cooper said that several years ago, she was a patient in BayHealth Medical Center in Dover. Dr. Rawlins visited her twice and called her several times, to make sure that she was doing well. Finally, she asked her doctor to talk with Rawlins, to explain to him what was going on. "They talked by phone and when they were finished, my doctor told me that he really thought a lot of Dr. Rawlins."

"He always remembered our birthdays," said Thompson. "And when my husband passed away, he was the first person to visit me. He was at my door at 9 o'clock the next morning."

"He was a great listener and took great pride in what he did," said Isaacs. "I can tell you honestly that I enjoyed going to work every day that I worked for him."

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