When Ruth Ann Crystal, MD, performed her residency at Stanford University Medical Center more than 15 years ago, she often worked side by side in the operating room with one of her favorite professors, Bert Johnson, MD, a skilled surgeon and obstetrician. While performing vaginal hysterectomies, Dr. Johnson would often share stories of when he was a resident back in the 1950s at the Chicago Maternity Center (CMC) and delivered babies for poor families on Chicago’s south side.
One of the stories Dr. Johnson told was about a time when he and another medical student were called to a home to “turn a baby that was stuck,” recalls Dr. Crystal, now a hospitalist at El Camino Hospital, which supports two campuses in Mountain View, Calif., and Los Gatos, Calif. They were going to administer ether, which is highly flammable, to the young mother to relax the uterus and help turn the baby, but then realized that a wood fire was burning. As the woman writhed in pain, they doused the flames with water.
“He said it was like Dante’s Inferno as smoke filled the room,” Dr. Crystal says. “It was quite the scene.”
Stories told by Dr. Johnson and other physicians who worked at the CMC during medical school or residency in the 1950s are legendary. They reflect a time in medicine when doctors not only made house calls, but also stayed in the family’s home until the baby was delivered, getting glimpses into the life of the poor. In an effort to preserve these stories, Dr. Crystal wanted to produce a one-hour PBS documentary called Catch the Baby. But financial realities set in, and she now plans to convert the stories into short vignettes that will be posted on a website by the same name for medical humanities classes.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is an amazing part of history that shouldn’t be lost,’” says Dr. Crystal, who also supports a private practice. “The Chicago Maternity Center was an incredible place that, for almost 80 years, taught medical students how to be self-sufficient.
They learned “to count on their own skills and [find] ways of solving problems in very real situations when being sent out to these deliveries.”
Big Plans, No Budget
During her residency, Dr. Crystal videotaped approximately seven hours of interviews with Dr. Johnson about his experiences at CMC. She planned to write a book about the 80-something-year-old doctor, who still owns a ranch, ropes cattle, and, at one time, headed the California Beef Council; however, her job, growing family, and well, life, simply got in the way.
Then, in 2009, roughly a decade later, one of her patients mentioned that she knew a film crew who produced documentaries for PBS. Dr. Crystal asked for an introduction.
Members of the film crew were excited about the project. Their first task was to create a trailer for the documentary. They spent an entire day filming Dr. Johnson at his ranch telling stories about kitchen table deliveries in the slums and doing activities around the ranch, like roping cattle with a fellow cowboy—someone he actually delivered as a baby years ago. More film was later shot at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center of Dr. Johnson performing a C-section and vaginal delivery with a resident and medical student.
The four-minute and 20-second trailer cost $37,000, she says, explaining that the money was mostly raised through donations from Dr. Johnson’s “cowboy friends” who also owned ranches in the area. It is still posted on the original website Dr. Crystal created: www.CatchTheBaby.com.